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Phillies do nothing at trade deadline and that’s just fine

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The Phillies had leverage in trading Jeremy Hellickson and chose to use it.

MLB: Miami Marlins at Philadelphia Phillies
Get used to this
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Around the trade deadline each year, national writers insist on grouping teams into groups by whether they are buying or selling. The teams who are going to try to maximize wins and their chances of making the playoffs over the course of the next two months are the “buyers” and everyone else is a “seller.”

Now, this isn’t an entirely accurate distinction as both partners in a trade are inherently buying something in the form of players from another team. Yung Cash Considerations makes such rare appearances at this time that we can effectively ignore his complication of the fact that everyone is buying. The accurate designation is more whether a team is buying near-term value or long-term value at the trade deadline. In this conceptualization, the Phillies are undoubtedly long-term junkies. They’d overdose on long-term value if other teams would let them get away with it.

As a team that had already waded up to their knees in the seas of long-term value, the Phillies entered the 2016 trade deadline extravaganza with little sort-term currency to exchange for long. Peter Bourjos is injured and, mostly, uninteresting; Carlos Ruiz and Ryan Howard aren’t upgrades for anyone who has shown an ability to win games through the first four months; the guys in the bullpen aren’t good enough to matter on a market that features Andrew Miller, Aroldis Chapman, and Mark Melancon; Charlie Morton is out for the season.

That left Matt Klentak with one valuable player to trade: Jeremy Hellickson. And, if you made it to this point after reading the headline, you likely have inferred that he was not moved at Monday afternoon’s trade deadline. On the surface that seems disappointing. Hellickson himself likely provides no future value to the Phillies beyond his contributions over the final two months of 2016. For a team focused precisely not at all on 2016 wins and losses, it may seem odd they didn’t move on from Hellickson, especially since we knew that was the plan since the Phillies acquired him from the Diamondbacks on November 14th.

But, there’s nothing wrong at all with the Phillies and Matt Klentak doing nothing at this year’s deadline.

In terms of performance, Hellickson has been a pleasant surprise for the Phillies this season. In 131.1 inning pitched this season, he has a 3.70 ERA (his lowest since 2012) and the doubly good whammy of having the highest strikeout rate and lowest walk rate of his career—excluding his 36.1-inning cameo in 2010. He’s been pitching well and probably far better than anyone could have expected maintaining ERAs over 4.50 in each of the last three seasons.

That performance coupled with his upcoming free agency put the Phillies in a great position in terms of leverage at the trade deadline where they faced only two realistic options with regard to Hellickson in the next couple months:

  1. They trade Hellickson for a couple of prospects who project to make a real contribution at the major league level in the next five years or so. The market had already revealed itself to be pitcher-mad with the pre-deadline deals involving Drew Pomeranz and Aroldis Chapman. With the selection of viable playoff pitchers including only Pomeranz, 36 year old blister victim Rich Hill, and the entirety of the underperforming Rays rotations, Hellickson was actually one of the best pitchers up for grabs. It was reasonable for the Phillies to expect real prospects in return.
  2. They hang on to Hellickson and pick up a compensatory round pick when Hellickson rejects a Qualifying Offer this offseason. Hellickson is a Scott Boras client entering free agency in a phenomenally weak class, so there’s no way he would accept a one-year, ~$17 million deal over testing free agency. That means the Phillies can almost assuredly expect to receive a draft pick in the 30s in the 2017 draft simply for sticking with Hellickson for another two months.

Granted, there is some precedent for Boras clients accepting a qualifying offer. Orioles catcher Matt Wieters accepted one last offseason and is set to become a free agent again this offseason. Wieters was coming off two seasons in which he lost significant time to injury and experienced drops in power. Accepting a qualifying offer was necessary to rebuild his value before hitting free agency. Hellickson, on the other hand, is in the midst of a season that has exceeded most expectations coming in. His value is much higher today than it was a year ago, and, probably, than it will be in a year’s time. It remains incredibly likely he rejects the qualifying offer and cashes in on free agency this offseason.

That means that in order to trade Hellickson, Matt Klentak would have to be sure to receive a prospect package more valuable than the compensatory round pick the Phillies are likely to receive in the offseason. I was at the SABR conference in Miami this last weekend, where there was a presentation on the value of compensatory round picks. The conclusion of the presentation was that a player picked in the compensatory round had about a 30-40 percent chance of becoming an every day player. The Phillies would need to get prospects back with that sort of combined probability to trade Hellickson. That’s a win-win situation: Either way, the team ends up with a player with pretty good chances of contributing on a winning baseball team.

In other words, the only way the Phillies could lose with Hellickson was by making a trade for non-compelling players. They avoided that loss, so they won today by not doing anything. Of course, Hellickson could get injured in his next start and put the Phillies in a position where they would not make a qualifying offer in the offseason and get nothing at all out of Hellickson. But, that’s not a very high-probability scenario over the final two months and 10 or so starts of the season.

In short, the Phillies probably didn’t receive offers for Hellickson that they thought contained more value than that of a draft pick in the mid-30s. Their evaluations may turn out to be right or they may not. We’ll likely never know since we won’t know the offers they received. However, they recognized that they were entering trade talks from a position of strength and didn’t yield when they got offers that underwhelmed.

And that’s completely fine. Hellickson has pitched well enough this season that the trade deadline was no longer the only opportunity for the Phillies to turn Hellickson into a promising prospect. In the likely world that the Phillies offer and Hellickson rejects a qualifying offer this offseason, the Phillies will be able to get a prospect in the draft. Today, they bet that that pick will be better than the players on the table at the deadline.