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Success of Tampa Bay Rays' Jeremy Hellickson a tribute to scout's tenacity

The argument was familiar. In those days, it was the soundtrack of a franchise.

You see, there was this high school pitcher. Not a perfect pitcher. Not a can't-miss prospect. He was smallish. And right-handed. He had missed his junior season with a shoulder injury and had thrown only 15 innings as a senior because the weather doesn't clear quickly enough to start the baseball season in springtime in Iowa.

No one in the Devil Rays' front office, circa 2005, was arguing about any of that.

The argument was about money. Of course it was money.

Was Jeremy Hellickson — the kid who was too small, who carried the risk of injury, who was dominating in a part of the country where baseball prospects show up about as often as comets — worth paying second-round money in the fourth round?

"He was one of those guys who has that innate ability to pitch. That wasn't the issue," said Cam Bonifay, who was then Tampa Bay's director of player personnel. "It was whether ownership and the commissioner's office would let us pay him."

• • •

By now, you know the outcome. Hellickson was drafted by Tampa Bay, agreed to the contract offer and, on Monday, was named the American League rookie of the year.

It is a success story on multiple levels, beginning with Hellickson's own talent and determination. But it is also a story of trust and risk and maybe a little luck.

Tom Couston is a Rays scout based in Chicago, and he was in Cedar Rapids with fellow scout Joe Murphy watching future Athletics outfielder Ryan Sweeney in 2003.

Murphy's son Sean was a coach at a Perfect Game USA scouting showcase in town and called his father with some news.

"He said, 'There's some 15-year-old throwing over 90 mph and blowing guys away,' " Couston recalled. "He said you better get over to the other side of town.

"That was where it all started."

Within weeks, scouts everywhere knew Hellickson's name. He went 6-0 with an 0.63 ERA as a high school sophomore and was a star on USA Baseball's youth national team.

Then came the stress fracture in his right shoulder, and a junior season spent biding his time as a DH at Hoover High in Des Moines.

The injury healed up enough for Hellickson to shine in some winter showcases, and he eventually signed a letter of intent to play at LSU.

The issue was his draft value in 2005.

He was 3-0 with 33 strikeouts and a 0.00 ERA in the first 15 innings of his senior season, but was that enough for teams to take him in the first or second round?

Because that was how Hellickson viewed his potential heading into the draft, and he was not going to settle for a contract of lesser value.

Meanwhile, in the Rays' predraft meetings, the argument raged over Hellickson's monetary worth. Couston, who signed Jim Thome when he was a scout with the Indians, thought the Rays could wait until the third round to get him but knew it would cost more money than a third-round slot.

This was an issue. The Rays were preparing for the transition from Vince Naimoli's ownership to Stuart Sternberg's, and cash flow was a problem.

One need only look at first-round pick Wade Townsend to understand that. Townsend was out of college eligibility and his velocity was dropping in the weeks before the draft, which was a clue to the injury that would eventually end his career.

Rays scouts were supposedly high on prep outfielder Andrew McCutchen, but he would cost around $2.2 million as a No. 8 pick. Townsend was willing to sign for $1.5 million, and so he was the choice. He had surgery a year later and never made it above Double A.

This was the backdrop for the argument over Hellickson.

Eighty-seven players had been selected by the time the Rays were picking in the third round. Hellickson was on the board, but the Rays chose prep pitcher Bryan Morris out of Tennessee. Turns out, he wanted too much money and never signed.

The Orioles called the Hellickson house and said they were willing to draft him a few picks later if he was ready to sign. The Hellicksons told Baltimore not to bother if it wasn't prepared to offer a mid-second round contract.

Couston, meanwhile, was sweating. He wasn't sure how much longer Hellickson would remain on the board. The only thing he had in his favor was the backing of R.J. Harrison, who was then a national cross checker and is now Tampa Bay's scouting director.

"Was it a hard sell? Yeah, you could say that," Couston said. "But R.J. is brilliant. He fought as hard as I did for this guy. He backed me all the way."

Harrison dismisses his role, and instead credits Couston, Bonifay and former Rays exec Tim Wilken for the calculated risk.

"There were a bunch of people watching this guy. Yes, he was 5-11 or 6 foot or whatever they say, but the delivery you see now is the delivery he had in high school," Harrison said. "All the things that make him what he is now he had when he was young.

"Trust me, if I thought he was going to be this good, I would have written a better report on him and we wouldn't have waited until the fourth round."

So the team that was frugal in the first round agreed to pay Hellickson a little more than $500,000 in the fourth round, which was roughly double the going rate.

Six years later, the 2005 draft is a virtual wasteland in Tampa Bay. Sixteen of the Rays' first 17 picks have never played in the majors.

The only thing the Rays have to show for 2005 was a smallish right-hander from Iowa. And a handful of scouts who fought for him.

Success of Tampa Bay Rays' Jeremy Hellickson a tribute to scout's tenacity 11/14/11 [Last modified: Monday, November 14, 2011 11:21pm]
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