Watch enough police procedural dramas in a lifetime and you’ll have drilled into you that it takes three things to commit a crime. Means, motive, and opportunity. Find the person that meets all three criteria and you’re likely to have found your burglar or murderer or whatever. The same works for trading assets in baseball. Find the partner that provides all three criteria and you’ll find the team that matches up well. Before we put the cart in front of the horse, why would the Rays look to trade the former Rookie of the Year?
The track record of the Rays is to move their starting pitchers once they get a year or two from free agency. This marks a nice balance of recouping talent for players while they are cheap and still getting something in return before the player bolts for nothing. This has happened with Edwin Jackson, Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza, James Shields and David Price. Hellickson makes sense as the next in line, especially with Alex Colome out of options and Matt Moore returning at some point in 2015 (please God). With Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, and Drew Smyly also looking like mid-rotation starters and a plethora of back end options in Durham the saga continues of the next man stepping up to replace our next dearly departed starter.
Have little doubt that Hellickson possesses less value than any of those previous starters:
Even Jackson had a live fastball that left many salivating at the thought of what he could someday become if he figured out how to use it. Hellickson has been a notch below Garza from a production standpoint and he carries one less year of control forming a double whammy of value-killing poison, but this does not mean that he is worthless.
Due to the strength of his change up (1.07 runs per 100 pitches better than average in career) and ability to throw it in any count he has done a remarkable job of keeping his splits well below the norm. Hellickson is good against righties (projected 97 wRC+) and won’t get brutalized by lefties (102 wRC+) either. Put him in a situation where he has a good defense behind him and/or in a bigger park and I think he’ll put up the numbers of a mid-rotation starter. Additionally, there are several non-performance based things that help give him value.
After getting some bone chips removed from his elbow prior to the 2014 season he wasn’t able to make his first appearance until the All Star Break. Missing Spring Training and working to get back in shape while facing Major League hitters is a daunting task for anyone. I think this lends credence to the idea that he’s due to have a bit of a bounceback as 2015 will allow him to not only workout in the spring, but to also build strength all winter. Something he couldn’t do last year. Additionally, that down year means that his arbitration award should be kept down a bit, relative to others in his situation. MLBTR pegs him to receive around $3.9M and that comes with control through 2016 as mentioned previously. Here’s a look at the surplus value with even a conservative outlook towards his production:
Even if Hellickson only gives his new team two wins above replacement over the next two years he’s likely to represent an undervalued asset so just think what he could be worth if/when he clears that very low bar. Lastly, those figures may be conservative as a starter, but I think his greatest value may come if he’s shifted to the bullpen. Adding a couple of ticks to his fastball in shorter stints could be a Godsend for this young man, and his previously demonstrated lack of a platoon split means he would be more than a specialist as he’s able to slay lefties and righties alike. Furthermore, while there isn’t a pitcher in the game that gets better the more he faces a batter, Hellickson looks disproportionately worse as the game wears on:
By wOBA, the average starter is around 2.6% worse the second time he faces a batter and then another 2.3% worse on top of that for the third go ’round. Hellboy is around 10% worse that second at bat and a little less for that third trip to the plate. Much like former starter-turned-reliever who got by on a mediocre fastball, but great movement and guts J.P. Howell I think Hellickson could be dominant in virtually any relief role. If you need him to soak up 2-3 innings, regardless of leverage, he should be able to do that for you. If you want to use him as a Joel Peralta-type setup man that can come into high leverage to coax a strikeout while you live with the occasional walk then I think he could do that too. Those projected WAR figures above should be used as a floor, then, with better production still being possible.
