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November 14, 2016

Hellickson accepts qualifying offer to return to Phillies in '17

Apparently the interest in Jeremy Hellickson the free agent was similar to the interest in Jeremy Hellickson the trade deadline chip: not strong enough for another team to sacrifice a future commodity.

Hellickson has passed on the chance to become a free agent by accepting the Phillies' qualifying offer, the team announced late Monday afternoon. The story was first reported by Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports.

That qualifying offer – $17.2 million for the 2017 season, a number calculated from the average of the top 125 salaries in baseball – means Hellickson will almost surely be the highest paid player on the Phillies roster in 2017. The team acquired veteran Howie Kendrick ($10 million) on Friday in a trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Both Hellickson and Kendrick are due to become free agents following the 2017 season. The fact that Hellickson accepted the qualifying offer was somewhat surprising since he's stated numerous times that, heading into a walk year, he wanted to find a long-term home with a team.

In 2016, the Phillies were Hellickson's third team in the last three seasons. 

"It's not the stability I wanted, but it's a lot of money for one year," Hellickson told the Wilmington News Journal on Monday. "I believe in myself to go out there and have another good year, even a better year and put myself in position to get the stability in the next offseason."

Hellickson had until 5 p.m. on Monday to accept or reject the qualifying offer. Last week at the General Manager’s Meetings in Phoenix, Hellickson’s agent, Scott Boras, made it seem like the 29-year-old pitcher would be a hot commodity on the open market, leading one to believe the pitcher would decline the qualifying offer.

“In this market, he’s probably the foremost, under-30 (years old) pitcher on the market,” Boras said Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Montelucia on Wednesday. “He had a 3.71 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.”

But apparently, Boras’ sales pitch didn’t quite work quite as well with the 29 general managers who are looking for starting pitching this offseason.

Even though Hellickson’s numbers certainly don’t scream top-of-the-rotation starter, pitchers of his ilk have done well in free agency in recent seasons. Just last winter, Mike Leake (5 years, $80 million), Wei-Yin Chen (5 years, $80 million), and J.A. Happ (3 years, $36 million) all scored lucrative multi-year deals on the free agent market.

From Hellickson’s perspective, $17.2 million for one year is awfully rich (more than he’s made in his entire career up to this point) but a multi-year deal would still mean more guaranteed money and long-term security if he could get something in the neighborhood of those deals for mid-rotation starters last winter. But among those aforementioned three pitchers, only Chen, also a Boras client, was attached to a qualifying offer, meaning the Miami Marlins had to surrender their top pick in the 2016 draft for signing him.

Apparently, no team liked Hellickson enough to forfeit its own top pick by offering him a multi-year deal. Conversely, the Phillies lost out on the opportunity to acquire a draft pick on Monday.

A week ago, prior to the deadline, the Phillies made Hellickson a qualifying offer.

From their vantage point, it was a smart bet because, should he sign elsewhere, the Phils would acquire a compensatory pick in the 2017 draft (expected to be in the mid-to-late 20s). Or, if he accepted, they had enough payroll flexibility (just under $30 million of total salaries before arbitration) to take a $17.2 million hit.

Following Monday’s decision from Hellickson and Boras, the Phillies will take that hit. But they also won’t have to go hit the free agent or trade market for a veteran pitcher to replace him, something they would almost certainly have done with a staff of young pitchers, including two (Aaron Nola, Zach Eflin) recovering from season-ending injuries.

Six days ago, less than 24 hours after tendering the qualifying offer, Phillies general manager Matt Klentak said he’d be OK with either decision from Hellickson, who went 12-10 with a 3.71 ERA and a career-best 3.42 strikeout-to-walk rate in 32 starts with the Phillies in 2016.

“If Jeremy Hellickson is back on a one-year deal, performing like he did last year, that’s a good outcome,” Klentak said last Tuesday. “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 Phillies can now enter the 2017 season much as they did the 2016 season with Hellickson: hoping he’ll outperform expectations put on him from the industry, provide veteran innings in the first half of the season, and then possibly become an attractive trade chip prior to the deadline.

The Phillies fielded offers for Hellickson last July, but didn’t strike a deal (probably in large part because they believed the return value wasn’t as strong as the potential pick they’d get via a qualifying offer). But now that’s over.

Hellickson will be back in 2017, he’ll make a lot of money, and he’ll likely take the ball on Opening Day (April 3 in Cincinnati) for the second straight year.

Across baseball, eight of the other 10 players tendered qualifying offers rejected them en route to free agency. This is the second straight year a Boras client accepted the qualifying offer: Baltimore's Matt Wieters became one of the first to do so in the five-year history of the process last year.

Before Monday's deadline, New York Mets second baseman Neil Walker, like Hellickson, accepted the $17.2 million qualifying offer

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21