Well, that didn’t take long. After hearing that the Diamondbacks would be active on the pitching market, likely via trade, they wasted little time in pulling the trigger. Friday evening, news broke that they had acquired Rays starter Jeremy Hellickson for two top ten prospects in Justin Williams and Andrew Velazquez. Any time two prospects near the top of a system are dealt, one would expect that the return would be of reasonably high value. In Hellickson, however, that appears to be something of a debatable issue, and in the cases of Williams and Velazquez, thing are similarly murky. The result may be less impactful than it appears in both cases.
What Arizona Lost
Both Williams and Velazquez made this week’s Inside the ‘Zona top ten prospect list after posting solid 2014 campaigns. I’ll refer you to the link above for a full breakdown of each player, but one should note that both have never played above Single-A South Bend and were projected to be anywhere from three to five years away from the majors. In short, the results won’t be felt by the Diamondbacks at the major league level, in terms of what they lost, for quite some time if was ever to be felt at all.
Make no mistake, I was optimistic about both prospects. Williams projected as an outfielder who would hit for both average and power down the line. But, as was evident from his two minor league campaigns, the power was yet to show up, and in a brief exchange with FanGraphs’ Kiley McDaniel, he noted that some scouts were unsure if the power would ever truly materialize. Given that his defense was limited to left field, he was going to have to rake if the D-backs were to extract any kind of above average value. Velazquez had one of the best lines of any Arizona prospect in 2014, but it was his first season posting those kind of results. Concerns linger about the utility of the hit tool and although he stole a bevy of bases, he’s not the fastest of runners. He repeated the Single-A level in 2014, so an increase in productivity was expected and he’s in need of another solid showing to cement his status. That may or may not happen. None of this is to say that I don’t’ like either of the prospects that the Diamondbacks dealt but instead to acknowledge that both have a long ways to go and there’s plenty that can happen before anyone will have an idea of their ultimate value. These weren’t can’t-miss guys by any means.
What Arizona Acquired
Jeremy Hellickson fits the mold of what the Diamondbacks were looking for in a way. He may not necessarily fit what they actually need, however. He’ll pitch the bulk of 2015 at the age of 28, so he’s not exactly young unless you’re comparing him to Bronson Arroyo or Brandon McCarthy, two of the most recent guys the organization has targeted. He’s projected to earn somewhere between $3.8 and $4 million in 2015, his second pass through arbitration, thus leaving him one more team controlled season in 2016 before he become a free agent in 2017. He’ll likely wear a Diamondbacks uniform for at least two more seasons, which meshes well with the team’s game plan to cultivate the starting pitching talent the team has in the upper minors (Archie Bradley, Aaron Blair and Braden Shipley). Hellickson is more than capable of keeping the seat warm until Arizona can taste the fruits of the minor league system.
If you’re not familiar with Hellickson, his profile isn’t all that intriguing at first glance. He was a durable starter for Tampa Bay from 2011-2013, taking home the AL Rookie of the Year Award in his first full big league season. In his most recent campaign, he logged only 63.2 innings, easily the fewest of his four major league seasons. Prior to the season, he had arthroscopic surgery to remove some loose cartilage in his throwing elbow. The good news was that he avoided Tommy John surgery and he was expected to be ready by May. Instead, he needed eight rehab starts to find his way back to the majors, finally arriving back in the Rays’ rotation in early July. He missed a couple of starts after his season debut, then pitched the rest of the seasons without incident. The fact that he made 12 consecutive starts on schedule should give the Diamondbacks confident that he’ll be healthy and ready to go next spring. That said, the best predictor of a future injury is past injury, and Hellickson now has that on his record. The durability of his elbow is surely something worth monitoring.
Of course, the Diamondbacks are buying more than just Mr. Hellickson’s elbow; they’re buying his production. As the table below shows, that production has been pretty pedestrian.
A quick glance reveals that he doesn’t strike many batters out, and while he’s not a walk machine, he’s not immune to the free pass. In terms of trends, the K’s have actually managed to continually climbed while the walks have dropped to an acceptable level, but given the sample size of 2014, it’s tough to draw too many conclusions. Of particular note, Hellickson has proven home run prone in his time in Tampa Bay. His HR/9 was 10th-worst in 2013 among qualified starters and 18th-worst in 2012. Since his rookie season, Hellickson has the 33rd worst home run rate in the majors out of 172 qualified starters. That’s not good.
