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.