Timing the key to Tampa Bay Rays' talent show

Rays prospect Jeremy Hellickson is 11-2 at Triple-A Durham and earns the win in the All-Star Futures Game.

Associated Press

Rays prospect Jeremy Hellickson is 11-2 at Triple-A Durham and earns the win in the All-Star Futures Game.

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Already, they are coming. Even now, you can hear their footsteps as they approach.

Soon, the future will arrive.

And if you are asking the kid with the fastball or the kid with the fast feet, sooner sounds better than later.

Already, you have heard their names. Already, you have wondered where they will fit. Already, you have checked your watch to see if it is tomorrow yet.

Such is the impact of coming stars such as Jeremy Hellickson and Desmond Jennings, the next wave of talent of the Rays. They are not ripe yet, and still, they have become minor celebrities. Every time it appears the Rays could use another starter in the rotation, Hellickson's name comes up. Every time it appears they could use more talent in the outfield, Jennings leads the discussion.

So the wait continues. For Hellickson. For Jennings. For the Rays. And for everyone else.

Once again, the Someday Stars made you wonder on Sunday. Both Hellickson (the starting pitcher) and Jennings (who started in centerfield and batted leadoff) flashed a little bit of their considerable promise in baseball's All-Star Futures Game. Call it a hint and a promise. Hellickson threw two innings of two-hit ball and earned the victory. Jennings was hit by a pitch and walked, but he showed enough on the basepaths with a steal and three runs scored to suggest he can grow into a difference-maker.

Ah, but here's the question.

When?

With minor-league stars, that's always the issue. When does Hellickson join a talented pitching staff? When does Jennings get a chance to take over an outfield spot? When, exactly, does the future arrive?

"I have no idea," Jennings said, grinning.

"When they're ready, I'm ready," Hellickson said.

These days, that doesn't sound like boasting. In its midseason rankings, Baseball America has Jennings ranked as the No. 3 prospect in the minors. Hellickson was No. 4. (A third Rays prospect, Alex Torres of Double-A Montgomery, also pitched a shutout inning Sunday.)

What's not to like? Hellickson is 11-2 at Triple-A Durham (and 17-3 in parts of the past two seasons) with a 2.21 ERA. He's a strikeout-an-inning pitcher who relies on a fastball, curve and slider.

"He's another one of those (Jeff) Niemann, (David) Price and (Matt) Garza types," said Durham manager Charlie Montoyo, who was a coach on the World team Sunday. "He's going to be good. Very good. The best compliment I can give is that of all of those guys who have pitched for me, he has the best command of his fastball at this stage of any of them."

Ah, but you knew that, didn't you? Hellickson has been on the edge of a lot of Rays discussions lately, whether it was as possible trade bait or as a replacement for Wade Davis, the Rays' fifth starter who went 0-5 with a 6.00 ERA in June.

"I try not to pay attention to that," Hellickson said. "I think the Rays have the best rotation in baseball. I'm blocked by all of those guys, but I still want them all to do real well. I'm just waiting on my turn."

Want to know how good Hellickson is? Ask Jennings, who has watched his back throughout their climb through the minors.

"I think he's ready now," Jennings said. "He does the same thing every year. He's probably the best pitcher I've seen. When he's pitching, I relax because I know there aren't going to be too many balls hit out there to me. He doesn't give up a lot of hits."

Want to know how good Jennings is? Ask Hellickson, who watched as Jennings got off to a slow start this year at Durham but has improved his average to .297 and has stolen 21 of 23 bases.

"The sky is the limit," Hellickson said. "He doesn't strike out. He can hit for power. He runs down everything. You watch him run the bases, and they'll throw over twice and pitch out twice, and then he'll steal second. And then he'll steal third. And maybe home. He's a lot of fun to watch. I think he's one of the best outfielders in the game right now."

In the minor-league game?

"He's probably the best in the minor leagues. When he gets the chance, he's going to be one of the best in the majors."

The truth is Hellickson is probably a bit closer to being ready than Jennings. Jennings jammed his left wrist in the spring, and not even Hellickson is sure if Jennings is healthy yet. For a minor-leaguer, particularly a talented one, the waiting can be brutal. Both of these 23-year-olds are on the front porch of the major leagues, desperate to get inside. But there is a logjam in front of them.

Both players, of course, think they are ready. If the Rays are calling, they're on their way.

Think of it like this: For these two, the future is no longer about years. It's about weeks. Both have a chance to help the Rays this year. Maybe that means Hellickson in the bullpen. Maybe it means Jennings as a pinch-runner.

How soon?

Maybe tomorrow.

Timing the key to Tampa Bay Rays' talent show 07/11/10 [Last modified: Monday, July 12, 2010 8:07am]

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