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Replacing Hellickson: Sifting through the available Starting Pitchers

Brian Blanco

Last week we also received word the Rays were in on A.J. Burnett, who could make more than David Price next season. Instead of that being an alternative to the former Cy Young winner, perhaps that was a move to replace Jeremy Hellickson's innings in the rotation.

Monday afternoon we received news that Hellickson would miss six-to-eight weeks after elbow surgery to clean out what is presumed to be bone spurs. This is not an uncommon surgery, if anything it could be called routine, but the timing is inconvenient and frustrating, and the Rays will need to decide who makes up for the loss.

So where do Hellickson's innings go?

Internal Options

The Rays have three starting pitchers within the consensus Top-5 of the prospect list, all at the Triple-A level -- Jake Odorizzi, Enny Romero, and Alex Colome.

Colome struggled with his own elbow injury last season, though he avoided surgery through rest and should be available. Romero has struggled with command but made a spot start in late September allowing one hit among five baserunners; meanwhile, Odorizzi is at the top of the depth chart. He is most likely to have the lion's share of Hellickson's lost innings, but there's a chance recently acquired Matt Andriese could prove himself in Spring Training and fight his way to the top.

Here is his brief performance in the majors, and projections for 2014:

Jake Odorizzi IP ERA FIP K% BB% WAR
2013 29.2 3.94 3.89 18.0% 6.6% 0.3
Steamer 134.0 4.39 4.36 18.1% 9.0% 0.9
Oliver 146.0 4.06 4.44 18.8% 8.4% 0.7

The Rays have been active on the free agent market, at least from a due diligence perspective, and that means we should be too. Allow Odorizzi's projections to be your barometer for Hellickson's missing innings.

The Free Agents

20131003_jla_ac1_414A.J. Burnett does not regret that Batman tattoo -- Photo credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The following is a list of current free agent starters and their Steamer projections for 2014, courtesy of Fangraphs:

A.J. Burnett 191 8.6 3.3 3.63 3.27 3.4
Ervin Santana 200 7.2 2.6 3.96 3.71 2.8
Ubaldo Jimenez 207 8.5 3.8 4.03 3.79 2.7
Erik Bedard 185 7.8 4.0 4.29 4.21 2.0
Chris Capuano 185 6.6 2.6 4.25 4.03 1.6
Paul Maholm 140 5.9 2.7 4.29 3.95 1.5
Joe Saunders 185 5.3 2.7 4.57 4.15 1.4
Johan Santana 139 7.4 3.0 4.04 4.14 1.3
Tommy Hanson 93 7.3 3.4 4.30 4.26 1.0
Jeff Karstens 91 6.2 2.2 4.32 4.06 0.9
Aaron Harang 147 6.4 3.2 4.58 4.49 0.7
Bronson Arroyo 91 5.3 1.9 4.49 4.25 0.7
Jake Westbrook 112 4.5 3.3 4.71 4.28 0.7
Barry Zito 140 5.5 3.6 5.00 4.86 0.2

Many of these pitchers can be quickly eliminated from the Rays consideration. Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez are connected to a qualifying offer, and are not on the market for one-year deals.

Then you have injured pitchers like Johan Santana (who re-tore his Anterior Capsule last March) and Jeff Karstens (rotator cuff surgery in June). Santana has more hype, though both players project to similar K/BB ratios and FIP's. Santana will not be available to pitch until after Hellickson is expected to return, and I wouldn't go near a shoulder injury on this list with a ten foot pole.

You're tempted to cross out anyone who might be considered expensive, but then there's the rumors regarding A.J. Burnett. The Pirates failed to extend a qualifying offer to Burnett, presumably out of fear he would accept and put $14.1M on their books. Now his acquiring team will not have to surrender a draft pick for signing him, which should theoretically increase the bidding and box out the Rays. At first this seemed to signal a David Price trade possibility, but if there's a discount for his services to be had, it could have been a preemptive move to replace Hellickson.