So we know that Hellickson brings some value that can be enhanced further by being in the right scenario. The rumors being circulated by professional mouthpiece Joel Sherman are that an NL team seems the likely destination. Getting back to the beginning of this which teams seem to have the means, motive, and opportunity? The positive attributes of Hellickson revolve around the fact that his cost is artificially lowered by still being in arbitration, he offers two years of service, and he could be used anywhere from a mid-rotation pitcher to a flexible weapon out of the pen. This would seem to give more value to a team that is bumping their payroll limit and/or has some pieces in the rotation, but could use cheaper depth. Let’s rule a few teams out right off the bat:
St. Louis Cardinals: Deep in arms means little motive nor opportunity
Miami Marlins: Not much motive with a plethora of similarly cheap options in house
New York Mets: Stacked with young arms so little motive to pull the trigger
Washington Nationals: Rotation already runs six deep with many pricy relievers
Colorado Rockies: Not an ideal opportunity with little to play for in near future
San Diego Padres: Many starters coming back from injury so need to see who sticks
Milwaukee Brewers: High-priced veterans and min-priced prospects leave little room
We can cross roughly half the teams off right away without having to strain our brains too much. I don’t think Helly would be a good fit for any of these clubs. I’d also like to cross the Cubs off because they have quite a few guys that are either guaranteed similar money to what Hellickson is likely to get or they’re in a similar arbitration scenario. Hellickson seems redundant. So let’s make the case for the remaining seven teams. You’ll notice that I haven’t touched on the “means” portion of our program, because I don’t see Hellickson bringing a ton back. Virtually every team has what it takes it just comes down to where they see themselves on the win curve and whether they have an available spot for Helly.
Cincinnati Reds: The Reds have depth and are already committing over $70M to their rotation so why haven’t they been dismissed? Well I could see a scenario where they both buy and sell. With Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, and Mike Leake all set to become free agents after this season it might make sense to trade one or even two of them for both current salary relief and to bring in future pieces that can help the club. Hellickson is a small downgrade, but would come at a savings of more than half as compared to Latos ($8.4M arb guess) or Leake ($9.5M) and Cueto is guaranteed $15M while serving as the bigger trade chip. The Reds have many holes, but rotation depth is not one of them. Would they deal from a strength to improve the overall roster?
Pittsburgh Pirates: The Pirates have a hole in their rotation, currently, but more arms than Vishnu on the way. Of course all of those players won’t work out (shhh don’t tell the people that think all prospects are infallible) so Hellickson on something like a two-year $9ish million commitment might make some sense, particularly if you think he could transition to the pen to become a lock down reliever on a team that has been bleeding those types for two years running. Their defense would probably be the best landing spot for Hellickson and they have the type and variety of prospects that would easily facilitate a trade.
Philadelphia Phillies: WILD CARD, BITCHES! Who knows what they will do with nearly $50M invested in Hamels and CLee on a team going nowhere. They shouldn’t be in on this, let alone trading talent to get Hellickson, but RAJ is capable of anything and could probably use what would amount to an upgrade in the rotation.
Arizona Diamondbacks: I don’t think this is the window they want to fight for, but do they know that? They have some pitchers that should be coming back from serious injury that they should be evaluating during this down period and a ton of money thrown at their pen, but a new GM looking to make a smart buy-low could rope them into this thing. Of course the smarter move is doing whatever it takes to get out of some of the hellacious deals that will be assumed by this FNG.
Los Angeles Dodgers: With a hole in their rotation and former Rays GM Andrew Friedman at the helm it could make some sense for the Dodgers to sniff this out. Additionally, this modest salary looks good in comparison to the rest of their staff and Hellickson could be an effective piece in the bullpen that was such a nightmare just a few weeks ago.
San Francisco Giants: Another team that could use a starter, especially one that could come affordably with Cain and Lincecum eating up close to $40M in payroll while being no sure things this year. This would allow Mr. Sabean to accrue another pitcher similar to Yusmeiro Petit so that one could be a starter and the other the relief ace that Mr. Bochy effectively used so well.
Let’s cut this down some more. I don’t think the Reds have the stones or the brains to do what it takes to end up at the last domino and I think the Phillies and Diamondbacks realize that they need to be getting out from under some terrible contracts in order to win in the future. I think the Pirates continue to try to win from within even though they’re a smart franchise that realizes it takes all methods of talent acquisition. I think the Giants end up bringing back one or both of Vogelsong and Peavy, because that park hides their home run tendencies better than all but a couple of others. That leaves the Dodgers and the Braves. I think the Dodgers fill their rotation spot by trading one of their redundant outfielders and I’m not totally sure that Mr. Friedman has forgiven Hellickson for the bullshit he pulled over last year’s offseason. For those not in the know, Hellickson feigned as if there was no issue until his arbitration case was finalized, at which time, he got surgery about 2-3 months later than he should have which cost him the first half of 2014 and put Friedman in the bind of having to pay a guy to not do anything. So that leaves the Braves.
