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Rays top prospects of all-time: No. 16

After 20 years of Rays baseball, we’re counting down the top prospects in franchise history.

AFLAC High School All-American Game
For some reason, this high school photo of Jeremy Hellickson was in the editor
Photo by: Diamond Images/Getty Images

For the fourth straight post, and fifth straight player, our list of top Rays prospects in franchise history will feature a pitcher. Perhaps this one did not ultimately live up to expectations, but he had a good start to his career and took home some hardware.

20. SS Reid Brignac
19. RHP Matt White
18. RHP Chris Archer
17. RHP Wade Davis/LHP Jake McGee

16. RHP Jeremy Hellickson

Acquired: No. 118 pick by Devils Rays (2005)

Baseball America Top-100 ranks: 6 (2010), 18 (2009)
(Devil) Rays Top-30 ranks: 1 (2010), 2 (2009), 8 (2007), 3 (2008), 10 (2006), 19 (2005)
League Top-20 ranks: 1 (2006 New York-Penn League), 2 (2010 International League), 6 (2008 Florida State League), 6 (2009 IL), 8 (2007 South Atlantic League), 9 (2009 Southern League), 12 (2008 SL)

(Devil) Rays best tools: Best fastball (2009), Best changeup (2009, 2010), Best control (2008, 2009, 2010)
League best tools: Best pitching prospect (2010 International League), Best changeup (2010 IL), Best control (2008 Florida State League, 2008 Southern League)

Hellickson was part of the franchise’s deep wave of young pitching that helped the team sustain its best stretch in franchise history, including three postseason appearances in four seasons. He was also part of the depth that played a part in pushing Wade Davis and Jake McGee to the bullpen.

Although he was a fixture in the organization’s top-prospect rankings for years, he wasn’t ranked in Baseball America’s Top-100 until after his fourth full professional season. He appeared for the final time after 2010, the season he made his major league debut. That’s when he peaked as the No. 6 prospect in baseball. Julio Teheran was the only pitcher ranked ahead of him. Aroldis Chapman ranked behind him.

Reading that BA scouting report ($), it’s easy to see why Hellickson was so highly regarded — he had it all. His best pitch was his changeup with great movement, he threw his good curveball for strikes, and his fastball was above average too. There was concern about the plane on that fastball, but he located his pitches so well, which helped alleviate that concern.

Statistically, Hellickson was tremendous with Durham in 2010. The 23-year-old righty was backing up the great scouting report with results on the field. Notably, he only allowed five homers in 117 23 innings. He led the league with a 2.45 ERA and 25.5 percent strikeout rate.

He had shown a lot of growth in just a couple seasons. When Hellickson first reached the Southern League in 2008, he allowed 15 home runs in 75 1/3 innings. He still struck out over a batter an inning, threw a lot of strikes, and maintained a 3.94 ERA, but it was a rude introduction to the upper minors.

Hellickson only pitched six innings as a professional after he was drafted in 2005. Although BA’s report after that season suggested he would pitch in full-season ball in 2006, he didn’t. He had some extra time to work in extended spring training in 2006, and it paid off with an outstanding season for Hudson Valley. He led the New York-Penn League in strikeouts and was already throwing a ton of strikes, walking just 16 batters in 77 23 innings.

As a 20 year old in 2007, he did make his full-season debut, pitching for Columbus in the South Atlantic League. It was the only season of his minor league career he did not strike out more than a batter an inning, he continued to make progress, developing his secondary pitches and getting results on the mound.

Before his adjustment period in Double A, Hellickson’s 2008 season with Class A-Advanced Vero Beach could be considered his breakout moment. He had been brought along slowly up to that point in his career, but he was so effective in the Florida State League, the team had no choice but to challenge him at a higher level. In 76 23 innings, he struck out 83 batters and walked just five.

In 2009, he returned to Montgomery and pitched much better, maintaining a high strikeout rate while keeping the ball in the park and allowing fewer hits overall. For the second straight year, he earned a midseason promotion and finished up at Durham. He rocketed into the BA Top-100 and was named the No. 18 prospect in the league.

Hellickson made his big league debut at the end of the 2010 season. Like Davis before him, it was a promising start in a short stint. He made four starts in August before settling into a relief role down the stretch. He pitched seven innings in his first outing, and all four starts were quality starts with 25 strikeouts to just four walks in 26 13 innings.

In 2011, Hellickson followed up on that strong debut and won Rookie of the Year. On the surface, his numbers looked strong — he posted a 2.95 ERA and 1.15 WHIP in 189 innings. However, there were some red flags. His strikeout rate was just 15.1 percent. His BABIP was .223. Could he sustain success with peripherals like that?

The answer appeared to be yes in 2012. His ERA rose to 3.10, but he still appeared to be providing quality innings. He even improved both his strikeout and walk rates by marginal amounts. Unfortunately for Hellickson, that would be the last time for quite a few seasons that he would post numbers like that.

Despite improving strikeout and walk rates, over the next three seasons with the Rays and then Diamondbacks, Hellickson posted a 4.86 ERA with 54 home runs allowed in 383 23 innings. Interestingly, his FIP those three seasons was 4.29, lower than his 4.52 FIP when he had a 3.02 ERA over his first two full seasons.

For a lot of people, likely including myself, Hellickson provided a tutorial for using advanced stats to better evaluate performance and what to expect in future seasons. The warning signs were there, even when he had his early success.

In the end, what seemed to hurt Hellickson most might’ve been his fastball. The lack of velocity and movement meant he had to locate precisely. When he didn’t, batters were able to punish his mistakes.