A year ago Monday, when the Phillies traded for Jeremy Hellickson, they did it to add a "stabilizing influence" to their young 2016 rotation. That they extended him a $17.2 million qualifying offer for 2017 was more about the weak pitching market and less about Hellickson's place in the Phillies' rebuilding plan.
That sum, ultimately, was too great for Hellickson to reject. He had made $16 million in his career before Monday, and the Phillies' offer more than doubled his earnings. The 29-year-old righthander will return to the Phillies on one of the franchise's largest one-year salaries ever for a pitcher.
Now the Phillies must hope that Hellickson repeats his 2016 season. He could again become a trade chip in July. At the very least, if healthy, he can eat innings for a young rotation. And, if he is hurt or ineffective, the expensive commitment is just for one year.
The Phillies, with so little money allocated to 2017, were able to make such an offer. But they would have preferred a high draft pick as compensation because the amateur talent is more important to a rebuilding team than a pitcher who turns 30 in April. By not trading Hellickson last summer, the Phillies gambled.
Hellickson's agent, Scott Boras, last week labeled him as "probably the foremost under-30 pitcher on the market." Hellickson, at the end of last season, professed his desire for a multiyear contract. The conditions appeared favorable for him to test the market. But, had Hellickson declined the Phillies' offer, he would have been tethered to a draft pick. That hurt his potential market, as teams were not willing to pay him tens of millions and surrender their first-round pick.
Last season, Hellickson had a 3.71 ERA, his lowest since 2012, and tied a career high with 189 innings. He rejoins a rotation that will resemble last season's with Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez, Aaron Nola, Zach Eflin, and Jake Thompson to fill it. Hellickson's return will push one of those pitchers, barring injury or trade, to the minors to begin 2017.
There have been 64 qualifying offers made since Major League Baseball instituted the system in 2012. Hellickson was just the fourth to accept one. (Neil Walker of the Mets became the fifth later in the day.) His $17.2 million salary in 2017 will be the fourth-highest ever for a Phillies pitcher. Cliff Lee once made $25 million in a season. Cole Hamels was paid $22.5 million one season and Roy Halladay had a $20 million salary.
The Phillies have committed $46.9 million to players in 2017. Of that, $13.2 million is for Matt Harrison, who will not pitch again because of a chronic back injury. The Phillies will recoup a majority of Harrison's salary through insurance, with the caveat that he remain on the 40-man roster all season.
They could still add another bullpen arm, look to bolster the bench with an experienced bat, or assume a contract that another team wants to unload. But general manager Matt Klentak is somewhat restricted by a 40-man roster crunch and could enter the spring with the current group of players.
By the end of the week, when Rule 5 protection decisions are due, the Phillies could have as many as 13 starting pitchers under the age of 27 on their 40-man roster. Klentak said last week he expected to add more than eight minor-league players to the roster. There are now seven open spots.
The industry panned Klentak last summer when he failed to trade Hellickson, but the general manager said the proposed offers did not match how the Phillies valued the pitcher. Klentak kept a draft pick in mind — had Hellickson rejected the qualifying offer, the Phillies would have received a first-round pick somewhere in the 20s with an additional bonus allotment of at least $2 million.
But the Phillies will still pick eighth next June with one of the largest bonus pools. And, in the immediate, they can cross off one offseason shopping item.