At first, Jeremy Hellickson thought the pain in his right elbow was nothing more than the joint adjusting to throwing a baseball after a two-month layoff.
It was more discomfort than pain, Hellickson said, so the Tampa Bay Rays right-handed pitcher kept throwing, first playing catch at 60 feet then at 80 feet. But the pain never went away like it normally does that time of the offseason.
“It would feel good for a week and then it would go back to feeling irritated, not comfortable,” Hellickson said. “I just kind of wanted to wait until I got on the mound and see how it felt.”
Hellickson said he threw his first bullpen session on Jan. 15 and said everything felt fine.
“Then I got on the mound three days later and I couldn't even straighten out my arm. It just kind of locked up,” he said. “I threw about 10, 15 pitches in that bullpen. Came away and it didn't feel good at all, not comfortable.”
The problem were loose bodies in his elbow that were removed Jan. 29 during arthroscopic surgery performed by Dr. Koco Eaton, the Rays orthopedic surgeon.
As a result, Hellickson is expected to miss the first six to eight weeks of the regular season.
“I'm absolutely looking forward to getting back out there this year,” Hellickson said. “I guess a lot of people were doubting me toward the end of last year, so I was motivated to get back out there and do what I know I can do. It definitely (stinks). It's frustrating to have to go through this and hopefully it's just a month, month-and-a-half. I'm just going to rehab, work hard and get out there as soon as possible.”
Right-handers Jake Odorizzi, who appeared in seven games for the Rays last season with four starts, and Alex Colome, who made one start for the Rays, are the leading candidates to fill Hellickson's spot in the rotation.
“A strong rotation is critical to our success. We rely heavily on our starters and losing someone like Jeremy is tough,” Andrew Friedman, Rays executive vice president of baseball operations, said in a statement. “We're fortunate that the procedure was minor and look forward to him coming back healthy and strong during the summer.”
Hellickson said this injury was not a factor last season, when he struggled to a 12-10 record with a career-high 5.17 ERA. He won one of his final 10 starts and was removed from the rotation for a week when he was optioned to Class A Charlotte and then moved to Double A Montgomery for the purpose of giving his arm some rest. He did not pitch that week.
Hellickson was somewhat surprised to see himself included on the American League Division Series roster and found himself starting Game 4 against the Red Sox. He retired the side in order in the first inning but was removed from the game after allowing the first three batters to reach base in the second.
“The feeling that I felt toward the end of last year wasn't near as bad as what I was feeling during the bullpen,” Hellickson said. “The feeling I had during the throwing program was similar to what I was feeling last year. The irritation that I felt on that second bullpen wasn't anything like I felt last year. It was far worse than anything I felt last year.”
Hellickson maintained throughout the 2013 season that his arm was healthy and reiterated that stance Monday during a conference call with reporters.
“(Just) normal wear and tear from the season, just normal tightness that I didn't think too much of,” he said. “I felt fine when I was on the mound.”
Hellickson has been one of the more durable members of the Rays rotation, making 91 starts during the last three seasons. Now he enters the foreign world of rehabilitation.
“This is the first surgery I ever had. I don't really know what to expect,” he said. “The rehab process, you know, take it one day at a time. I heard it's anywhere from six to 10 weeks, so hopefully the beginning of May is what I'm shooting for. Anything before that is good, so hopefully I'm out there sooner rather than later.”
The Rays invited 11 of their minor league players to major league spring training: C Mayo Acosta, RHP Matt Andriese, C Curt Casali, INF Cole Figueroa, RHP Steve Geltz, RHP Merrill Kelly, LHP Braulio Lara, LHP Adam Liberatore, OF Mikie Mahtook, C Luke Maile and RHP Victor Mateo. The Rays have now invited 59 players to major league camp.