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2017 Phillies Player Preview: Jeremy Hellickson has been around the trade block

The Phillies are going to let us get attached to Hellboy, and then trade him when we’re at our most vulnerable.

MLB: Spring Training-Philadelphia Phillies at New York Yankees Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The idea is that Jeremy Hellickson isn’t really a part of this. But that’s a cruel way to look at things, because whether Hellickson is on the field when Mike Trout and the Phillies go all the way or not, he’s playing an important role now.

On Opening Day, that role will be the starting pitcher. It’s an announcement often mocked by eye-rolling beat writers and forgotten by July, but "opening day starter" probably means something to someone. The guy selected to fill it at least plays up the fact that it’s an honor, and in a moment that illustrated even Hellickson knows what’s going on here, he said the pitcher who deserved to take the mound for the Phillies on April 3 in Cincinnati was actually Jerad Eickhoff.

And maybe that’s true, but Hellickson didn’t blow many of his chances last season. If he is the ace of your staff, then your staff probably isn’t going to be registering any post-season statistics this year. But last season, Hellboy came through, which was critical, as his veteran compatriot in the rotation, Charlie Morton, went down hard and fast and immediately and was lost for the season. In time, most of the Phillies starters were swallowed by injury or concern and disappeared from the schedule, but Hellickson just kept pitching. He may not have been the most exciting hurler, but he was probably the most necessary one: durable, moderately successful, and almost a trade chip. He was effective enough to stir interest, but not so much that teams were willing to meet the Phillies’ price tag.

So here he stayed, accepting a qualifying offer and becoming the priciest Phillies player in town at a cool $17.2 million. Hellickson could often be seen in his neighborhood, shoo-ing street urchins away with an ivory cane.

But the time of qualifying offers is over. Hellickson can’t get another one from the Phillies and will be an unrestricted free agent at the season’s end, so chances are - and I know we said this last year, but we’re serious this time - he will be traded. Right now there’s a prospect or two who don’t even know they’re coming to the Phillies in a trade in the coming months. I wonder who he/they is/are? Are they major league ready? Do they have fun hair? Do they have a personality that will gel with Mike Trout’s in a couple of years?

Stay focused; this is Jeremy Hellickson’s preview, and like him, we must focus on the here and now. Hopefully, he’ll be weaponizing that change-up again, as his hittable four-seamer and curve didn’t always do the trick last season - though his breaking pitch did have the best average spin rate in the league last season. He did a lot of dancing between his fastball and his change, and as Matty Winks pointed out in Hellickson’s exit interview, he threw the fourth most change-ups in the league. He loves that thing. As the league average ERA rose around him, Hellickson kept things at a healthy 3.71, making 32 starts, posting 7.3 SO/9, 3.0 WAR, and his best SO/W since his rookie season (3.42). July was especially cool, as he made six starts, smothered hitters down to a .218 BA, struck out 25 and walked five. And he did it all at the slowest pace of any pitcher on the staff, according to Fangraphs, whose stat "Pace" measures a pitcher's tempo, and gave Hellickson a 25.1 ("Slow" is characterized as 23.5). In fact, if Hellickson has turned the Phillies into one of the slowest rotations in baseball.

This season will feel long enough at certain points whether or not Hellickson picks up the pace. He put up some very spring training-y numbers in the Grapefruit League this year: a 5.92 ERA over 24.1 IP. In between starts, he’s been giving out curve ball pointers to Vince Velasquez, having grown in confidence of using it since discovering a release point he liked with Arizona in 2015. VV, whose curve was raucously hammered on occasion last season, soaked in the knowledge. That’s pretty much exactly what you imagine a veteran pitcher doing. They don’t always do it.

So once more, Jeremy Hellickson will be opening the Phillies season, once more in Cincinnati. The Phillies will do their best not to get swept again, presumably. Hellickson may not be here for the future, but he is already a part of it, helping to bridge the gap and prevent the team from force-feeding innings to its young staff. He’ll say and do the right things, and then he’ll quietly pack a bag at some point and slip out.

The Phillies will thank him, the other pitchers will thank him, Jake Thompson will indirectly thank him for giving him the time to go down and percolate in the minors, and the next phase of Matt Klentak’s smooth, efficient baseball machine will lock into place. Hellickson, though we believe we can see his fate played out already somewhere down the line, is here now. And he is a part of this, setting the tone for potential future stars and likely being converted into assets.

So join me, then, in our fair city’s fight against the massive street urchin population, harassing friendly millionaires like the Phillies’ opening day starter. He’ll only be here so long, and we want him to remember us fondly.