Jeremy Hellickson earning his keep
Young right-hander fitting in nicely in Rays' rotation
If Jeremy Hellickson wants to track his future, a good place to start might be David Price's footprints through Tampa Bay's bullpen and into the starting rotation.
Hellickson has placed Rays manager Joe Maddon in a pleasant quandary: How to use him for the rest of the season.
"This is a guy that can still be very important to us as the season progresses, whether it be as a starter at some point or as a relief pitcher," Maddon said. "I'm even talking potentially as a playoff candidate too, if we get there."
Price made his big league debut in September 2008 at age 23 with four relief appearances and one start, then beat the Red Sox in Game 2 of the ALCS and saved Game 7 to propel Tampa Bay into the World Series. Now, two years later, Price is a Cy Young Award candidate.
With injuries briefly knocking Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis out of the Rays' pitching rotation, Hellickson, 23, made his Major League debut Aug. 2 as a temporary starter after being called up from Triple-A Durham.
In his first three starts, Hellickson beat the Twins, Tigers and Orioles and became the first pitcher in the Major Leagues' modern era to go at least six innings and allow no more than three hits in his first three starts.
"We're very pleased with what he's done and, actually, it's been great because he's done exactly what we thought he could do," Maddon said. "We're looking to fold Wade and Jeff back into the rotation [by the end of August]. Then we'll decide what we're going to do with Jeremy."
To which Hellickson said, diplomatically: "Whatever they want to do with me when those guys get back is perfectly fine with me, as long as I'm up here."
Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey said he can see Hellickson following Price's path.
"David has a lot of things that are kind of intangible," Hickey said. "First of all, he's 6-foot-5, he's left-handed, he's got the plus-plus velocity and he's got a little bit of funk in his delivery."
"Jeremy can do what David did, but for different reasons. He has above-average command of the fastball, he's got an above-average changeup and he's also got above-average command of the changeup," Hickey said. "It's very rare when you can have an off-speed pitch so good that you can throw it behind in the count."
Baseball has been a part of Jeremy's life since Steve and Leanne Hellickson brought home their brand-new baby boy. That night, Dad put a baseball glove in his son's crib. When Jeremy graduated to a bed, he brought the glove with him.
"Since the time he could walk he always had a bat and ball in his hands," his father said from Des Moines, Iowa, where he works in shipping and receiving for a cold-storage company.
By the time Hellickson reached high school, he knew he had something special going for him.
"I did a couple of showcases as a freshman, I think," he said. "There were a few scouts there that liked what they saw, I guess, and it kind of blossomed from there."
What has been obvious to everyone from day one is Hellickson's tremendous poise.
"He's always been that way, his whole life," his father said. "I don't think anything overwhelms him. The only time I can remember him losing his composure was when he beat Cuba, 2-1, in Taiwan [at the 2003 Pan-Am Games] and his teammates carried him off on their shoulders."
Jeremy was taken by Tampa Bay in the fourth round of the 2005 amateur draft, the 118th player and 63rd pitcher selected. He spent six seasons in the Minors (49-16 overall) and was 12-3 with a 2.45 ERA when the Rays summoned him.
Some players might get antsy waiting so long to be called up from Durham. Not Hellickson.
"I think everybody knows that we have probably the best rotation in the league, so it wasn't frustrating for me at all to be down there," he said, "but I definitely was excited when I did get the call."
Not that he necessarily showed it, mind you.
Bruce Lowitt is a freelance writer based in Tampa Bay.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.