Short-Season Report

Devil Rays take conservative approach with Hellickson





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As a prep pitcher in the state of Iowa, righthander Jeremy Hellickson became used to starting his season well after most of his peers. And while the Devil Rays’ decision to leave him in extended spring training might seem to delay Hellickson’s start again, he doesn’t see it that way.

“The real difference is I have about 40 innings under my belt,” said Hellickson, a fourth-round pick out of high school in Des Moines last year. “I’ve already thrown as many innings as I did in any high school season.”

Iowa high schools play their seasons in the summer, so it’s sometimes hard for prospects there to get noticed. Hellickson made his name on the showcase circuit, with his most notable accomplishment being a scoreless inning of work at the AFLAC All-American Classic in 2004. While showcases did demand that he kept himself in shape, they didn’t compare to the ups and downs of extended spring training.

“With the showcases, I would really only pitch one day a week, and at most, throw a couple innings,” Hellickson said. “I got in a lot of good, quality innings in Florida.”

Hellickson has been assigned to Hudson Valley in the New York-Penn League to officially start the season, after he pitched just six innings in the Rookie-level Appalachian League last summer. Along the way, he has been coached by Dick Bosman, who started working with Hellickson in instructional league last year. This spring, they focused on improving his location and delivery.

“I think a lot of his success this spring results from going out and getting to really pitch for the first time in awhile,” Bosman said. “Extended spring has been as good an opportunity for Jeremy as any.”

Diverted From Baton Rouge

This opportunity came after he turned down a chance to pitch for Louisiana State. Hellickson said he knew it would take a sizable bonus to divert him from Baton Rouge, and when he lasted until the fourth round he didn’t think it would happen.

“I really wanted the experience of college, and even more so, the experience of college baseball,” he said. “When I didn’t go in the third, I thought I was going for sure.”

But the Devil Rays had been through a similar situation and did not want to repeat the mistake. In 2003, their third-round pick had premium talent and a strong college commitment, and the Rays didn’t come close to signing him. Andrew Miller subsequently boosted his stock at North Carolina, winning Baseball America’s College Player of the Year award and going sixth overall in the 2006 draft.

“It’s hard to tell how I would have done pitching against those aluminum bats,” Hellickson said. “But I think I would have done all right.”

The most noteworthy diffference between Hellickson and a player like Miller, in scouts’ eyes, is in their frames. When Miller left high school listed near 6-foot-5, scouts drooled at his projectablity.

Players of Hellickson’s stature, generously listed at 6 feet, are rarely as desirable. But as more undersized pitchers find success--and with numerous short righthanders becoming premium picks in this year’s draft--the bias is not as pronounced as it once was.

“I don’t think it really matters,” Hellickson said. “I’ve pitched in a lot of big games beating those guys, so I don’t really get why they think bigger pitchers have an advantage. I’m just as good as they are.”

The Devil Rays are not worried about Hellickson’s build, either, because they say he has a special arm.

“He doesn’t have the prototypical pitcher’s body, but he’s a big arm,” farm director Mitch Lukevics said. “Form follows function. We try not to focus on what the body looks like, but to focus on the stuff. He has the stuff.”

Hellickson showed a fastball in the low 90s this spring along with a much-improved changeup and a promising, inconsistent curveball. Bosman said he thinks Hellickson also could get bigger and add velocity.

“He’s not finished growing, so I think he has a chance to put on some strength and some weight,” Bosman said. “He’s put together pretty well.”

Handle With Care

Even with their high praise, the Devil Rays have been careful in mapping out Hellickson’s path. The decision to hold Hellickson back from full-season ball is a proven method of success in the organization.

The team also held its top prep arm in short-season ball last year, and Wade Davis tore through the New York-Penn League and was rated as the league’s top pitching prospect. This season, his success has continued and he has been among the low Class A Midwest League pitching leaders all season.

“We have changed gears a bit in the organization,” Lukevics said. “We want kids to really have success at levels. With young players, especially high schoolers, you need to get a good foundation underneath them.”

Hellickson could earn a promotion, of course, but the plan is for him to spend the summer at Hudson Valley, where he can have success and pitch under less pressure.

“I like the idea of letting a kid dominate a level, and letting their stuff improve there,” Bosman said. “Their psyche needs to really develop, too.”

More than anything, those within the organization stress that making the mental adjustment to professional baseball is the most important step for Hellickson this season.

