Aaron Heilman Rejects Reliever Label
By Bob Goodwood
Special For Modern Times Magazine
March 8, 2011 — Sport, some say, is a reflection of life. There are ups and downs, heartbreak and joy.
Sure, professional athletes get paid a lot of cash to play a game, but they nevertheless have to suffer through the expectations of others, just like everyone else who goes to their job everyday. Make a mistake on your TPS reports (Office Space, anyone?) one day and you hear about it forever and some might never think you can never be trusted again.
Aaron Heilman has been suffering through such a scenario in his career, and has resolved that 2011 will be the year where he gets it right and sheds his “”late-game reliever,” label. At the age of 32, when most guys are content to do whatever they have to to keep the dream alive, Heilman has decided that he wants one more chance to prove that he can start in the major leagues.
This off-season, as he looked for a new deal, he spurned offers to be a reliever in an effort to get a shot at a starting job. He eventually re-signed with The Arizona Diamondbacks on a one-year, $2 million deal because they gave him a shot at the rotation in spring training. The deal was a ‘win’ either way for the Dbacks, as the agreement carried the stipulation that if he did not win a starter's job, he would go back to the ’pen.
Heilman always considered himself a starting pitcher and before 2004, that is where he was headed. He was the 18th pick of the 2001 draft out of Notre Dame thanks to a senior season which saw him go 15-0 with a 1.74 ERA in 114 innings pitched. He quickly rose through the New York Mets organization, and after less than 300 innings in the minors and with an ERA that never rose past 3.82 for a season, he made his major league debut in 2003. Of course, he was still considered a starting pitcher then, and as a starter early in his career, he struggled. In his 14 appearances, 13 of them starts, he posted a 6.75 ERA.
The next year did not bring much improvement. In the 2004 campaign, Heilman split time between Triple A Norfolk and the Mets. He had a 5.46 ERA in five starts for the Mets. By 2005, he was being considered a great candidate for the bullpen. Even after a one-hit, complete game shutout on April 15, 2005, he did not fare as well in his other six starts, but excelled in a bullpen role. Although his ERA for 2005 is recorded as 3.17, he had a 2.18 ERA as a reliever overall and a 0.68 ERA over the second half of the 2005 season.
By the time the 2006 season rolled around, Heilman was no longer considered a starter/prospect, but as reliever — and a pretty darn good one. From 2006 to 2009, Heilman appeared in 74, 81,and 78 games each year, posting 3.62, 3.03, and a 5.21 ERA.
By 2010, the only baseball person who considered Heilman to be a starter was Aaron Heilman.
Although he posted a 4.50 ERA in 70 innings for the Dbacks last season, he was the team’s most consistent reliever. But instead of automatically agreeing to a relief role, Heilman wanted one more shot at a starting job and he was willing to do whatever it took to get it.
Sure, there is a long list of ballplayers who began their careers as relievers and then went on to have good if not stellar careers as starters. But the list is quite a bit shorter when it only includes guys who followed five seasons of 70 appearances with a return to a starter’s role. The list is even shorter when his numbers as a reliever — ahem, ERA — have been going up, not down.
Such an attempt must have surely brought out comments similar to that uttered by Manager Pop Fisher of the New York Knights when he shouted out to Roy Hobbs in the film, The Natural, “Fella, you don’t begin playing ball at your age, you retire.”
But Heilman has been undeterred in believing he can shed the reliever label and bore than out in his first two spring outings when he did not give up a run. In his third extended look, though, he gave up five runs — three earned — in three innings against the K.C. Royals in Surprise. Reports are that the wind was blowing out as evidenced by the two teams combining for 14 runs.
Maybe Monday’s result was a spring training blip and Heilman throws 200 innings and wins 15 to 20 games.
Maybe he is in the ‘pen.
Maybe he gets released.
No matter the outcome, Heilman will probably be a better pitcher.
If he succeeds, he lives his dream.
If he fails, let’s hope he can accept the reliever label, go back to the ’pen knowing he gave it all he had, and start filling out them damn TPS reports.