The Rays have a nice problem with their starting pitchers. They have five young, talented and cheap starting pitchers in the rotation. And they have one of the top prospects in baseball waiting in triple-A (Jeremy Hellickson).

The average age of the rotation is just over 26 years old. They will make a combined $7.7 million this season and the Rays will still have those five under control for a total of 20 player-seasons after this year.

So, where does Hellickson fit into this equation?

It has only been 15 starts, but so far, Hellickson has dominated triple-A (11-1, 2.53 ERA, 105Ks, 22bb, 92.1ip) and most assume Hellickson will become a fixture in the Rays rotation by the start of the 2011 season.

Let’s assume Hellickson is in the rotation to start the 2011 season. Whose spot does he take?

The consensus is that the Rays will trade Wade Davis or Jeff Niemann this off-season. And from a talent-perspective, that makes sense. Out of the five pitchers currently in the rotation, those two pitchers would rank behind the other three in terms of talent. But they also happen to be the cheapest, and under team control the longest.

In short, does it make more sense to trade either James Shields or Matt Garza? Let’s break down what each pitcher provides and what each pitcher will cost over the next few years (FIP projections via Fangraphs)…

As you can see, the current rotation is still very cheap in 2011. But that cost starts to escalate in 2012.

If Hellickson enters the rotation in 2011, he would make close to the league minimum (~$400K) through the 2013 season and would be eligible for arbitration for the first time in 2014.  So if Hellickson were to replace Davis or Niemann in 2011, the cost of the rotation would be the same. Same in 2012 if Hellboy replaces Davis. But if Hellickson replaces Niemann the Rays save about $2.5 million in 2012. On the other hand, if Hellickson replaces Shields or Garza, the Rays would save as much as $5 million in 2011 and $7 million in 2012.

The question then becomes: will the Rays try to maximize talent or do they choose the more economical route and hope that Hellickson or Davis can develop into a suitable replacement for either Shields or Davis? The latter is more consistent with the Rays Modus Operandi.

The problem with choosing to move Shields or Garza is that both are still cheap talent in 2011. It is not until 2012 that their salaries start to spike.

If the Rays do decide that trading Shields or Garza is the better option, they could wait until after the 2011 season. That means Hellickson would most likely spend the entire 2011 season still in triple-A. That is a long wait for a kid that would already be in the majors if he was in just about any other organization.

Or the Rays could treat the 2011 season as a minor rebuilding project. The team is already set to lose several key free agents, including Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena. And while there will still be enough talent on board to contend, the Rays may not implement the same “go for it now” attitude that they have used this season.

In the end, there is certainly no guarantee that the Rays will trade Niemann or Davis. In fact, it may be smarter to move Shields or Garza. And if that is the road the Rays choose, Hellickson’s inevitable rise to the big leagues may still be a long ways off.

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30 Comments

  1. Great read! I was discussing this exact same scenario with someone this morning. I'm wondering if the Rays don't try to turn one of the current starters into a closer.

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    • Cork Gaines says:

      It is certainly possible, but they are all more valuable to the Rays as starters whether that is with the Rays are in a trade. Any of the 5 would bring back a huge haul in the trade market and could conceivably bring back a young catcher and/or first baseman.

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    • Pipp says:

      Just after the season started, an ESPN analyst (Buster Onley, I believe it was) quoted a Rays source who said that David Price will eventually become a "good, but not great" starting pitcher. If this is true, and if it's an organization-wide assessment, I think Price would be most likely be converted to closer.

      I'm not saying it's going to happen, but Price certainly has the stuff and emotional make-up of a closer. And he handled it well in limited (though very high pressure) duty in 2008.

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  2. ramedy says:

    I would think the most likely scenario is Hellickson at least starting at AAA in 2011. That would give Friedman the opportunity to pull a Kazmir 2.0 - trading a starter around the deadline while the Rays are still at least technically in contention. Just like I don't think Kazmir->Davis was much of a downgrade at all last year, a hopefully very seasoned Hellickson won't be much of a downgrade in replacing whoever they decide to trade.

    There's probably no more wanted commodity at the trade deadline than starting pitching - if Friedman was able to pry such a nice haul from the Angels for a struggling pitcher like Kaz, imagine the return on one of the guys we have now.

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    • Cork Gaines says:

      I do think this is the most likely scenario which sucks for Hellickson and everybody that is antsy to see him pitch. But it is also makes the most sense.

      And yeah, the thought of what the Rays could bring back for any of these guys makes me drool.

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    • MJ says:

      I agree. If we are still in contention or not, I could see this issue being resolved w/ a mid 2011 trade. While they would probably look for a bounty of young talent, perhaps they could trade for a 2011 instant contributer if they are in serious contention (like a Soriano replacement).

