PORT CHARLOTTE — The Rays liked a lot of what they saw of top pitching prospect Jeremy Hellickson this spring. But they're even more excited about what they expect to see when he makes it to the big leagues for good.
Hellickson, top outfield prospect Desmond Jennings and left-hander Alex Torres were optioned to the minors as the Rays narrowed their focus Tuesday on the players who will start the season. All three made strong impressions while they were in big-league camp, and left the Rays feeling good about future seasons.
Hellickson showed that despite being just 22 and having worked fewer than 500 pro innings, only 57 above Double A, he could step in now if necessary.
"He's not that far way," pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "If our hand were forced and he had to start in the middle of April it wouldn't be the ideal situation, but I would be comfortable with that."
Hellickson was naturally disappointed by the demotion but not much surprised, "maybe just a little bit just because of how I threw."
He'd hoped for a chance to pitch more during the spring (he worked just 22/3 relief innings in two games), but he felt he did well enough given the opportunity (one hit and six strikeouts facing eight batters). And he knows he may have to wait a while anyway based on the young (none older than 28) and talented starters already in the rotation.
"I think I showed them what I can do," Hellickson said. "Hopefully it was enough for them, but we'll see what happens."
The Rays liked pretty much everything they saw, from what he did to how he did it to how he handled himself in his first exposure to big-league players.
"My impressions were very favorable," Hickey said. "Everything was kind of 'as advertised.' Everyone said he was an extremely poised young pitcher, and I saw that. That he had very good command of his fastball, and we all saw that. And a plus-plus changeup, and I think we all saw all that, also."
They also spoke favorably about his attitude and his aptitude.
"I like him a lot," added manager Joe Maddon. "And now that I've had a chance to see him and get to know him a little bit, he's got the right makeup to do it also."
About the only thing Hellickson hasn't shown — "the biggest part of his game that he needs to work on," Hickey said — is a dependable breaking ball. The curveball he struck out Derek Jeter with in his March 5 big-league exhibition debut looked good enough, but the Rays want him to either tighten up the break on that or find something different, be it slider, cutter or slurve.
"There's always been a little bit of juggling of what's going to work best," Hickey said. "I just think the next step for him is to identify which breaking ball is going to work best for him, or which two."
Jennings, 23, didn't get a chance to show much, having been sidelined twice by injuries (hit by a pitch on his left elbow, sprained left wrist sliding in a base) in the first week of exhibitions.
But the major-league staff was still impressed with the Rays' top position prospect, who likely will join Hellickson at Triple-A Durham.
"You can just watch him in batting practice and see how compact he is and how well everything works; that was obvious," Maddon said. "I liked seeing him on the bases to re-emphasize what I thought, and it was there. And the way he went after fly balls was very, very good. He's a very instinctive player."
Torres, a 22-year-old lefty acquired from the Angels in the Scott Kazmir trade, caught their eye with an impressive assortment of fastballs (two- and four-seam), changeup and curve. His challenge this season, starting most likely at Double-A Montgomery, is to cut down on walks (191 in 3412/3 pro innings).
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]