Yesterday, news broke that right-handed starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson had surgery to remove loose bodies from his elbow and will be out until mid-to-late May. The childish part of me wants to make a quip about the loose bodies teaming up with those ever antagonistic free radicals, forcing a counter-insurgency executed with surgical precision. It would seem the childish part of me has succeeded.
The less childish part of me wonders how this setback affects the Tampa Bay Rays in 2014. The short answer is, not much, but there are a number of trickle down effects that are worth exploring.
As always, the Rays have tough competition in the AL East. To win the division, they have to top the defending World Champion Red Sox – a team that FanGraphs’ Depth Charts considers the best in baseball. In the process, they’ll also need to edge past the Yankees, who magically remembered that payroll constraints don’t apply to them. The Rays could try to settle for a Wild Card spot, but the Blue Jays and Orioles would like to throw their hats into that ring, not to mention teams from the other divisions. Plus, who wants to set their sights on a one game play-in. It suffices to say, the Rays might need more than The Extra 2%.
Thankfully, the Rays have sufficient depth in the rotation to absorb this loss without batting an eye. It’s the next loss that will be a big problem. Hellickson is a solid mid-rotation pitcher who appeared to suffer some bad luck on his way to a 5.17 ERA and 4.22 FIP last season. During the three previous seasons, Hellickson substantially outperformed his FIP, which caused some observers to expect continued success. Alas that was not to be. At full health an ERA and FIP around 4.25 is a reasonable expectation.
One issue with Hellickson is that he hasn’t gone deep into games the past two seasons. After averaging about 6.5 innings per start in 2011, Hellickson managed 5.7 innings per start in 2012 and just 5.5 innings in 2013. That puts extra strain on the bullpen which can add up over the season. Joe Maddon may find games where he opts to lean on David Price or Alex Cobb an extra inning to get one of his guys some extra rest. And while it’s generally true that relievers are better than starters, too much work can affect a reliever’s stuff or contribute to injury. The ripple effects are small, but they’re definitely there.
Hellickson will probably be replaced by Jake Odorizzi, who was acquired as part of the James Shields-Wil Myers trade. Odorizzi comes with similar expectations to Hellickson – Steamer and Oliver call for a FIP around 4.40. That’s slightly worse than Hellickson, but it also includes negative regression in the walk rate he posted last season. He has a small sample of major league performance, in which we’ve seen a low 90’s fastball and a tendency toward fly balls. That’s fine for Tropicana Field, but it could pose issues when away at Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park, Camden Yards, or the Rogers Centre. All four parks are very friendly to fly balls.
Odorizzi was originally slated to compete with Chris Archer for the fifth spot in the rotation, a job that most assumed would go to Archer. That would have left Odorizzi as a very capable sixth starter waiting in Triple-A or the bullpen. Now the club will depend on either Alex Colome or Enny Romero as the sixth starter. Both come with their share of warts. Colome is probably ready to contribute at the big league level – he made three mediocre starts last season – but he missed a big chunk of the season with a elbow strain. That’s often a precursor to Tommy John surgery, so relying upon him is worrisome. Romero on the other hand appears to need more seasoning and may have to settle for a bullpen role if he can’t improve his command and control.
The gut reaction might be, “well, the Rays only need to survive 45-60 days before Hellickson is back.” That assumes a smooth and on-schedule recovery, which is the norm for this sort of surgery but is not guaranteed. Meanwhile, five pitchers have to stay healthy if the Rays are to avoid calling upon their iffy depth. Last season, they needed 10 starters to get through the year and that was with giving 24 starts to Roberto Hernandez. More than likely, the club will arrange a contingency plan. They will either sign a few veterans to minor league contracts, make a trade, and/or give a long look to spring training invitees Matt Andriese and Victor Mateo.
On a related note, Hellickson’s surgery probably reduces the already small chance that Price is traded before the start of the season. The Rays will need Price to eat innings and anchor their top five if they hope to compete in the AL East. The downgrade from Price to Colome is probably much steeper than that of Price to Odorizzi. For the Rays to make a trade, they now must receive a major league ready pitcher in return, which severely limits their trade options. Alternatively, they could try to sign a cheap free agent from the remaining batch – Chris Capuano might be a good fit on a one-year contract.
All told, what appeared to be a deep Rays rotation just a few days ago now smells a bit thin. Being who they are, the Rays will address the depth in some fashion, but the injury does limit some of the options available to them. This is a reminder to all teams that the best laid plans can swept away at a moment’s notice. Soon. pitchers and catchers will report and we’ll be seeing a lot more stories like this…
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