ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Jake Odorizzi was measured in his optimism, and he was wise to be. He had finished a short workout on a recent Wednesday at Tropicana Field, a leisurely exercise in shorts and T-shirts where rock music played, a football was tossed and bonds were formed among Tampa Bay Rays pitchers before spring training.
This was an optional event with about 10 other players present, but rotation stalwarts such as right-hander Alex Cobb and left-hander Matt Moore were there. They know with right-hander Jeremy Hellickson likely to miss the season’s first six to eight weeks because of arthroscopic surgery on his right elbow that Odorizzi, one of the prime pieces in a seven-player trade with the Kansas City Royals in 2012, could be the next man up to enter the Rays’ rotation. One man leaves, another slides in.
Still, Odorizzi isn’t claiming his spot just yet. Not with more to prove. Not with more to show.
"Nothing is promised to me, so I’m going to go into the spring with the same mentality as before," Odorizzi told FOX Sports Florida. "With Helly’s injury, it’s going to be the same mind-set. Nothing has been promised to me, so there’s no for-sure thing that I’m going to be the guy."
Odorizzi, 23, is a different guy than he was this time last year. As he spoke under Tropicana Field’s dimmed lighting, he was more comfortable than he felt in the days before his first trip to Port Charlotte, Fla., when he was one of the headliner names in the same deal that brought Wil Myers to Tampa Bay.
After all, Odorizzi now has a history in his current jersey. He went 0-1 with a 3.94 ERA with 22 strikeouts in 29 2/3 innings last season. He was inconsistent early, but he appeared to settle in with a bullpen role after his start-and-stop promotions from Triple-A Durham.
The Rays will look for the late-2013 version of Odorizzi when pitchers and catchers report Friday to Charlotte Sports Park. Late last year, the moment never appeared too big for the native of Breese, Ill., the growth clear for anyone who studied him.
The most telling moment of his progress? Perhaps 3 2/3 solid innings in the wee hours of an 18-inning thriller at Tropicana Field against the Baltimore Orioles last September, a time when Odorizzi’s arm shined as the night grew darker.
Then, he was a key cog in a crucial, dramatic victory that kept the Rays’ postseason hopes alive when he allowed just one hit and struck out two batters. The display never would have happened during his May and June trials, a telling marker of his advancement.
"Just comfort level, really," Odorizzi said, when asked of his largest lesson gained last year. "That’s the biggest thing — just trying to get comfortable and settled in and acclimated to everything and get a good routine going. That’s only done in time, so when I got a little bit of extended time … it just helped with that level of comfort with everything and feeling like you belong."
There’s something to be said for routine. He stumbled through May and June with ERAs of 9.00 and 3.00, respectively, in 18 combined innings over four appearances. But he only allowed six hits, two runs (one unearned) in three appearances in August and September.
He credits comfort for the improvement, and it’s easy to understand why.
Moving forward, it’s hard to judge the effect of Hellickson’s injury and how it relates to Odorizzi’s potential role, because the 2011 American League Rookie of the Year was so inconsistent to end last season. If Odorizzi wins the rotation spot in spring, and he pitches like he did to close 2013, he would be an upgrade over the uncertainty Hellickson offered the Rays after July.
"We have great depth, and we’ve seen that in the past," Cobb said. "Unfortunately, with Jeremy going down, we’re going to have to see that early in the season also. No concerns with any of the options we have going in, nor do management (have concerns) or Andrew (Friedman) this year, for that matter. They plan for these situations. Anything that pops up is never going to be a surprise for these guys."
Odorizzi should be no surprise for the Rays, either. At this time last year, he was a fascination, an unknown commodity in one of baseball’s most significant deals of 2012. He spoke about how it was "kind of humbling" to be included in the blockbuster agreement with Kansas City and that everyone in it should feel "humbled, excited, appreciated."
Of course, there comes a time when all potential becomes something concrete. Frankly, Odorizzi fell short of expectations when he tripped through May starts of five innings against the Toronto Blue Jays and four innings against the Miami Marlins. He was no better in a June appearance of 3 1/3 innings against the Royals before settling when throwing 5 2/3 innings against the Boston Red Sox to close the month.
The "humbled, excited, appreciated" became, "How does Odorizzi become who he can be?" Eventually, and not a moment too soon, the Rays saw his promise late in 2013.
"The routine of major leagues is just a little bit different than Triple-A baseball," Moore said. "We’ve talked about that. I think he’s well-aware of that, and he’s looking forward to being a part of the team. I know it’s under some different circumstances with Hellickson going down. It’s kind of bittersweet. But at the same time for him, it’s going to be a great experience."
This experience could become an unforeseen benefit of Hellickson’s injury. If Odorizzi were to win a starting role, he would be tested under a more glaring spotlight than if he were to begin in the bullpen or with Triple-A Durham. If Odorizzi were to win a rotating role, he would be forced to fine-tune his control — he says that’s his largest goal of the spring — and become more urgent on the mound than if he owned a more secondary role.
Whatever the outcome, Odorizzi enters spring training a much different man than he began it last year. The same boyish looks are there. So are the tools.
The optimism? It’s present, too. But he has the right perspective.
"When you first join a new team, you never know what’s going to happen," Odorizzi said. "But here everybody was, obviously, was so cool from the beginning. … It was a very easy transition. It was a happy surprise."
With continued growth, there could be more on the way.