The Rays spent north of $3M on Roberto Hernandez, the first free agent starting pitching signed under Friedman's watch (!!), and he delivered a 0.2 WAR season. In free agency, he then nabbed a one-year $4.5M contract from the Phillies.

If the Rays are already giving Hellickson $3.65M, I'm not sure there's room in the budget for another starting pitcher, even after unloading Jose Lobaton's $1M contract (whenever he's traded). Suffice it to say it needs to be below Helly's deal.

With that in mind, and for various other reasons, we can eliminate a few more names:

Not Listed Above

International free agents including Yoon Suk-Min from South Korea, and Odrisamer Despaigne from Cuba. Suk-Min is recovering from injury himself and has at least six suitors, while Despaigne has been working out for teams in Spain and Mexico since escaping Communism. Both are also in the market for long term deals.

Groundball Pitchers

Part of the draw to A.J. Burnett would be a higher groundball percentage, which plays well to the Rays infield. Burnett had repeat seasons of 56% in Pittsburgh, and the expectation is that he could achieve at least his average once again.

So if groundball performance is your thing, Jake Westbrook has a career average at 58%, and started 19 times in 21 appearances for St. Louis last season. His starts were limited by elbow inflammation, although he did return and pitch (ineffectively). His team option was declined.

Paul Maholm and Joe Saunders are interesting options for ~50% groundball rate, though the former has displayed more consistency over his career to burn worms and is projected to a better FIP. Maholm is the only pitcher out of the group I'm truly interested in, but his soft tossing ways don't play well for a transition to the 'pen, in case Hellickson rebounds quickly. His slider is the most whiff worthy of his arsenal, but has only been used a tenth of the time.

Do we really need to talk about him?

Then there's some pitchers I'd rather just avoid. They've got long careers and will find a high profile team desparate enough to give them a decent deal. I'm talking about Barry Zito, who can't throw above 85 mph, and Bronson Arroyo, who is being courted by the Dodgers. You could throw Jair Jurrjens on this list as well, he's recovering from knee surgery and has plummeting velocity.

Candidates for a One Year Deal

180801217Erik Bedard hasn't signed anywhere yet? -- Photo credit: Bob Levey/Getty Images

This narrows our list to five names:

A.J. Burnett, RHP

A.J. Burnett IP ERA FIP K% BB% WAR
2013 191.0 3.30 2.80 26.1% 8.4% 4.0
Steamer 189.0 3.63 3.27 22.5% 8.6% 3.4
Oliver 199.0 4.02 3.75 21.0% 8.6% 3.0

Pros: Devastating knuckle-curve, uses change up wisely
Cons: Expensive, many teams interested, wrong side of 37

Burnett should be rather expensive and would probably only sign after a David Price trade was in the works.

An ideal Hellickson replacement might be someone who can swing to the bullpen as a long man, should he prove himself to be effective. What I mean is, guys who otherwise might not be starting anymore. Two such examples are former Dodgers.

The following four players were non-tendered or released by their clubs, and all have experience in relief.

Erik Bedard, LHP

Erik Bedard IP ERA FIP K% BB% WAR
2013 151.0 4.59 4.38 20.8% 11.3% 1.4
Steamer 182.0 4.28 4.21 20.0% 10.3% 1.9
Oliver 140.0 4.45 4.32 19.0% 10.3% 1.5

Pros: Effective against RHH, had success in relief
Cons: All fastballs, all the time; rising flyball rate, rising Z-swing rate

Of the remaining options, Bedard holds the most projected value in 2014. He generated more flyballs than usual last season, including a sky-high 15.2% in-field fly rate which should regress. Both play well to the Trop, but may not on the road. His sinker, change, and curve all have decent movement, and he loves throwing everything to the catcher's glove side.

He made 26 starts and six strong relief appearances for Houston, but his relief performance down the stretch was bolstered by a .241 in-play batting average. He joined the Astros on a minor league deal, and played for $1.15M last season.

