If you believed the media reports from the summer of 2016, the Phillies could have dealt Jeremy Hellickson at the trade deadline and moved on from a player that would have been just a one-year rental. When the deal didn’t go down, there probably weren’t a ton of people who would have expected Hellickson to accept the Phillies’ qualifying offer of $17.2 million to come back and play baseball for a team that wasn’t expected to contend in 2017, the Phillies’ front office among them.
Conservatively estimating things, Hellickson might have gotten a three-year, $34-36 million type deal had he declined the Phillies’ qualifying offer and tested the free agent waters last winter. Whether he didn’t feel like taking any chances of being a guy still without a job in March or he just didn’t want to pack up and move on after one season, Hellickson accepted the qualifying offer, got his $17.2 million, and headed to Clearwater for spring training as a member of the Phillies. He would, to the surprise of almost nobody, not finish the season with the Phillies.
Simply put, there hasn’t been a ton of contract or roster intrigue like this in the Phillies organization over the last three seasons or so. Hellickson decided to provide just about all of it by his lonesome. Why didn’t they trade him at the deadline in 2016? Why did he accept the qualifying offer? Did the Phillies wait too long to trade him? In an age where sabermetrics rule, were we perhaps undervaluing a veteran presence in the clubhouse, and keeping him for almost the full two years wasn’t really all that bad in the end?
Yikes. Might have bitten off more than I could chew there. I’m not sure there’s a way to succinctly answer all of those questions all while still trying to sum up what Hellickson did on the field, but let’s try.
First off: Hellickson’s 2017 was nowhere near as successful as 2016, a year that saw him go 12-10 with a 3.71 ERA while tossing 189 innings. Fangraphs had him at 3.3 WAR while Baseball-Reference had him just shy of that at 2.9. He had been a remarkably consistent guy in terms of his strikeout-walk numbers. His K-BB% from 2013-2016: 11.5%, 11.8%, 12.3%, 14.1%. That changed in 2017, falling to 7.1%.
While his walk rate remained about the same, Hellickson seemingly lost his ability to strike guys out. He also struggled to keep the ball in the yard, too. He allowed 35 home runs in 2017, fifth most in all of baseball, while his HR/FB rate soared compared to 2016. And despite the fact that he had a relatively lucky .246 BABIP, not having an out pitch to strike guys out and leaving the ball up in the zone became a recipe for disaster for Hellickson. He suddenly looked fallible and vulnerable on the mound.
Which of course meant it was time to deal Hellickson, perhaps one year too late. The Phillies traded him to Baltimore on July 28, getting Hyun Soo Kim, minor-leaguer Garrett Cleavinger and some international bonus slot money, which Orioles GM Dan Duquette has pretty much never cared about in his life.
The return was a far cry from 2016 rumors, one of which had the Phillies getting first baseman Josh Naylor from the Marlins. Hellickson, after finishing his 2017 Phillies campaign with a 6-5 record, 4.73 ERA, 65 strikeouts and 30 walks in 112 1⁄3 innings, went on to post a 6.97 ERA in 10 starts with the Orioles, a team so desperate for pitching that they thought a clearly struggling Hellickson would solve their problems. He... did not.
Yes, the Phillies probably should have pulled the trigger on a trade at the deadline in 2016, assuming there was one there. (And we’ve been lead to believe there was.) But for about a year and a half, Hellickson did provide a somewhat stabilizing force in the Phillies’ rotation, and perhaps he helped some of the younger pitchers along the way. As for what the market for Hellickson may look like this winter, it’d be hard to imagine any team giving him more than two years, and a one-year deal is more likely.
It was a bit of a roller coaster for Hellickson in Philadelphia, eh? But as we saw with Charlie Morton and Clay Buchholz, you’re always rolling the dice with a rental-type guy. For parts of two seasons, on the whole, Hellickson did work out. Waiting out a trade might have been the wrong move, but it didn’t really seem to hurt either side by keeping him here. Turning down the qualifying offer might have scored him a decent contract in free agency last winter, but Hellickson certainly didn’t go poor by accepting it.
And thus was the story of Jeremy Hellickson in Philadelphia. Should haves, could haves, what ifs, not bads, could have been worse's. It was a roller coaster, indeed. And five years from now, for better or worse, we probably won’t really remember the ride.