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  3. Sam says:

    The Rays got Rodzilla and 2 top prospects for Kazmir. Granted Kaz is a lefty, but he is half the pitcher of Shields or Garza and makes more money.

    I wonder if any other teams could even afford to trade for Shields or Garza. And if another team has enough prospects to make the deal, it would probably kill their system.

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    • Cork Gaines says:

      My guess is that the Rays would want a young big league catcher or first baseman. A proven player. Then tack on 2-3 good prospects and it could get done.

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  4. Joe D. says:

    Shields is the guy the Rays tied up early, and has been the anointed Ace for 3 years now, even though he's approaching 30, I see him as the guy the Rays keep.

    Garza I think would return the highest bounty, and the Rays control for the least amount of time, and if he wins a Cy Young this year, he'll be too expensive for the Rays to lock up long term, he might be the most likely to be dealt.

    Price, outside of Hellickson might have the highest upside, I just don't see him going anywhere.

    Niemann, I seem to remember him having some injury concerns prior to coming up, but he seems to have finally put it all together, but I think he returns the least bounty.

    Davis I think because of his upside, age and years of control is the guy the Rays are most likely to keep.

    I could also see an outside shot of the Rays trading Hellickson if another team views him as a Major League, and offers the Rays a huge bounty of protects....but I doubt it...

    I think the Rays make an off season move in between the '10-'11 or at the '11 trade deadline.

    My guess is it comes down to Niemann and Garza, and I'll say they deal Garza.

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    • Cork Gaines says:

      I agree with what you are saying about Shields and Garza. But there are some factors that support keeping Garza. Garza does have the higher upside. He is 2 years younger. And if the projections are at least in the ballpark, his salaries will be very similar to Shields. Then again, Shields' year-to-year performance may be more predictable/consistent and the Rays do have one more year of control on Shields.

      This may very well come down to whether or not the Rays can lock up Garza to a reasonable contract. If they can, Shields goes. If not, Garza might indeed be the guy to be traded.

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      • Joe D. says:

        I think of like this, who most likely to be traded is equal to upside, value to the Rays, potential return value in a trade.

        You'd think the rays our any team would want the guy with the highest up side, so you'd be most likely to trade the guy with the least upside.

        If I give that a point value based on the 6, I have it like this.
        1. Hellickson
        2. Price
        3. Davis
        4. Garza
        5. Niemann
        6. Shields

        Rays Value...samething, most likely to trade guy with the least value to the team.

        1. Shields
        2. Garza
        3. Price
        4. Hellickson
        5. Davis
        6. Niemann

        Then Bounty, a higher value (likeness to be traded) to the guys the Rays would get more from in a trade.

        6. Garza
        5. Hellickson
        4. Price
        3. Shields
        2. Davis
        1. Niemann

        Based on that I have totals of

        12. Garza
        12. Niemann
        10. Davis
        10. Hellickson
        9. Price
        9. Shields

        Obviously this is very subjective to my opinion, but I think the basic idea of the formula works...

        Prof, is there a trade value index this year?

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  5. Alex says:

    I really want to see Niemann go over anyone. I love what he's done for us and he'll be a damn good pitcher for a while but I just don't think he has the talent that the other four have. And there's always the injury concerns looming

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    • Cork Gaines says:

      As a fan, I completely agree with you. And if money weren't a factor, I think this what the would do without question.

      And they may still choose that path and decide to save money elsewhere. If you are going to spend, the rotation is a good place to start.

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  6. ali420 says:

    Personally I'd hate to see any of our starters go, but I can see how it will help us in the long term. If Leslie Anderson doesn't work out, we'll need a 1st baseman, although Aybar and Blalock(if we still have him) may be a cheap solutions. Soriano, Balfour, and Choate's departure will need replacing. A catcher would be nice too. With Desmond Jennings history of injury we might need an extra outfielder although we have plenty of prospects just waiting for an opportunity.

    A power hitting catcher would be nice

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  7. Dan says:

    I think the Rays shoudn't even consider trading Price, Niemann, or Hellickson. Price and Hellickson are overflowing with talent, while Niemann won't bring enough back to warrant moving him. Just b/c he's not flashy with the Ks doesn't make him less valuable. He's been the most effective starter in baseball this year in terms of pitches/inning and has gone 7 deep regularly.

    Garza and Shields are getting more expensive and I like Davis the least of the young pitchers. So I'd say trade Davis for Ramos and a lesser prospect or see what you can get for one of the vets. I think trading Garza or Shields is more likely for the cost conscious Rays. I'd move Shields since he's two years older and less talented, but then again Garza will become an 8 figure player soon enough making him more cost prohibitive and he would certainly get more in trade. Maybe see if the Twins would be interested in reacquiring him. Say for maybe Ramos and Hicks.

