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Checking in on the Phillies deadline gamble on Jeremy Hellickson

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The Phillies chose to keep Jeremy Hellickson at the trade deadline, and, so far, that move has not gone according to plan.

Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

When the Phillies traded for Jeremy Hellickson in the offseason, it was assumed that, so long as he remained healthy and vaguely effective, he would be pitching for a non-Phillies team come August. Hellickson fulfilled his end of the bargain by making 22 pre-deadline starts with a 3.70 ERA that was largely backed by is peripheral stats as being close enough a reflection of his actual ability. He capped that all off with a string of seven pre-deadline starts in which he had a 2.27 ERA and averaged over six innings per start.

With all that and other not-particularly-noteworthy pitchers fetching hefty returns in July trades, it seemed all but certain that Hellickson would be gone. But, as rumors never gained much strength and the "last start in a Phillies uniform" games reached numbers greater than two, it seemed increasingly likely that Hellickson would remain a Phillie.

And, he did, as evidenced by his six post-deadline starts for the team. At the time, there was considerable hand-wringing about Matt Klentak's failure to capitalize on his only valuable trade chip. But, as I wrote immediately after the deadline, the decision to keep Hellickson was, at worst, defensible and, at best, prudent:

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.

With Hellickson in the fold, the only variable remaining to determine the Phillies ability to get a return on him outside of his performance in a lost season is whether or not he is likely to reject a qualifying offer this offseason. Klentak's bet started off well enough, with Hellickson carrying a 2.89 ERA through his first three post-deadline starts while striking out nearly a batter per inning. Good job, Matt Klentak for not selling.

But, in his last three starts against offensively-challenged teams like the Mets, Braves, and August/September Marlins, Hellickson's performance has cast some doubt as to whether it would be sensible for him to reject the one-year qualifying offer of $17 million or so this offseason. In those three starts, he has a 6.75 ERA and a pedestrian--even by Hellickson's standards--14.9 percent strikeout rate. It is starting to appear possible that the Phillies rented Hellickson for four months and are now paying overdue charges for not returning him on time.

The good news is that little has obviously changed on Hellickson's end since the trade deadline. He's not giving up considerably harder contact or producing a radically different batted-ball profile since the start of August. Still, though, this isn't a pitcher with much in the way of a track-record of recent success, so the four or five starts he has left could go a long way to determining whether a qualifying offer makes sense for him.

Aside from his next start, which will likely come against the Pirates, the road is easy for Hellickson to finish the year strong with the end of season schedule featuring teams like the Mets, Braves, and Marlins. By all metrics, Hellickson is either having the best season of his career or, at least, his best season since 2012.

Given the current free agent class, which looks like it will be headlined on the pitching side by Rich Hill and Andrew Cashner, Hellickson, even with his recent struggles, still looks to be sought-after by other teams. His final month of starts, however, could be pivotal in determining whether that remains the case. Neither he nor the Phillies can likely afford a continuation of the results of the last three starts. In other words, the Phillies position with Hellickson is more precarious today than it was a month ago.

If Hellickson finishes the season with 180 or so innings, a sub-4 ERA, and around a 20 percent strikeout rate--basically maintaining his full body of work up to this point in the season, smart money would be on him rejecting a qualifying offer and, essentially, giving the Phillies a supplemental-round draft pick. If the last three starts are the new norm--and there's no reason to believe that to be the case yet--that could change.

Even with Hellickson's recent struggles, then, the Phillies process on keeping him and waiting to receive a draft pick as compensation for losing him in free agency seems sound. The same disclaimers that applied at the deadline apply now. We don't know what offers the Phillies had in hand. We don't know what their proprietary systems project inches future performance. But, from where we sit, all still looks good. The results have been such that Klentak's bet appears a little less safe than it did a month or even two weeks ago. With little mattering in the last month of this season, Hellickson's performance might actually have the largest impact on the Phillies future of anything that occurs over the next four weeks.