If Jeremy Hellickson Goes, Who Steps in?


Sep 21, 2014; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays relief pitcher

Alex Colome

(37) throws a pitch during the sixth inning against the Chicago White Sox at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

A week into the off-season, and newly enshrined Rays GM Matthew Silverman is already at work. According to a tweet by the New York Post’s Joel Sherman, Tampa is nearing a deal that would send right-hander Jeremy Hellickson to an un-named National League team:

Considering the Rays’ pitching surplus, Tampa’s decision to move the former Rookie of the Year shouldn’t come as surprise. Owner Stuart Sternberg has indicated his intent to cut payroll and Hellickson, who is projected by MLBTR’s Matt Swartz to earn 3.9 million in arbitration this year, would be the Ray’s second highest paid starter. Moreover, the 27 year old was limited to just 13 starts in 2014 as he recovered from off-season elbow surgery, and wasn’t effective when on the mound. His ERA is an even 5.00 since the start of 2013. Logical as it appears, the potential trade begs the question: who fills in? Tampa will hope for a youthful rotation of Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, and Drew Smyly for 2015. But that plan cannot become a reality until late June, when Moore is expected to return from Tommy John surgery. Considering the unpredictability of torn UCL recovery, that timeline is tenuous at best. Which will leaves the Rays scrapping at their farm system for first-half fill-ins, where as usual, their farm system will offer an array of options.

Nate Karns: With a grand total of five starts and 24 innings to his name, Karns is the second most tenured candidate for the Rays fifth rotation spot. Tampa acquired the 25 year old right-hander from the Nationals last offseason, after he posted stalwart numbers in back to back minor league seasons, striking out over a batter per inning and posting ERA’s in the low-2s and threes. Though he struggled through his first Triple-A season for Tampa (5.08 ERA), Karns continued to strike out troves. He’s prone to flashes of dominance, shutting down Toronto for seven scoreless innings in his start for Tampa in September and allowing zero earned runs in five of his 27 Triple-A starts. But his predilection for implosion is equally strong. He gave up six earned runs or more in six Triple-A starts. His second Tampa start ended after five innings,  three long balls, and six earned runs. Turning 27 this month, Karns is already old for a prospect and should be on the major league roster. A spot in the pen, though, where there’s less of a chance of getting burned, may be the most likely destination.

Mark Sappington: Another foreign import, Sappington was acquired from the Angels for Cesar Ramos. A year ago, we actually ranked him as the Angels top pitching prospect. Baseball America had him as their second best. John Sickels slotted Sappington third, but wrote that he was one of the few Anaheim arms with a chance to start long-term. 2014 put a quick end to that. The 23 year old got mauled in Double-A, allowing six earned runs in his first outing and landing a demotion to Inland Empire after nine starts and and a 6.44 ERA. There, however, he found a home in the pen, pitching to a 3.38 ERA and a striking out 49 batters over 32 innings of relief. With a plus fastball and slider and a developing change, Sappington still has the potential to start, and the Rays have not indicated how they will use him, but a bullpen role is far more likely.

Alex Colome: In reality, This is Colome’s job to lose. He has the pedigree (nephew of Devil Ray reliever Jesus Colome), the stuff (four major league caliber weapons), the experience (eight major league starts and 39.2 innings), and the success (3-1, 2.50 ERA in those eight starts). Baseball America ranked him last monday as the Rays’ second best prospect. More important in the bogged down legally twisted game of baseball, Colome is out of options and cannot be sent back to Triple-A without passing through waivers. That makes him a lock for the major league roster, and the leading candidate should the Rays trade Hellickson and create room in the rotation.

Enny Romero: At first glance, Romero’s 2014 season seems like a disappointment. Coming off a year in which he went 11-7 with a 2.61 ERA, the left-hander fell to 5-11 and his ERA jumped nearly 2 runs (4.50). But control has always been the issue for Romero and he improved his walk rate by just under a batter per inning between 2013 and 2014. More, he closed the season strong, pitching to a 2.32 ERA and a 3.0 BB/9 over his final eight starts, rounding out the year with seven shutout innings against Norfolk. Tampa, though, is notoriously patient with its pitchers,. Romero should have the opportunity to compete for a spot in the rotation in Spring, but the Rays will probably start the 23 year old left-hander in Triple-A. Once he proves that Enny Romero from the first half of 2014, the Enny Romero who posted an ERA of 5.40 and gave up 11 home runs in 79.2 innings, is a thing of the past, the majors may come calling.

Mike Montgomery: The potential for Montgomery to be a major league starter slid over the years before all but collapsing last summer.  The left-hander who once ranked as the best of the Royals elite trove of prospects has repeatedly failed as a starter in the minor leagues. Over 90 career Triple-A games (88 starts), he owns a an ERA of 4.98. While Romero rolled through August, Montgomery stumbled, tripped, and crashed through his last eight starts. He  allowed 26 earned runs in just 30.2 innings and surrendered an opponents batting average of .321. His fastball, which has slowed in recent years would play up in relief, especially next to his change-up, which is consistently rated as a plus offering. The combo could allow Montgomery to help the Rays relief corps immediately, which in turn could put him in a position to make a spot start or two if the need arises. The same, of course, can be said of Karns, and Colome.  

As the Cardinals cruelly learned last year, the old axiom that you can never have too much pitching is cliche but never cancelled. If the Rays trade Hellickson, Colome will become the favorite for the fifth spot, but there’s a good chance every starter on this list (save for Sappington) receives at least a couple starts this season. Although the Tampa farm lacks the ace and superstar-upside that produced James Shields, David Price, and Matt Moore,  the depth is still present. As Jonah Keri and Neil Paine have shown, that can be the difference between a middling season and a world series title.