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    • Dan says:

      Obviously at some point one of the Rays OFers would then need to be converted to first in a Twins trade scenario. Maybe a Garza for Montero swap with the Yanks could work. Montero isn't really a catcher though, but I bet he could be taught to man first. I don't think Shields could fetch the same top 5 talent, but maybe he could be moved for a Dominic Brown from the Phillies or Freeman and others from the Braves.

      Point is there'd be a good market for both guys. You're not going to get an overwhelming amount of talent for Shields, but he'd definitely bring in a top 50 prospect and potentially another piece depending on who you're dealing with.

      God forbid all this be avoided, you keep the most talented and the Rays stop making excuses and keep some talent. If you lose both Crawford and Pena you should be able to afford to keep Shields and Garza, in my mind. Then you just swap Davis for a Ramos or Taylor or what not, bring up Hellickson, addition by subtraction and call it a good day.

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  8. Sean says:

    I still don't see why they MUST make a trade. Bottom line is that pitchers do get hurt or go through periods of ineffectiveness. I would believe that the Rays may look to convert one to a closer (Davis IMO) than trade one unless they had a glaring need due to injury.

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    • Cork Gaines says:

      Normally that is what the Rays would do. Almost always they wait to make moves until they absolutely have to. And as was mentioned above a very real scenario has them keeping all 5 and letting Hellickson rot in triple-A another year.

      BUT, there are some needs that will need to be filled this off-season (catcher,1B,LF). And if the Rays can move a SP and fill that void with Hellickson without much dropoff, they could significanlty upgrade one or more of the other needs.

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      • Dan says:

        People don't seem to understand that you can't just convert a talented starter to closer. More so than any position in sports it requires a certain mental makeup to really succeed. That's why imo you need to trade one of the guys to fill a hole and bring Hellickson up.

        Maybe people don't realize how many holes the Rays are going to have next season? But we all should know that with Crawford and Pena both likely to leave and the current lack of talent at catcher that those spots will need be addressed. Assuming Jennings replaces Crawford, you still have a big hole at first and could use improvement at catcher. Trading Davis should solve either problem and trading Garza may be able to solve both!

        Maybe I'm just the unofficial prez of the Hellboy fan club, but I think he's more talented than anybody other than Price and maybe Garza so I see trading a guy and bringing him up as both addition AND addition by subtraction. That's as good a deal as you're going to get!

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  9. Gus says:

    You all assume good health for 6 men doing the least healthy thing in sports (outside of being Ben Rothleisberger's wing man). These things always work out; guys get hurt somewhere along the way. I remember this same conversation with Rays OF's when they had Young, Baldelli, Crawford and Upton. Next thing I know, the Ambigious Gabes are playing RF.

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    • Sarah says:

      Gus, of course you are right, but there's a limit to how much you can stockpile talent in anticipation of a possible injury. With limited payroll and limits to both your 25 and 40 man roster it doesn't make sense to keep more than five high quality major league starters around just in case. Ideally you've got someone who can shift between long relief and the occasional start (e.g. an Andy Sonnenstine but one who gets people out).

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  10. Gino Bult says:

    Hi, love the Shrek movies, great movie!

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  11. Allan says:

    I think that the most logical scenario would be to trade off James Shields. James Shields can still be a very good pitcher, and if he is on a team with more offensive skills the chances of him succeeding are a lot greater. Also, the way he acted this season is NOT the way our Starting Pitchers should act. If A.J. Burnett wants to do it on the Yankees fine, but not here. There is no excuse for his behavior, or for letting things get to him so much that he actually pitches worse. I used to love Shields AND Kazmir, but as the team got better they got worse. I don't understand it but they just weren't pitching up to par. I think that it's time to trade Shields now. Don't make Hellickson wait any longer. It's ridiculous. If you keep making Hellickson wait he will not want to be here any longer. Let him pitch at the start of the season. We have talent, but Hellickson may just be one of the best pitchers we will ever have. Trade Shields. DON'T trade Garza. People who want to trade Garza are crazy! If it weren't for him, the Rays would NOT have went to the World Series in 08, they would have for sure not won the ALCS. This year they would have been swept by the Rangers if not for Garza. He has controlled his emotions and has become a VERY good pitcher. His seasons stats aren't exceptional, but they're good, and if he will continue to get better. I say that next year go ahead and make our Pitching Rotation as follows: Price, Garza, Niemann, Davis, Hellickson. Start it off like that. If Hellickson pitches better than a number five starter move him up. If Niemann or Davis start not pitching well give Sonnastine the shot. That's how I would do it. But DON'T trade Garza OR make Hellickson stay in Triple A.

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