The decision is so easy, Joe Maddon doesn’t even need to think about it. It’s a no-brainer. He should keep rookie sensation Jeremy Hellickson on the active roster, but move him from the rotation to the bullpen, just like the Yankees did with Joba Chamberlain in 2007.
In theory, it does make sense, but given the Rays’ situation, Maddon should think long and hard before doing that.
Tampa Bay has been without starters Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis for a week, both heading to the 15-day disabled list with shoulder problems. The Rays’ starters have thrown 732 innings this year, tied for sixth in the majors, and Davis specifically has tossed 121 1/3 frames in his first full season on the mound. Their arms are tired.
August is not the time to have this problem. Arms need to be fresh to leg out the final 40 or so games, especially when the team likely must win 60 percent of them to punch its ticket for the postseason. The Rays, clinging to a four-game lead in the wild card, have gotten by on their stellar pitching all year, and they will need that to continue to be the case.
But that’s where things start to get dicey for Maddon’s club. Niemann will be fine, as his 3.12 ERA and only two starts allowing more than four runs illustrates. He can step back in Aug. 23 and allow Andy Sonnanstine to return to his long-relief role.
What should be rethought, however, is immediately putting Hellickson in the bullpen when Davis is ready, which should also be around Aug. 23. Davis is essentially a rookie, pitching in only six games last season, and the Rays have been riding him hard — with mixed results. He is 9-9 with a 4.45 ERA, a .263 opponents’ batting average and just 77 strikeouts to 48 walks. He can have months like July, when he went 4-0 with a 3.03 ERA in five starts, or he can have months like June, when he finished 0-5 with a 6.00 ERA.
It’s that inconsistency, plus his alarming 20 home runs allowed, that should make Joe Maddon stop and think. Hellickson, meanwhile, has breezed through his first two starts, lasting seven innings in each and allowing a combined six hits, two runs and one homer while striking out 13. In his most recent start, he baffled the Tigers, needing only 86 pitches — 61 of them strikes — to record 21 outs without allowing a run.
Hellickson is in the same boat as Davis in terms of innings pitched, as he is up to 131 2/3 if you include his season in Triple-A. Still, that’s about all that the two young hurlers share in common, as Hellickson recorded 123 strikeouts to 35 walks and allowed only five home runs in Durham.
As Tampa Bay showed when the Blue Jays went yard eight times against them, the Rays struggle with giving up home runs. The Rays have given up 100 this year, second-most in the MLB. It won’t get any easier, as Tampa Bay must play 19 of its remaining 45 against the Blue Jays, Red Sox and Yankees, who rank first, second and fourth, respectively, in the majors in home runs.
Why not swap a guy who has a tired shoulder and struggles to keep the baseball inside the ballpark for the phenom who has shown signs of neither? Sure, Hellickson has a fastball that would fit perfectly in the bullpen, but he is also able to keep the ball down or catch the batter swinging through it.
Hellickson has the hot hand, and Davis is barely treading water after pitching nearly a full season in the bigs for the first time. The Rays' hold on the wild card is slipping, so they no longer have the luxury of fully protecting their prized pitcher’s arm; Hellickson pitched 152 innings in 2008, the most of his career. But will four starts (by the time Davis is able to come off the DL) be enough to gauge if Hellickson is ready to help guide the team down the stretch?
It’s not an easy call. It’s one Joe Maddon actually has to think about.