The Tampa Bay Rays will be without No. 5 starter Jeremy Hellickson until mid-to-late May, it was revealed Monday. Losing a starting pitcher a couple weeks before pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to spring training is never ideal. But in the case of the Rays — a team rich with pitching — it might not be the worst thing.
Hellickson had arthroscopic surgery on his right elbow last week, as the Tampa Bay Times was first to report. He felt his arm "lock up" while throwing a bullpen session on Jan. 19 near his home in Iowa. The Rays had Hellickson come to Tampa, where he was checked out and then operated on by Dr. Koco Eaton, in a minor procedure to remove loose bodies from his elbow.
The Rays are afforded the luxury of having Hellickson as their fifth starter. He's not an ace, but in a lot of places he'd be depended on for much more. The Rays rotation is headed by David Price and includes Matt Moore, Alex Cobb and Chris Archer. It's one of the better in baseball. They can keep up in the AL East for a couple months without Hellickson.
That's one reason the Rays can feel a little more secure while Hellickson is gone early in the season, but there are others:
• Hellickson wasn't all that good last year, not compared to his rookie of the year season in 2011 and his strong follow-up in 2012. Hellickson, 26, posted the highest ERA of his career, 5.17, which is two full runs higher than his first two MLB seasons.
Hellickson insisted, even Monday, that he wasn't hurt last season. Maybe he wasn't, or maybe he wasn't quite right and didn't even realize it. Regardless, having Hellickson coming back with a clean elbow and something to prove, ought to be helpful, both for the Rays and for his own piece of mind. Plus, it's better to deal with it now then in July or August.
• The Rays are inching closer and closer to a life without David Price. He's the top trade bait in baseball at the moment, because everybody knows the Rays can't pony up and pay him when he hits free agency after next season. There's a chance Price won't even finish the season in a Rays uniform if a contender comes shopping for a pitcher and the deal is rich enough. With that in mind, it'll be good for the Rays to find out what their younger pitchers are made of.
Jake Odorizzi is most likely to replace to Hellickson in the rotation if the Rays don't make a move for someone outside the organization. He'll be 24 by opening day, and came to the Rays with Wil Myers in that trade with Kansas City. Odorizzi pitched in seven games last season (four starts) and finished with a 3.94 ERA. Meanwhile, Alex Colome, 25, made three starts for the Rays last season, but missed the second half with an elbow injury. He's in the mix to replace Hellickson too, as is Enny Romero, a 23-year-old who made one start last season. All three pitchers are on Baseball America's list of the Top 10 Tampa Bay prospects.
Sure, there are other circumstances where a team could give its young pitchers a tryout, but, hey, we're offering a silver lining here. If one of those young guys emerges as a stud and Hellickson returns in better shape than in 2013, the Rays could be even wealthier in the pitching department this summer.
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