The Rays will be without starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson for up to two months of the 2014 season, after the right-hander underwent elbow surgery a week ago. While it's never a good thing to lose an arm on the depth chart this deep into the off-season, especially when you're a team that isn't swimming in money, shelving Hellickson for a few months is the kind of thing that could benefit the Rays in both the short- and long-term.
The most obvious reason for this is Hellickson himself: while he had a strong 2011 where he won the Rookie of the Year award, and followed it up with a stronger 2012, his 2013 was abysmal. Hellickson seemed to settle down in the middle of the season after a rough start, but quickly erased all signs of progress with a brutal August and sub-par September. By year's end, he owned a 5.17 ERA despite making 15 of his 31 starts in pitcher-friendly Tropicana Field, and once again failed to come close to throwing 200 innings, finishing with 174 frames and under 5-2/3 innings per start. He struggled with runners on, with runners in scoring position, and in the latter parts of his starts: the second time opponents came up to the plate against Hellickson, they batted .286/.344/.514, or 33 percent better than your average hitter in that situation. This contributed to Hellickson's issues in the second half of his starts, in which he gave up a .308/.369/.497 line from pitches 51 through 75 and .264/.324/.504 from 76 through 100 -- respectively, those lines are 39 and 19 percent worse than what the league average pitcher gives up in those situations.
Considering Hellickson's past success was significantly tied to better-than-average batting averages on balls in play -- Hellickson limited opponents to BABIP marks of .224 and .264 in 2011 and 2012, respectively, before jumping to .308 this past season -- it's not shocking to see things come crashing down eventually. There are pitchers out there who can outperform expected BABIP and finish with production their strikeout and walk numbers suggest they should not, but it's difficult to tell over a short sample of time who those pitchers are. Hellickson might very well be one of them -- one off year isn't enough to throw the entire concept out -- but, given his 2013, he's going to need to adjust his game plan to make that happen, because he wasn't fooling anyone the second and third time they were seeing him in his starts anymore.
There is the ever-present chance that Hellickson does not rebound, though. It's not the most-likely scenario, but it's a potential future for the right-hander. The Rays aren't locked in to Hellickson like they are with some of their other young starters, as Hellickson is in his first year of arbitration this upcoming season and is set to be a free agent after the 2016 campaign, so if he fails to return to form, it's a loss, but at least it's not an anchor around the organization's plans -- he could easily be cut if he's somehow mired in awfulness from here on out.
Jarred Cosart's 'idiots' are quite reasonable
The concern isn't that his ERA will rise from 1.95; that's a given. It's just how far it will rise that is provoking cries of "regression" rather than unrealistic expectations.
They need to have a replacement on hand should Hellickson remain disappointing, and they'll get the chance to audition one while Hellickson recovers. Jake Odorizzi didn't get as much attention as Wil Myers when the Rays pried him from the Royals in last year's James Shields' trade, but there's plenty of reason to like him. He threw 124 high-quality innings at Triple-A last year, striking out a batter per inning, and then posted league-average numbers over four starts and seven total appearances in the majors when the Rays needed a hand. He'll get a much more extended (and more telling) look now, and it could impact the futures of a few different Rays' arms.
Odorizzi might be able to push the issue of his big-league readiness with a successful two-month stint replacing Hellickson. It's hard to imagine the Rays casting Hellickson aside in favor of Odorizzi, given his pre-2013 success, but they've pushed starters with promise to the bullpen before in favor of the arms they felt gave them the best chance of winning -- Wade Davis, who was part of the Odorizzi trade with the Royals, was one such pitcher. If Odorizzi rises to the challenge and pitches well enough that he shouldn't be demoted, but is, and Hellickson then fails to recapture his old self, there is a ready replacement on hand. If Hellickson does rebound, at least enough that keeping him around at his low, cost-controlled price makes sense, then the Rays at least know they have an in-house replacement for David Price already.
Once Price is traded -- whether that's in the next two weeks, in-season, or after this campaign has reached its conclusion -- he can't be replaced outright by Odorizzi, of course, but if Odorizzi is indeed an above-average starter, he does help the Rays with their goal of a rotation that's strong from top to bottom. Matt Moore is the one the Rays need to become the ace, with Alex Cobb in line to take on the James Shields' role of strong -- the rest of the bunch needs to be at least mid-rotation in order for the Rays to see continued success with the model they've been using. Odorizzi can easily be part of that, as he's capable of mid-rotation work, and will get the chance to show as much now that Hellickson is on the shelf. If if turns out both arms are capable of that, then even better for the still-strong Rays.