PORT CHARLOTTE — Jeremy Hellickson made it look easy last year.
So easy, the way he tore through his first three big-league starts and, even with some rocky relief outings, presented himself as a 23-year-old Ray of hope, it's difficult to say just what's realistic for an encore as the right-hander steps into the rotation.
"I think he's kind of spoiled the fan base into thinking that he's pretty much infallible," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "So just understand that he's young, he's going to make some mistakes, he's going to have some rough nights.
"But by the end of the season, we're going to see a guy that's definitely capable of 10-plus wins with some really good numbers attached to them. That's always been what he's done in the past, and I don't think there's any reason to think that's going to change a lot."
Except, of course, that Hellickson — who starts tonight vs. the Yankees — faces a more difficult task, opening the season facing major-league hitters who will have the benefit of extensive scouting reports and multiple looks at him. Plus, he isn't going to catch anyone off-guard as he is considered one of the leading preseason candidates for AL rookie of the year honors after winning several minor-league player of the year awards.
"I'm hoping I can continue what I did last year, but it's not going to be easy, obviously," Hellickson said. "Obviously, guys are going to make adjustments, and it's not going to go just like it did last year. Hopefully, it does, but they're going to make adjustments, and I'll have to adjust to whatever they do."
Hellickson, who fills the opening created by the trade of Matt Garza to the Cubs, has the benefit of drawing on the experience of the Rays' four other starters, who all made similar ascensions with varying degrees of difficulty.
"Everybody's different," Wade Davis said. "It took me a little while to come into a comfort zone. Hopefully, he can come in a little quicker. Who knows? He might be Cy Young for the next 10 years, or he might have a little trouble."
Because Hellickson, who turns 24 on April 8, has a four-pitch repertoire (fastball, changeup, curveball, cutter) with tremendous command of his pitches and control of his emotions, the Rays are confident that even if he has some trouble — and realistically, all starters do at some point in the season — his bad days won't be too ugly.
David Price said Hellickson has the physical abilities to make a smooth transition.
"I feel like it's going to be a lot easier on Helly," said Price, who merely won 10 games after a late May 2009 promotion and 19 last season in finishing second in the AL Cy Young voting.
"I feel like he's a better pitcher than I am. He uses more stuff in different spots. He's going to throw a 3-and-1 changeup. He's going to keep hitters a lot more off-balance than I am throwing fastball after fastball."
James Shields said the mental aspects of the big-league game are the bigger issues.
"He's got a lot to learn. That's for sure," he said. "This year will be a big learning curve for him. He has to learn to make adjustments, to be able to repeat his pitches, to stay as consistent as he possibly can. This is a year where he really needs to focus on doing some studying on certain hitters."
The Rays aren't expecting Hellickson to replace Garza, just take the place opened by the trade. But pitching coach Jim Hickey said not to discount the possibility of Hellickson making it look, well, easy.
"I expect him to be really, really good," Hickey said. "I'm pretty certain he could not necessarily replicate all the numbers, but he could fill in the production we lost via Garza, the 200 innings and the 15 wins."
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.