After his first three big-league starts, the rookie pitcher in Washington had a 2-0 record. His ERA was 1.86, and opponents were batting .149 against him. Stephen Strasburg ended up on the cover of Sports Illustrated. After his first three big-league starts, the rookie pitcher in Tampa Bay had a 3-0 record. His ERA was 1.35, and opponents were batting .136 against him. Jeremy Hellickson could very well end up in Triple A after his next start tonight. Kind of makes you wonder if the Rays are — how shall I put this — insane? In the ramshackle history of an expansion franchise, no Rays starting pitcher has ever made such a dramatic entrance. Hellickson has been poised, he has been efficient, he has, by far, been better than anyone could have reasonably expected.
So are the Rays making a huge mistake by not taking advantage of Hellickson while fighting for first place?
No, they're not.
At least, not at this point.
Certainly, we can all agree on the notion of seizing the day in a pennant race. We wouldn't mind spending more of ownership's money, and we might be willing to trade a prospect at the right price. But risking a young player's future? That should be nonnegotiable.
And that's why this story is not as simple as it seems. There is no universal manual on how to protect promising pitchers, but there has been enough history to suggest they are at greater risk for injury when their workload increases dramatically at a young age.
So will Hellickson, 23, blow out his elbow if he pitches 200 innings instead of 175 this year? I have no idea. But I'd bet the risk is greater. And I don't think it's wise for the organization's future, or fair to the kid's career, to take that chance.
The issue with Hellickson is additionally complicated because he has had some minor health issues in a couple minor-league seasons. So he doesn't have the solid base of innings that, say, Wade Davis had when he came up last season. Davis had four minor-league seasons of 145 innings or more when he was called up. Hellickson has had one.
"Guys like Jeremy Hellickson, you think can be a big part of your future," manager Joe Maddon said. "Because he's met with some success right now, which you thought he could, you don't all of a sudden blow it up and then apply more to him in the event he may get hurt or you push him too hard."
So let's presume the Rays are doing the smart thing — the ethical thing — by putting Hellickson's health ahead of the standings. The question then becomes how best to maximize the innings he has remaining in 2010.
Hellickson threw 152 innings in 2008 but was limited to 131 last season because of a shoulder strain. Typically, the Rays don't want an increase of much more than 20 percent. But do they base it on Hellickson's high mark of 152 innings or the more recent 131?
If the team was out of contention, the answer would certainly be different. But given the postseason possibilities, the Rays might be willing to allow Hellickson to flirt with the 175-inning range.
Considering he goes into tonight's game at 137⅔ innings, there isn't a whole lot of room remaining.
If he stayed in the rotation, Hellickson would exceed 175 innings before the end of the regular season. And that makes no sense at all. Why burn innings in August that could be more valuable in October? Especially with Davis and Jeff Niemann set to come off the disabled list.
So sending Hellickson back to Triple A after tonight's start would have some appeal. The Rays can easily monitor his workload in Durham and can use him every five or six days so he's still ready to start if Davis or Niemann have setbacks.
It's also better than putting him in the big-league bullpen because it's going to take some time to adjust to relief work. Hellickson is not used to pitching on short rest, so you wouldn't want to work him back-to-back nights right away. And easing him into the bullpen would be easier after Sept. 1, when rosters are expanded, and the Rays would have extra relievers to pick up the slack.
Certainly, this is not a perfect solution. On the other hand, the perfect solution does not exist. You cannot chase the pennant at full speed and safeguard Hellickson's future simultaneously. So you try to find a safe landing spot somewhere in the middle.
Sort of how the Rays handled another hotshot rookie pitcher in 2008. Tampa Bay still managed to win the pennant that season, and David Price has matured into a leading Cy Young Award contender in 2010.
It's not likely Hellickson's story will turn out the same way in 2012.
But the least you can do is make sure he is healthy enough to try.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.