As we know, Chase Field can be tough on pitchers, usually punishing them with an inordinate amount of homers surrendered. That’s largely attributed to humidity and temperature issues that cause the park factors at Chase to amongst the toughest on pitchers in baseball. Since 2011, Hellickson has the 25th-worst ground ball rate, again out of 172 qualified starters, meaning he gives up a ton of fly balls (24th-most since 2011). Those two things don’t seem to be a good fit for his new home, and given that the Diamondbacks also spend a couple of series each year at Coors Field, one can easily envision the propensity for dingers. I’m not the first one to mention this, as CBS Sports’ Matt Snyder noted the same thing a couple of hours ago.
Hellickson’s backers have traditionally pointed to his low ERA’s, but we know ERA isn’t a good predictive stat and isn’t a good measurement for talent. Through his first two seasons, the gap between Hellickson’s ERA and FIP were amongst the largest in the league. This led some to believe that perhaps he broke the mold and could somehow out-pitch his peripherals by managing contact. Instead, the regression monster reared its ugly head, as most saber analysts had predicted, and Hellickson’s ERAs skyrocketed in 2013 and 2014 while his FIPs remained relatively close to what he’s previously posted through the two previous seasons.
So what changed to cause this shift? Our old friend BABIP, that’s what. For context, the league average BABIP is somewhere right around .300. In 2011, when Hellickson won the ROY behind a 2.95 ERA, he undershot the league average by a huge margin, positing a .223 BABIP, lowest in the league by a wide margin. Was it luck, defense or contact management? No one really knew, but he managed to beat the league average by a sizable margin again in 2012 with a .261 BABIP, 6th-lowest in the majors. At this point, talk had surfaced that perhaps Hellickson was geared to beat this principle, which isn’t entirely unheard of, although extremely rare. He did generate a lot of infield fly balls, which are roughly equal to strikeouts in terms of generating outs, so perhaps there was something to it.
But alas, things evened out as they often do in the game of baseball. Hellickson has posted BABIPs of .307 and .321 in his most recent two seasons, respectively, more in-line with what you’d expect from him given his batted ball tendencies and overall stuff. All good things come to an end and the luck that he’d benefited from in his first two campaigns evaporated, causing his ERAs to take a massive leap in the wrong direction. A move to Chase Field surely won’t help his cause as he’s more suited for PetCo than the desert. Park factors indicate that Tropicana Field, Hellickson’s previous home, was a middle-of-road park for pitchers while Chase Field routinely ranks near the top of the league in it’s added benefit to hitters. Add the fly balls, the increased BABIP, the park factors and lack of dominance together and we get some kind of unsavory future projection for Jeremy Hellickson as an Arizona Diamondback.
Evaluating the Trade
So how does this trade stack up? I’d argue that it’s too early to come to any kind of definitive answer. It appears that the Diamondbacks just got themselves a number four starter who could fare worse if the context proves to be as punishing as it suggests. The salary commitment isn’t burdensome, however, and they’re not locked into anything long-term, so it’s a friendly deal from a financial aspect. A back-end guy who’s durable and perhaps a tick better than some of the internal options at reasonable prices fits what they need for their position on the win-curve. They just got reliable, if not underwhelming, innings at a fair price. It’s not a disaster (at least not yet).
But how this deal is remembered has everything to do with how Justin Williams and Andrew Velazquez pan out. Should either of these players become average big league starters, the Diamondbacks will lose this trade. Should both pan out, this will look terrible. But as noted above, that’s far from a sure thing as both prospects heading to Tampa Bay have their question marks and a lot of refining to do. We won’t have any kind of idea about this until Arizona’s former top prospects reach the Double-A level, and that appears to be two years out. Until then, we simply don’t know who “wins” this one.
Because of this, I don’t hate this trade. I don’t necessarily like it either. Presumably, the Diamondbacks could have found a pitcher better-suited to their home ballpark. The loss of Williams and Velazquez certainly weakens the system and deprives Arizona of the opportunity to cash in on cheap, homegrown talent. They dealt form depth in flipping Velazquez, however, as they have a glut of shortstops in the majors and minors right now, mitigating some of the risk. Color me indifferent and hedging toward pessimistic for now, at least until we see what the prospects become down the road as that’s how this trade will ultimately be remembered.
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