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July 07, 2017

Why Phillies could act quickly on a Jeremy Hellickson trade and an idea of what they could receive in return

If there’s one certainty in the life of a Phillies baseball fan awaiting the trade deadline, it’s that their lone All-Star, right-handed reliever Pat Neshek, will be wearing a new uniform before August 1.

Neshek is a free agent at season’s end who turns 37 in September. He’s in the midst of a great season and will have plenty of interested suitors in the next three weeks, especially when you look at the number of contenders that could use bullpen help.

If there are two certainties in the Phillies’ pursuit of creating room and opportunities for young players before the trade deadline – speaking of which, don't sleep on a Tommy Joseph trade to open a place for Rhys Hoskins – it’s that Jeremy Hellickson will join Neshek through the exit door before the end of the month, too.

Hellickson, too, is a free agent at season’s end. And unlike last year, he’s ineligible for a qualifying offer, and thus, a free agent no matter what team’s uniform he’s wearing on the final day of the 2017 season.

Hellickson, 30, is obviously not of the caliber of a pitcher that will dominate trade rumors prior to the July 31 deadline. Sonny Gray, Jose Quintana, and, if they hit the market, Justin Verlander, Johnny Cueto, and Gerrit Cole will own the headlines, just as Cole Hamels, David Price, and, way back in 2008, CC Sabathia did when they were walking, talking, baseball-throwing trade rumors.

But remember the guy who the Phillies ended up with when they lost out on Sabathia, a guy who helped solidify their rotation en route to the second World Series championship in franchise history?

Joe Blanton was a few years younger than Hellickson is now (27 in 2008) and wasn’t a soon-to-be free agent (he had 2 1/2 years of club control) but he was very much of the mold of Hellickson, a reliable, innings-eating, middle-of-the-rotation veteran right-hander.

In fact, Hellickson’s numbers through his first 18 starts this season aren’t dissimilar than Blanton’s first 20 with Oakland in 2008 before joining the Phillies:

 Blanton, '08 Hellickson, '17 
ERA 4.96 4.49 
 WHIP 1.4171.241 
Opp. BA/OBP/SLG   .284/.330/.434 .259/.314/.495 
 IP127 102 1/3 
K/BB rate 1.77 1.96 
HR  1220 

A different time and a different place – and, again, Blanton came with longer club control, which was attractive to a team like the Phillies – but the Oakland Athletics ended up getting two of the Phillies top five prospects in second baseman Adrian Cardenas and left-hander Josh Outman.

This isn’t to say the Phils will get that kind of return for Hellickson in 2017, but more to illustrate that it’s not just the top-line starters that attract buyers in July, but also the dependable, healthy, second-tier starters, too. The Phillies, who will surely facilitate any such trade by taking on the majority of Hellickson’s remaining salary, should be able to get a prospect for Hellickson, even if it’s not a name prospect or anyone on some team’s top 10 list.

With that said, though, the Phillies were reportedly going to be on the receiving end of a deal that would have brought them a Marlins top prospect last summer (left-handed slugger Josh Naylor) if another trade Miami had made had completely collapsed after failed medicals tainted the initial deal.

In any event, don’t expect the Phillies to wait until the final hours again in the hopes of moving Hellickson. They have a couple of reasons to be motivated to sell their most veteran starter sooner rather than later:

Vince Velasquez and Jerad Eickhoff are both set to come of the disabled list in the coming weeks. Eickhoff returns on Sunday, likely jettisoning Mark Leiter Jr. from the rotation. Velasquez, who will continue to be evaluated as a starter in 2017, will make his third rehab start on Thursday in Clearwater and could very well be cleared to jump back into the starting five by July 18.

A six-man rotation is out of the question, said manager Pete Mackanin, who currently has his post-All-Star break rotation “in pencil, but not in ink” as Velasquez’s eventual return “kind of convolutes that whole scenario. … We are going to have to maneuver that a little bit.”

• While there’s still a lot of time for teams to change courses, it would appear to be sharing up to be a buyer’s market for pitching. Gray and Quintana lead the top hired guns likely to change teams, but then there more than a half dozen others that are probably comparable to Hellickson, or better if you ignore health/financial burdens. Among them: Trevor Cahill, Scott Feldman, Marco Estrada, Francisco Liriano, Jeff Samardzija (although he’s still owed nearly $60 million), Edinson Volquez, and Jaime Garcia.

Yes, that’s a lot of names. And you know what they say about supply and demand. Probably.

But there are plenty of contending teams that could use ample starting rotation help, Minnesota (5.50 ERA from their rotation since the beginning of June), Kansas City, and the Chicago Cubs among them. Perhaps even Hellickson’s agent, Scott Boras, can sell his favorite team (relief pitching-desperate Washington) on the idea of Hellickson as a bullpen piece. But probably not.

What could the Phillies expect to return? Well, if they’re just trading Hellickson (and not, say, putting any other veteran players into a deal, which is a possibility), they should get at least a prospect or a couple of A-ball lottery ticket types.

Let’s look at a trio of deadline deals involving soon-to-be free agent starting pitchers in the last two years:

August 1, 2016: The Yankees send right-hander Ivan Nova to the Pirates for two players to be named later. Those players turned out to be left-hander Stephen Tarpley (a former third-round pick) and outfielder Tito Polo, a couple of players in A-ball. Almost sounds similar to the return the Phillies got for the very pedestrian Roberto Hernandez three years ago (infielder Jesmuel Valentin and right-hander Victor Arano).

July 31, 2015: The Mariners send left-hander J.A. Happ to Pittsburgh for right-hander Adrian Sampson, a former fifth-round pick who had a 3.98 ERA in 21 starts and as a 23-year-old at Triple-A.

July 30, 2015: The Reds send right-hander Mike Leake to the Giants for Keury Mella, a 21-year-old right-hander at High-A with strong strikeout numbers, and 26-year-old corner infielder/major league bench piece Adam Duvall. A year later, Duvall hit 33 home runs and represented the Reds at the All-Star game. He has 20 home runs and an .888 OPS this year.

Like that kindly southern gentleman's box of chocolates, you never know what you're going to get in a deadline deal for a middle-of-the-the-rotation starting pitcher. But what the Phillies will get, aside from a minor leaguer with upside, is a chance to let their young starters (Eickhoff, Velasquez, Aaron Nola, Nick Pivetta, and Ben Lively) to continue to grow in the big leagues in the season's final two-plus months. 

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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