ST. PETERSBURG -- Rays right-hander Jeremy Hellickson had been looking forward all winter to getting back on the mound this season, hoping to prove that his disappointing 2013 campaign was just a fluke.
But Hellickson will have to wait until at least the end of May, as he'll miss the first six to eight weeks of the season after undergoing minor arthroscopic surgery this past Wednesday to remove loose bodies from his right elbow.
"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," Hellickson said on Monday during a conference call with reporters. "It's frustrating to go through this and have to miss a month, month and a half. But I'm just going to rehab, work hard and try to get back out there as soon as possible."
Hellickson, the 2011 American League Rookie of the Year Award winner, is coming off a rough 2013 season in which he finished 12-10 with a 5.17 ERA, by far the highest of his career. Hellickson wouldn't attribute his struggles to any sort of injury, saying he felt fine every time he pitched in a game despite some "normal wear and tear" discomfort throughout the year.
"A strong rotation is critical to our success -- we rely heavily on our starters, and losing someone like Jeremy is tough," executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. "We're fortunate that the procedure was minor, and [we] look forward to him coming back healthy and strong during the summer."
But that occasional elbow irritation returned when Hellickson began his throwing program in Iowa in mid-to-late December. Still, there were some weeks where he felt nothing at all, so he wanted to wait and see how he felt throwing off a mound.
Hellickson threw his first bullpen session on Jan. 15 with no issues, but his second session a few days later was "far worse than anything I felt last year." He said his arm "locked up" to the point where he couldn't even straighten it.
"It was just a completely different feeling," Hellickson added. "I've never felt that uncomfortable on the mound and throwing as I did in that bullpen."
So Hellickson reached out to head athletic trainer Ron Porterfield, flew to Florida for tests and underwent surgery. Dr. Koco Eaton performed the procedure. The Rays said Hellickson's expected recovery time is six to eight weeks, and he said he was hoping to be back by the end of May.
Although Hellickson is still dealing with some soreness, he noted that he can already feel a difference in his elbow's flexibility and range of motion, an encouraging sign as he begins the rehabilitation process.
The Rays had been counting on a bounceback season from Hellickson, who will turn 27 in April. Hellickson posted a 3.06 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP from 2010-12 before his disappointing 2013 campaign.
Hellickson, who avoided arbitration by agreeing to a $3.625 million salary for the 2014 season, would have joined David Price, Alex Cobb, Matt Moore and Chris Archer in one of the Majors' top rotations. Instead, Tampa Bay likely will turn first to right-hander Jake Odorizzi, who came to the Rays in the same trade with the Royals that brought in 2013 AL Rookie of the Year Award winner Wil Myers.
Odorizzi, MLB.com's No. 56 overall prospect, appeared in seven games for Tampa Bay last season, including four starts, finishing 0-1 with a 3.94 ERA.
The Rays' other in-house options include right-hander Alex Colome and lefty Enny Romero, or they could seek another starter elsewhere.
Adam Berry is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry.