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November 01, 2016

Deadline approaching for Phils to make Hellickson decision

Within the next 48 hours, an entertaining World Series will reach its conclusion with at least one long-suffering baseball fan base celebrating a title for the first time in their lifetimes.

It’ll either be the Cleveland Indians raising the trophy for the first time since 1948 (before many of our parents were born) or the Chicago Cubs for the first time since 1908 (before many of our grandparents were born).

While we don’t know who will prevail, we do know this: free agency begins in less than a week for all of baseball’s 30 teams, which obviously includes the Phillies.

The first item up for general manager Matt Klentak and Co.? Jeremy Hellickson.

The 29-year-old Hellickson, a sturdy force in the Phillies rotation in 2016, is eligible to become a free agent for the first time in his career.

The Phillies have five days following the end of the World Series (so until Sunday or Monday, depending when the Series ends) to make Hellickson a qualifying offer. Hellickson and his agent then have seven days to accept or reject the qualifying offer, which is worth $17.2 million for the 2017 season. (The $17.2 million figure is the average of the top 125 salaries in baseball).

It's worth mentioning at the top that the free agent draft compensation is surely to be an issue when the new collective bargaining agreement is negotiated in the coming month. But any new rules that come as a result will almost surely not have any bearing on this offseason and would be implemented in 2017 and beyond.

Here’s how the Hellickson situation with the Phillies is likely to shake out within the next two weeks (and this winter, too):

Phillies Make Hellickson a Qualifying Offer

In identifying Hellickson as a smart bounce-back candidate when they traded for him a year ago, the Phillies surely expected to be able to extract some value for him, not only in the innings he’d pitch for them in 2016 but also when they decided to part ways, too. They were unable to find a taker at the trade deadline. But they will receive a compensatory draft pick in the 2017 draft when Hellickson signs elsewhere this winter – but only if they extend him the qualifying offer.

It really makes little sense for the Phillies to do anything else.

The Phils are still in the midst of a rebuild, so that compensatory pick (which comes between the draft’s first two rounds) is very valuable. Here’s sampling of five players/prospects drafted between picks 30 and 40 in the last five years: Zach Eflin, Stephen Piscotty, Joey Gallo, Aaron Judge, Daz Cameron.

The worst thing that could happen to the Phillies is for Hellickson to turn around and accept that qualifying offer. But even if that happens, it will not crush them, for a few reasons:

     • The Phillies will almost surely pursue a veteran starter (probably as they did with Hellickson and Charlie Morton last year, through a buy-low trade) to ease the burden on their young (and rehabbing-from-injury) pitchers.

     • The Phillies have just $24.2 million (before arbitration players) in guaranteed salary on their 2017 payroll. While having Hellickson in line to make $17.2 million would be a pretty steep overpay, they can easily afford it and it will not prevent them from spending resources elsewhere.

     • The Phillies can attempt to trade Hellickson again this summer (recouping the value they weren’t able to get last summer or from the compensatory pick). Or they can let him pitch all season, and let this process play out again next fall.

But none of that really matters because it’s almost a certainty that…

Hellickson Will Reject Phillies Qualifying Offer

It sounds crazy that a pitcher with a 61-58 record and 3.90 ERA in seven big league seasons would turn down a one-year deal that would be worth more than his previous career earnings ($16.31 million), doesn't it? It’s still very likely.

Hellickson, who has pitched for three different teams in the last three seasons, has sounded like a player more than ready to stay in one place for a few years ever since he began talking about his upcoming free agency last spring. Sure, he could take the very lucrative one-year deal and approach that 2017 season as an audition, but he is still likely to find a better offer elsewhere.

While you can argue that the interest might not be there since it apparently wasn’t fervent enough before the trade deadline, there are a lot more teams looking for pitching each winter than in late July. Here’s a sampling of three second or third-tier free agent pitchers last winter, their career stats at the time, and the deals they ended up signing:

 Age*  ERA WHIP K/BB rateContract 
Mike Leake   28 3.88 1.2712.65 5 years, $80 million  
 Wei-Yen Chen  303.72  1.2523.18 5 years, $80 million  
J.A. Happ  33 4.13 1.367 2.153 years, $36 million 

                            * age when contract signed

And here’s how Hellickson’s career numbers compare:

Hellickson  29 3.90 1.25 2.48 ??? 

With all of that on the table, it would hardly be surprising to see Hellickson sign a three-year deal in the $34-40 million range this winter. And even if it’s not as rich for the 2017 season as the qualifying offer, it’s a good deal more guaranteed money, period, and more long-term security.

One quick note: any team that signs a free agent attached to a qualifying offer forfeits a draft pick of their own, with the top 10 picks of the draft protected from such compensation. But it’s difficult to believe the contending, win-now teams (like the Dodgers, Orioles, Tigers, for example) would let that stand in the way of signing a proven commodity on the free agent market.

Hellickson Signs a Multi-Year Deal with Team X

After rejecting the qualifying offer and hitting the open market later this month, Hellickson will probably spend a good chunk of the offseason shopping around. Or maybe it won’t take as long as you think.

The list of starting pitchers set to become free agents this month is not exactly an attractive one. Although former New York Yankee Ivan Nova had a strong showing after being traded to Pittsburgh (3.06 ERA in 11 starts), you could certainly make an argument that Hellickson is the surest bet on the starting pitching free agent market.

It only takes one team to see his value, whether it’s to help fill out the bottom half of the rotation on a contending team (Dodgers?) or as a sturdy presence with a rebuilding team (Braves?). Even if Hellickson can’t find anything more than a two-year deal on the open market, the educated guess here is that comfort of being somewhere for at least the next two seasons (and the more guaranteed dollars overall) is still more attractive than the qualifying offer that will then be in his rearview mirror.

In other Phillies rebuilding news: the organization has been honored by Minor League Baseball as having the best farm system in baseball. 

A lot has changed in the last 16 months or so, huh? 

In addition to hitting on recent top draft picks, the Phillies have obviously fattened their farm system through a series of trades in the last two years. The sheer depth of their system and the results on the field in 2016 ( a combined 482-348 record, five minor league affiliates made the postseason) were listed as the reasons the Phillies were the 2016 Best Farm System MiLBY Award.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21