November 09, 2016
PHOENIX – Matt Klentak and the Phillies aren’t likely to hear officially whether right-hander Jeremy Hellickson rejects $17.2 million until late Monday afternoon, when the deadline on the seven-day window arrives for free agents tied to qualifying offers.
But Hellickson’s agent certainly spoke like a man that expects to strike free-agent gold when the thin market opens for the 29-year-old pitcher.
Super agent Scott Boras held court in the courtyard of the Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Montelucia on Tuesday, day three of the General Managers Meetings. Boras has a massive collection of stars under his umbrella of the Boras Corporation, including Kris Bryant and Bryce Harper, Jake Arrieta and Jose Altuve, Corey Seager, and Zach Britton.
But only one of his current clients is a free agent tied to a qualifying offer in 2016: Hellickson.
Will the pitcher accept the qualifying offer, which would guarantee him a one-year, $17.2 million salary, more money than he’s made in his entire career? Or will he reject it and test what should be a friendly market, with a number of teams ready to give him a multi-year deal?
“He has a lot of components that tell you why he’s successful. His command, changeup, breaking ball that are creating a lot of interest for a lot of teams, and in a marketplace where the free agent market is short on starting pitching. It’s very advantageous for him.”
“That’s going to be a decision Jeremy has to make,” Boras said.
But then the agent opened up the Hellickson binder in the back of his brain and certainly put forward a case that made it seem like the answer is more obvious than at first blush.
“In this market, he’s probably the foremost, under-30 (years old) pitcher on the market,” Boras said. “You know he had a 3.7 ERA in Philadelphia, which is an offensive ballpark. He’s done very, very well. He’s got a fresh arm. He’s a guy that’s got the highest spin rate on a breaking ball.
“He has a lot of components that tell you why he’s successful. His command, changeup, breaking ball are creating a lot of interest for a lot of teams, and in a marketplace where the free agent market is short on starting pitching. It’s very advantageous for him.”
With another Boras client, Stephen Strasburg, signing a contract extension with the Washington Nationals in mid-season, Hellickson could be the best starting pitching bet on the open market next week. And that’s not just Boras-talk.
Hellickson heads a group of starters that includes Ivan Nova (also 29, but with a much higher career ERA and WHIP), Rich Hill (who turns 37 before the start of the 2017 season), and Jason Hammel (3.68 ERA in the last three seasons, but also 3 1/2 years older than Hellickson). So Hellickson’s competition on the market isn’t exactly Kershaw, Kluber, and Scherzer.
The website MLBtraderumors.com listed Hellickson this week as the seventh best player on the market and the top rated starting pitcher. They also projected a four-year, $60 million payday for the veteran right-hander.
So, again, declining the qualifying offer is a no-brainer, right? And when that happens, the Phillies will receive a compensatory draft pick, expected to be between picks 25 and 30 in the first round of the 2017 draft.
“For the Phillies,” Klentak explained, “if Jeremy Hellickson is back on a one-year deal, performing like he did last year, that’s a good outcome. If we end up with a draft pick became he walks away and has a better opportunity, that’s good for Jeremy Hellickson and that’s also good for the Phillies. So we looked at this as a win-win opportunity. We’re very fortunate we have an ownership group that’s supportive of us laying $17 million on the table to see what happens.”
The only hurdle Hellickson and Boras face this winter, should they reject the qualifying offer on Monday, is finding a team that is ready to forfeit their own top pick in the 2017 draft in order to sign Hellickson. For teams with one of the 10 worst records in baseball in 2016, that’d be their second round pick; for all other teams, it’s their first-round pick.
But just last winter, Boras hit the market with similarly middling starting pitcher Wei-Yin Chen. Chen, 30 years old and attached to a qualifying offer at the time, still received a 5-year, $80 million deal with the Miami Marlins.
The lesson: it only takes one team. And in this winter’s market, Hellickson and Boras should be able to find such a team.
“I think a qualifying offer is a good thing and a bad thing,” Boras said. “Maybe the only good thing about it is you’re identified as one of the special talents in the free agent market. And in the pitching market, there aren’t many starting pitchers that are in that realm.
“So from that standpoint, working his way back and really being a top level pitcher for the last year and a half, and taking how well he did once he was healthy in Arizona and really doing that all year in Philadelphia, and doing it in circumstances with a very young team – he was very highly successful.
“And I think it really illustrated that what he did in the first couple years of baseball, to establish himself as a top young pitcher, he’s really for the last year and a half. And the qualifying offer is evidence of that.”
In the time period Boras is talking about, from the final three months of the 2015 season through the end of last year, Hellickson has a 3.68 ERA, 1.297 WHIP, and 3.25 K-to-BB ratio in 44 starts. When you couple recent performance with age, as Boras obviously does, you see a pretty good path to your client scoring a substantial multi-year deal in a weak starting pitching market in the coming months.
One other note: even though the current basic agreement between Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association expires on Dec. 1, and a new collective bargaining agreement is currently being negotiated, Boras doesn’t see that as something that will affect the current free agent class. Read: how qualifying offers and draft pick compensation are handled could be altered this time next year, but the current rules are likely to carry over for players who filed for free agency last week.