Raising Questions

What will Jeremy Hellickson do?

hellicksonJeremy Hellickson has four days to decide whether to accept the Phillies’ qualifying offer of $17.2 million for the 2017 season. If he accepts, he’s on board for a year. If he rejects, he becomes a free agent.

Reports hint that Hellickson is likely to reject. This is the most likely scenario.

Why should he reject?

– Hellickson is arguably the top starting pitcher on the market.

Hard to argue with it. Ivan Nova and Edinson Volquez are decent starters, and Rich Hill is the sexy choice thanks to his late-season work with the Dodgers, but Hellickson’s room for growth is a bit more expansive. He’s 29. He had his best full-season K/BB ratio of his career last year (3.42, compared to an average around 2.50). If he performs at 2016 levels, he gives any team a clear No. 4 starter that could push to a No. 3. Good teams with bad starting pitching (Baltimore, Yankees for sure, Kansas City and Pittsburgh to a lesser extent because of payroll limits) always need that.

He could earn a nice payday with some security.

Look – $17.2 million is good scratch for one year. But Hellickson – like most ballplayers – like the idea of knowing where they’re living for a couple years, especially if they’re still getting paid big bucks. One would assume Hellickson would take a slightly lower average annual value if it means security (say, a three-year deal). “Slightly lower” probably still means $15 million at minimum, so imagine the Orioles offering Hellickson three years and $45 million. That could be more tempting than one year at $17.2 million.

– Volatility means this is his time to strike.

Hellickson has had elbow surgery. He injured his knee in his final 2016 start. He knows what it’s like to be discarded, to fight back to relevance and be a one-year low-risk candidate. Chances are he’d rather not risk that fate as he enters his 30s. A multi-year deal means an injury (or poor performance) doesn’t throw him into the wastebasket so quickly.

Put it this way: Say Hellickson accepts the Phillies’ qualifying offer, then re-injures his elbow halfway through the season. Maybe he misses the rest of 2017 and has a mid-season 2018 return date. Now he’s a free agent that a team picks up for $3 million for the stretch run. Then he’s a free agent in a different class in 2019, and because of his new injury history and the strength of other pitchers in the class, he’s probably looking at more of a two-year, $18 million deal.

If you’re Jeremy Hellickson, and you’re the class of the market right now, and you have leverage to get a multi-year deal, you probably take it, right?

Why should he accept?

– Could he overvalue himself?

Let’s play devil’s advocate and imagine the scenario that leads Hellickson back to Philadelphia. Ten players received qualifying offers this offseason, and only two are pitchers. One is Hellickson; the other is Kenley Jansen, the elite closer of the Dodgers who, in the postseason, was used more liberally as a “relief ace,” throwing over two to three innings in crucial situations.

Jansen, along with Andrew Miller of the Indians, Aroldis Chapman of the Cubs, and Zach Britton of the Orioles – among others – are faces of a new market inefficiency in baseball. The relief ace is suddenly a value item, and because of how the relief ace fared in 2016, teams will be seeking pitchers that fit the mold.

Chapman, Jansen and Mark Melancon headline what should be a competitive closer market in free agency. And because the Dodgers extended Jansen a $17.2 million qualifying offer, they arguably set the floor for the elite-level closer/relief ace. Jansen may not see $17.2 million per year, but he could. At the very least, contending teams are primed to pay an exorbitant amount over multiple years for closers and high-leverage relief pitching this offseason.

Then there’s Hellickson. Because he also has been offered that $17.2 million contract, executives have a control for comparison between starters and relievers. Is Hellickson – widely thought of as a decent No. 4 starter who can sometimes be a No. 3 – as valuable as a pitcher who can throw in 81 games, sometimes over multiple innings in the most crucial moments of a game?

Imagine Hellickson rejects the qualifying offer. Would executives rather negotiate with a mid-rotation starter or an elite-level reliever that’s fast becoming the new vogue position in baseball? Maybe these executives decide to spend on these relievers and fill rotations with low-risk candidates and prospects. Suddenly Hellickson is signing a two-year, $20 million deal in early February. Now taking a risk with a one-year deal – hoping the relief ace trend softens for 2018 – doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

– He likes the Phillies

Before the season ended, Hellickson said he really enjoyed his time with the Phillies and hoped to be back in 2017. Sure, that could just be lip service to keep bridges intact, but Hellickson had enormous value to a team developing a runt of young starters. He knows his job would be safe because of the volatility of young starters, and he seemed comfortable as a mentor. Maybe liking a place trumps wanting more money (see Lee, Cliff).

What will he do?

Look, if the choice is between a one-year deal with substantial risk and a multi-year deal with more security, the latter often wins. Hellickson successfully fought back from a bad injury and had arguably the best season of his career in 2016. He could be a good pitcher deep into his thirties. Plus, he’s the alpha dog in the starting pitcher market. The iron will probably never be hotter.

Even if teams grow wary of a big contract for Hellickson, and would rather entertain paying relief ace types, there are teams that could use his talents for a couple years. There’s always a team that can use the best starting pitcher on the market, and will pay that person fittingly.

Chances are better than average that Hellickson rejects the Phillies’ offer by Monday. Call it 60-40, leaning toward 65-35. Either way, we’d understand.

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