Shaping the Rangers #5: Rick Helling

Lone Star Dugout has another look back at one of the biggest transactions in Rangers history. This time, its a look at the two trades of former Ranger Rick Helling.

August 8, 1996:The Rangers trade Ryan Dempster and a player to be named later (Rick Helling) to the Florida Marlins for John Burkett.

August 12, 1997: The Marlins trade Rick Helling to the Rangers for Ed Vosberg.

As a flyball pitcher with the misfortune of pitching in a hitter's park like Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, most would say Ricky Allen Helling did pretty well for himself.

In fact, over a four year period from 1998-2001, the righty piled up a record of 33-15 in 67 starts at the hitter's haven known as Rangers Ballpark. Those numbers alone make the sudden departure of Helling after the 2001 season and signing of Chan Ho Park as a replacement an even more bitter pill for fans to swallow.

But the relationship between Helling and the Rangers was also one that sounded so nice, the club thought they'd try it twice.

Back in 1992, Texas grabbed the pitcher with the 22nd pick of that year's draft and quickly placed him on the fast track to the big leagues. The cup of coffee Helling had in the minors was one that was filled to the brim with oodles of optimism and hope for the future, including the 1993 season where he amassed 205 strikeouts between Double-A Tulsa and Triple-A Oklahoma.

Helling earned a spot in the starting rotation with the Rangers out of camp in 1994. And although he was chased from his major league debut early, failing to make it out of the fifth inning of a game against the Baltimore Orioles, he showed resilience by bouncing back and compiling a 3-0 record and a 2.68 ERA over his next five starts. Three horrendous starts followed, however, and the Rangers optioned him back to Triple-A in late May where he struggled the rest of the year going, 4-12 for the then Oklahoma City 89ers.

With a new manager and general manager a year later, Helling once again opened the season on the major league roster, but when May rolled around he found himself back in the minors. After just three seasons in professional ball, the 24-year old owned a big league earned run average over 6.00, and an equally disheartening 5.41 in Triple-A. There was little doubt that this tale was beginning to look like a sad one.

Although he would begin the season in the minors, 1996 started off looking like it would be a productive one for a change. Helling was dominant early on for Oklahoma City, and earned a summons to the big league and a place in the bullpen in mid-April until the league could allow the recently re-signed Jeff Russell to join the team.

In late May, starter Kevin Gross went down with an injury and Helling got the call to make a spot start in place of the injured vet. He put together a brilliant-looking pitching performance on May 25th, holding the Kansas City Royals to just a run on three hits over eight innings. But inexplicably, Helling was ushered right back to the minors following the start, and stayed there for almost two months. In mid-July, Gross reinjured his back and Helling headed back to Arlington for another start. But after giving up eight runs in four-plus innings to Oakland, he was headed right back down.

But it wasn't as if Helling toiled away during this latest trip back to Oklahoma City. In a game against Nasvhille, Helling held the opposition completely listless en route to his only career perfect game and the first in Oklahoma baseball history.

As the calendar flipped to August and the Rangers continued to find themselves in the thick of a division race, the team came to a painful realization. Kevin Gross couldn't be counted on anymore.

As much leadership as the 13-year old vet brought to the table, Gross was coming off a rehab assignment that hadn't gone exceptionally well and there was growing concern that the hurler's achy back wouldn't keep him in the starting rotation for very much longer.

But the club would quickly reach a solution, and as Helling would soon find out, he wasn't a part of it.

On August 8th, the Rangers reached a preliminary agreement with the Florida Marlins to acquire right-hander John Burkett. It would mark the second swim through the organization for Burkett, who just 20 months earlier arrived via a trade with the Giants for minor leaguers Rich Aurilia and Desi Wilson while the rest of the league was on strike.

His stay in Arlington wasn't a long one, and after the Rangers decided to non-tender Burkett following the conclusion of the 232-day strike, the Marlins swooped in and swiped up the pitcher two days later. This time, the club was getting a second chance at obtaining his services at the expense of a Florida ballclub mired in last place with no postseason in sight. Since the July 31st trade deadline had already come and gone, the Marlins placed the 31-year-old on revocable waivers and the Rangers made the prevailing claim, giving them 48 hours to try and hammer out a trade before Florida be forced to pull Burkett back off the market.

In exchange, Florida acquired a 19-year old relief pitcher named Ryan Dempster who had been splaying his craft for Single-A Charleston along with the always popular player to be named later. Although most within the organization had hoped Florida would select Danny Patterson, a study middle reliever, Helling had been in the midst of a brilliant season in Triple-A and the Marlins opted for him instead.

Losing Helling was somewhat of a bittersweet pill for the Rangers, who had to say goodbye to a pitcher in the midst of a 12-4, 2.96 season for Oklahoma City. But the Rangers showed no remorse for pulling the trigger, and with Burkett now in the fold reached the postseason for the first time in club history. And, perhaps just as significant, Burkett remains responsible for the only playoff victory in franchise history – tossing a complete game in a 6-2 victory at Yankees Stadium.

Helling, meanwhile, broke camp with the Marlins in 1997 and split time as a middle reliever and occasional starter for the first few months of the season. But as the summer months rolled on and the Marlins found themselves engrossed in a battle for a playoff spot of their own, attention began to turn to improving their weak bullpen.

Once again, the phone rang in Doug Melvin's office with Florida on the other line.

This time, the interest was in 35-year old lefty Ed Vosberg, a serviceable component on a Rangers team that was 10 ½ games out of first place. As luck would have it, the Marlins were willing to part with Helling who failed to squeeze his way into the starting rotation and was having trouble finding a role with the club. The two parties agreed to the deal, and one year, two months, and seven days after trading him away, Helling was headed back to the team that brought him into the big leagues.

The Rangers once again appeared to be the victors in the deal after Helling put together a 20-win season a year later and did his part to lead the Rangers back to the playoffs in 1998 and 1999. He finished with double-digits in wins over his next four years with the Rangers, throwing for over 215 innings each year, and never missed a single start.

It's a rarity in baseball to see a team deal away a young player for a veteran as an added boost for the stretch run only to bring him back the following year. But it's just what the Rangers did, and managed to do quite well for themselves.

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