ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays have felt RHP prospect Jeremy Hellickson was ready to join their already strong rotation.
It was only a matter of when.
And now, with RHP Matt Garza getting traded to the Cubs, Hellickson is expected to get his chance to shine.
"I think we'll be all right," ace LHP David Price said. "Helly will fit in just fine. He's my pick to win rookie of the year."
Hellickson, 23, showed he belonged with a dazzling debut in the fall, winning his first three starts while pitching in a pennant race. He became the first pitcher in the modern era (1920) to pitch at least six innings and allow three hits or fewer in his first three starts in the majors.
It was Hellickson's readiness, and the fact the Rays had the entire rotation ready to return, that likely made it easier for executive VP Andrew Friedman to shop Garza, the 2008 ALCS MVP and only pitcher in club history with a no-hitter.
And it was what Hellickson showed — impressive command of his pitches, poise beyond his years and an uncanny feeling for the craft at his age — that has them believing he can have success over a full season.
"He's extremely talented, and he has a lot of poise for a young pitcher," Friedman said. "We feel he's going, whether it's opening day or later, to really (step) in nicely and help us maintain the premium starting pitching we've been accustomed to."
Though Hellickson will arrive in Port Charlotte next month with hype, he won't have the burden of carrying the rotation. With Price, James Shields, Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis, Hellickson can work from the back of the rotation.
Opposing hitters will make adjustments against Hellickson, but the Rays feel he has the capability of holding his own in the chess match.
And so do other teams.
"This guy knows how to pitch," veteran OF Johnny Damon said in August, after facing Hellickson while with the Tigers. "He's fearless."
In moving Hellickson up, the Rays are tapping into their starting pitching depth, meaning there will be fewer ready-to-go options at Triple A if indeed they suffer any injuries (though the staff has been durable over the past few years). They do have an experienced starter in Andy Sonnanstine, and some talented LHPs such as Jake McGee and Alex Torres on their way up, as well as recently acquired RHP Chris Archer, among others.
And though the Rays surely will miss Garza, in giving Hellickson the spot, they appear to be in good hands.
SCOUTING REPORT: Rays Double-A manager Billy Gardner Jr., who has faced three of the Cubs prospects involved in the Garza deal, liked the return: "I think if you're looking down the road a few years, it's a pretty good core group, a guy who can play a premium position behind the plate (C Robinson Chirinos), a guy like Archer with very good upside, and a guy like (OF Brandon Guyer) who can run, throw and hit with a chance to be a frontline major-league outfielder."
RAYS RUMBLINGS: The Rays continue to show interest in free agent left-handed closer Brian Fuentes, though nothing appears imminent. The salary freed up in the Garza deal might help them bolster the bullpen. … The Rays are also one of several teams that have expressed interest in former Red Sox RH reliever Manny Delcarmen. … RHP Lance Cormier said Tampa Bay is one of the teams he has been talking with. … Price will accept the Warren Spahn Award as the best LHP in baseball in a gala Jan. 20 at the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame & Jim Thorpe Museum. …The Rays will hold their second annual winter development program for 25 minor-league players from Monday through Thursday at Tropicana Field.
Times staff writer Marc Topkin contributed to this report. Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.