What had been a largely positive and encouraging offseason for the Rays took its first painful jolt Monday with word that starter Jeremy Hellickson had elbow surgery and is expected to miss at least the first six to eight weeks of the season.
The procedure to remove "loose bodies" Wednesday was arthroscopic and considered minor, with Hellickson predictably optimistic he will be back on the mound sometime in May.
But the true damage can't be assessed until it's clear when, and in what form, he returns and how the Rays compensate for his absence.
"A strong rotation is critical to our success; we rely heavily on our starters and losing someone like Jeremy is tough," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "We're fortunate that the procedure was minor and look forward to him coming back healthy and strong during the summer."
Right-handers Jake Odorizzi and Alex Colome, coming off his own elbow injury, will get the first shot at joining a still-promising rotation that includes David Price (who seems even less likely to be traded), Alex Cobb, Matt Moore and Chris Archer. Odorizzi was 0-1, 3.94 in seven games for the Rays, 9-6, 3.33 at Triple-A Durham. Colome was 1-1, 2.25 in three Rays games, 4-6, 3.07 at Durham and didn't pitch after June 28.
Minor-leaguers Enny Romero, Mike Montgomery and recently acquired Matt Andriese are other internal candidates.
Hellickson, 26, said what started as occasional and somewhat familiar discomfort in his right elbow when he began playing catch in December became considerably worse when he threw off a mound two weeks ago to the point where he couldn't straighten his arm, leading to the surgery by Dr. Koco Eaton.
"Everything was going good," Hellickson said. "I think right at the beginning of my throwing program I felt just a little discomfort but nothing too bad, so I just kept throwing. It'd feel good for a week and then it would go back to feeling irritated and not comfortable.
"Then I just kind of wanted to wait until I got on the mound to see how it felt. I threw my first bullpen and it felt good, then I got on the mound three days later and I couldn't even really straighten out my arm, it was kind of locked up. I threw about 10-15 pitches that bullpen and came away with it just didn't feel good at all, not comfortable."
Hellickson seemed confident that the discomfort was not the cause of his disappointing 2013 performance (12-10, 5.17), saying what he felt in January "was far worse than anything I felt last year."
Hellickson threw off the mound, at an indoor facility in his native Iowa, for the first time Jan. 15 and said the second, and more painful, session was around Jan. 18-20. On Jan. 17, he settled his first-year arbitration case for $3.625 million, which the team still has to pay in full and is not covered by insurance.
Andriese, acquired last month from San Diego, was one of 11 minor-leaguers invited Monday to big-league spring training, which starts next week. The others are catchers Mayo Acosta, Curt Casali and Luke Maile; infielder Cole Figueroa; outfielder Mikie Mahtook; right-handers Steve Geltz, Merrill Kelly and Victor Mateo; and left-handers pitchers Braulio Lara and Adam Liberatore.
The spring roster is officially at 59, but the Rays have signed at least three who are invited — infielder Wilson Betemit, right-hander Juan Sandoval and outfielder Jeremy Moore — so the working total is 62.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]