Tommy Hanson, RHP

Tommy Hanson IP ERA FIP K% BB% WAR
2013 73.0 5.42 4.65 17.1% 9.2% 0.4
Steamer 96.0 4.29 4.26 18.8% 8.6% 1.0
Oliver 126.0 4.57 4.48 20.3% 8.8% 1.0

Pros: Hmm...
Cons: GB% below 40%, K-rate dropped 4%, shoulder problems, bad mechanics

Non-tendered by the Angels after he was acquired from the Braves, Hanson has a fastball that sits below 90 when he's starting, but has a decent slider and curve. The latter is his out pitch, but he rides the fastball. In relief, Hanson could be something interesting next season.

He had right-arm tendonitis in the spring, a forearm strain in the summer, and he was out of a job before the fall was done, sent off by a team desperate for starters. But he's gonna be cheap, he can give you six innings, and he can limit the damage to six base runners.

Odorizzi could probably do more without hurting himself, but the projections are about even, so it's worth mentioning.

Aaron Harang, RHP

Aaron Harang IP ERA FIP K% BB% WAR
2013 143.1 5.40 4.79 18.1% 6.4% 0.4
Steamer 153.0 4.58 4.49 16.3% 8.0% 0.8
Oliver 165.0 4.81 4.68 15.6% 8.3% 0.9

Pros: Good mix of pitches
Cons: Allowed five or more hits in 16 of 22 starts

Released by the Mariners mid season, Harang had a minor league deal to finish the season. He's all fastball/slider against same handed hitting, but evens it out with a sinker and curve against lefties. He sits at 90, and the sinker has great movement, which could play toward relief. The curve is tight, and the slider gets whiffs, so there's much in his arsenal that Hickey could bring out. The change is seldom used, but it's there as well.

To be honest, looking for benefits in his repertoire will not do much. He hasn't been an effective starter since 2010, and will be playing his age 36 season. A minor league invite converting to relief with an ability to spot start is a best case scenario for Harang to continue pitching.

Chris Capuano, LHP

Chris Capuano IP ERA FIP K% BB% WAR
2013 105.2 4.26 3.55 17.7% 5.3% 1.0
Steamer 182.0 4.24 4.03 17.1% 6.7% 1.6
Oliver 155.0 4.06 4.09 18.8% 6.4% 1.0

Pros: Groundball machine vLHH, league avg. K% and FIP last three years
Cons: Durability concerns, elbow has been operated on twice, longball prone vRHH

Capuano has two Tommy John surgeries on his resume, but already functions as a left handed reliever. He's had dramatic swings in his velocity that could be tapered by consistent time in a bullpen -- where he would likely average above 90mph on his two-seam fastball -- while his sub-80mph change-up with excellent horizontal movement would play well to the Rays' mentality on the mound. Some practice keeping his sinker low in the zone should improve his performance vRHH, while better framing and sequencing should boost his strike out rates.

Capuano is aging, entering his age 36 season, and had calf, shoulder, and groin strains last season that limited him to 20 starts. He is more of a guarantee to be above replacement level than Harang or Hanson. He hasn't gotten much love on the market, other than from Jeff Sullivan, and that should change as we approach Spring Training.

Someone I've ignored

Of course, the Rays may have their eye on someone completely different.

This might include guys like Jeff Niemann - if the Rays are happy with his medicals, he could return - or guys who pitched poorly for the Rockies and might be otherwise be out of baseball, like Roy Oswalt or Jon Garland. However, all three of these examples are big question marks. They're worth keeping in mind as rentals or spring training invitees, but their status in terms of whether they are fit to be pitching in the majors is beyond my knowledge.

179752794Chris Capuano should not be ignored -- Photo credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

In conclusion, if the Rays are on the lookout to sign a player to a minor league deal, Erik Bedard and Chris Capuano are the two I would consider. Two southpaws that could play well in relief.

As far as the rest of the list, A.J. Burnett should play well no matter where he signs, but he'll command too high a salary unless Price is traded, and no one else would likely do any better than the best in-house option: Odorizzi.

The Rays hoard pitching depth for a reason.