The Braves have some (very) good pitchers in Julio Teheran, Alex Wood, and Mike Minor. They also have some good pitchers in Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen whom they have no friggin idea what those guys will contribute, if anything. The wise GM would be looking to take out an insurance policy in the event that one or both never pitches again, and Hellickson is just that very guy who would also come at an affordable rate with a bit of control. Best case, both guys come back and profile as better options so that Hellickson ends up in your pen as the middle inning guy that gets the ball to that stud back end. Additionally, the Braves were the second worst team in MLB last year when it came to hitting righties. Their feast or famine offense completely fell asleep against northpaws despite having a few good hitters from the left side.
To that end, I would throw Matt Joyce into the equation to see how much he moves the needle. I don’t see both players as being enough to get Evan Gattis, though I think they could work a regular platoon between Upton the Elder, J-Hey, and Joyce:
Joyce plays rightfield against righties with Jason Heyward in CF, and against lefties Heyward slides over to right to let Captain Sunkcost B.J. Upton roam center. Upton the Younger is the everyday LF, but you can give him the occasional rest knowing that Joyce is an average or better defender to go with the plus (plus) abilities of the other two. B.J. can bitch and moan, but he would do well in the role of most expensive defensive replacement/pinch runner/starter 40% of the time, and maybe you help his overall numbers come up by not having him out there against so many righties that are just going to eat his lunch. Gattis can throw out his OF glove and become the iron gauntlet that covers Bethancourt’s silk glove and give him some time at 1B when you want to spell Freeman or in the event that Freddie misses significant time.
So what’s in it for the Rays other than passing around $14M (Joyce for $5M this year and Hellickson for $4M/$5M over the next two) off to a team that can use the player while absorbing the dough? How about Jose Peraza? The Braves don’t have the tightest window, but they’re well positioned to win right now, and probably more so than when they wave bye bye to Heyward and/or J-Up after this season. Would Logan Forsythe or Sean Rodriguez be enough to give them something at 2B other than the flying spaghetti monster they threw at the wall last year? Peraza looks like a player with good bat to ball skills with a swing first approach and next to no power, but as a plus defensive SS that’s something you can live with. Especially when he looks like a guy that will steal bags at a high volume and an efficient rate. Here’s what the venerable Keith Law had to say in January of 2014 when he ranked Peraza as his 99th best prospect in the game:
Peraza is an above-average defensive shortstop and a 70-grade runner who played well as a 19-year-old in the South Atlantic League in 2013 but will have to show he can hit for enough power to keep up that performance into the big leagues.
He has a very short, direct swing with almost no load and very little follow-through and has posted very high contact rates across his three seasons in pro ball but virtually no power — a concern because, by the time a player like this reaches Double-A, pitchers will start to try to pound him inside with velocity, and he needs to find enough strength to fight that stuff off.
Peraza is slight, but not weak, and might end up with 10-homer power if he can relax his swing’s finish and get more loft in it. In the field, Peraza has very quick feet and good actions for a shortstop; he projects as a 65 or better defender at second, where he might end up because of Andrelton Simmons‘ presence at shortstop and where Peraza would be a potential All-Star.
He then upgraded the player to #39 in his mid-season top-50 of this year:
Atlanta slid Peraza, a natural shortstop, to second base earlier this year, probably a full season sooner than necessary. But Andrelton Simmons is an all-world defender and has the shortstop position locked down in Georgia for at least the next six years. Peraza’s now a 70 defender at short who’s also a plus runner with a compact, quick swing that produces contact without power. I’d like him more if he were a left-handed hitter who could make better use of that speed, but he’s still going to be an above-average starter in the big leagues who hits .300-plus and plays great defense.
He sounds an awful lot like Dee Gordon except he would be a very good defender instead of being terrible in the field. The Braves have moved him to 2B this year as he’s blocked by the incredible Andrelton at his natural SS, but perhaps the right offer can be made to convince the Braves that 2015 is their best shot. I don’t know if Hellickson, Joyce, and Rodriguez would be enough, but if you want to start talking blockbuster and throw Zobrist in there with them countering by adding Gattis then I think the Rays win both today, tomorrow, and the day after that while freeing up over $20M in payroll over the next two years. It’s going to be a fun ride, but this is one player that I would be hoping to consolidate our trade chips in order to get, and I think it makes a ton of sense for the Braves too.