“He’s just getting acclimated to our game,” Lukevics said. “He’s not used to throwing a lot of innings, he’s not used to the five-man rotation. I want to see him pitch.”

Already this spring, Hellickson was held out of workouts when his elbow was sore. But the soreness quickly subsided, and the organization is hoping for a productive, healthy summer.

“I’d like so see him make all of his starts this year,” Bosman said. “It’s new for him. There’s a lot of throwing involved here.”

Hellickson may not be used to doing much before June, but he is adjusting and already drawing notice in the organization in doing so.



NEW YORK (PENN) STATE OF MIND

• An oblique strain significantly limited the number of innings Brett Sinkbeil threw at Missouri State this spring, but it did not hinder his draft status. Sinkbeil was taken with the 17th overall pick by the Marlins, and he signed quickly to make his return to the mound. Pitching the opener for the Jamestown Jammers, Sinkbeil threw two scoreless innings, striking out three batters. Sinkbeil threw just 70 innings this spring because of his injury, and he didn’t pitch at all from April 21-May 20. Given his limited workload, Sinkbeil could get a lot of innings in Jamestown this summer.

NORTH BY NORTHWEST

• The lone member of Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list who didn’t start his season in full-season ball, lefthander Mark Pawelek was the Opening Day starter for the Boise Hawks. He took the loss after allowing two earned runs over four innings, but you can bet the Cubs would be excited to put him in a rotation with 2006 draftee Jeff Samardzija. Pawelek was considered the best prep southpaw in last year’s draft after a dominating senior season in Utah, and he actually made one start in Boise at the end of last summer after pitching well in the Rookie-level Arizona League. But the Cubs took a cautious approach with him and left him in extended spring training to control his workload this summer.

• It’s safe to say the Tri-City Dust Devils were not expecting righthander Shane Lindsay to return this season--first because of his dominance last year and then because of an injury. The Northwest League’s top prospect last season, Lindsay had a 1.89 ERA in 13 starts, striking out 107 in 67 innings. During the offseason, however, doctors discovered that Lindsay had a torn labrum. Thanks to a speedy recovery, Lindsay opened his 2006 season beginning where his previous one ended. He took the loss in the Dust Devils’ season opener, allowing two earned runs despite giving up just one hit over five innings. But just being back on the mound is success for the Rockies righthander.

APPALACHIAN TRAILS

• Out of the gate, it appeared Henry Sanchez was bound for success in the Midwest League. The 2005 supplemental first rounder played just 21 games in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League last year before jumping to Beloit, and he hit two home runs and a double in his first three games, showing the powerful bat that prompted the Twins to sign him away from San Diego State. Sanchez then struggled mightily while splitting time at first base and DH with Erik Lis and went into a significant power slump, with 36 games between home runs two and three. Halfway into a June when Sanchez was 7-for-40 with 20 strikeouts, the Twins decided to move him down to the Appalachian League. He got off to a good start by hitting a homer in his first game with Elizabethon.

PIONEER SPIRIT

• The Angels’ Pioneer League affiliate has a significant history of success under Tom Kotchman, finishing in the league finals three of the last four seasons. Part of the reason has been the organization’s willingness to assign some of its top young prospects there. This season, the Orem Owlz have the Angels’ top three picks from the 2005 draft, along with their top draft-and-follow. Supplemental first-round pick Trevor Bell opened the season on the mound for the Owlz, throwing five scoreless innings in his debut. Two days later, junior college signee Sean O’Sullivan threw four scoreless innings on a limited pitch count. The Angels have also opted not to split up their pair of second-round prep shortstops--Ryan Mount and P.J. Phillips--by moving Phillips to the hot corner. If history holds true, expect this foursome to lead the Owlz to another winning season.

COMPLEX ISSUES

• You can bet that Jon Egan is just happy to be playing baseball again. A second-round pick of the Red Sox in 2005, Egan was considered the most powerful catcher in the draft, but he struggled in his debut last season, batting .222-1-15 in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League. Things grew worse for Egan in the offseason, when he was arrested and charged with driving while impaired and cocaine possession. He apologized to teammates and the organization, and the Red Sox supported him as he bounced back from the incident. Egan is back in the GCL after participating in extended spring training and represents the highest-drafted player from 2005 in the league. He got off to a slow start, going 1-for-11 with four strikeouts to start the season.

Compiled by Bryan Smith