Trade rumors abound this July, just as they do every year. Unlike most years, however, the Rays are at the top of most teams speed dial, as it appears increasingly likely that they will deal talented (but in some ways underachieving) BJ Upton. Buyers this year are desperate for OF help and innings in the rotation.My question, though is this—why is Jeremy Hellickson not being dangled in a trade market desperate for solid arms?
Jeremy Hellickson burst on the scene last year during the Rays run to a 2nd AL East title in 3 years. Having been ranked atop the Rays loaded minor league system, Hellickson made four starts in August (going 3-0), and pitched out of the bullpen during the stretch drive. All tolled, he posted a 3.47 ERA over 36 innings, with an impressive 8.17 K/9 rate. All signs pointed to yet another product of the impressive Rays minor league system.
In 2011, it would appear that all observers continue to regard Hellickson as the gem of a heralded system, and at 24 years old pitching in baseball’s toughest division, there is a lot to like. What I don’t understand, however, is how Hellickson’s sacred cow status trumps the obvious red flags his 2011 performance raise.
A few facts launch our discussion. While Hellickson’s 2011 ERA is nearly identical to 2010, his FIP has risen from 3.88 to 4.42 in a year where the dominant story line has been “year of the pitcher”. Hellickson’s K/9 stands at 5.99 through 115 innings, a far cry from last year’s 8.17 number. Similarly disturbing, his walk rate has jumped from 1.98 to 3.42.
Fastball velocity – always the first place to look for issues – remains around 91. Looking at plate discipline numbers, Hellickson still throws the fastball around 53% of the time, but has appeared to trade some curveballs for fastballs. Again, nothing alarming in terms of differences in approach.
Changes in result, however, do begin to tell a story. While the 2010 Hellickson induced an above average number of swings, the 2011 swing percentage has dropped to league average. The drop is almost entirely represented in a drop in O-Swing%, from 31.1% to 27.0% — so hitters are chasing significantly fewer balls outside the zone. Correspondingly, Hellickson’s SwStr% has dropped from an excellent 13% (top 20 among all pitchers last year with at least 30 IP) to below 10%.
There is a lot to like about Jeremy Hellickson, and at 24 years old, he still projects to have a long, successful career in the major leagues. However, the Rays pitching staff already includes two legitimate aces in James Shields (under team control for three more years) and David Price. Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis appear to be solid back of the rotation innings eaters, and Matt Moore may be the best pitching prospect in baseball, recently promoted to AAA Durham. Given the way the 2011 deadline is shaping up, the Rays control the one of the two most interesting hitters on the market (Carlos Beltran being the other – better hitter, but much more expensive and a free agent that won’t draw compensatory picks).
The Cardinals are taking calls on Colby Rasmus, their talented, young CF whom can’t seem to get along with Tony LaRussa – and whom is arbitration eligible for 3 seasons following 2011. They are looking for help both in the bullpen and the rotation. Why the Rays wouldn’t move Upton to the Giants, Nationals or Phillies, and move Hellickson and/or bullpen help to the Cardinals for Rasmus is beyond me. Hellickson projected as a future ace, but appears to be settling in as a middle of the rotation guy, and while it would be nice for the Rays to deal Wade Davis or Jeff Niemann, or conduct an orderly trade discussion in the off season, the dearth of talent on the block this year means they’ll miss an opportunity but not executing something this July.