Every MLB offseason, there are always a handful of players who are considered to be on the fringe of whether or not their respective club will offer them a qualifying offer or not. This offseason featured names such as Michael Saunders of the Toronto Blue Jays, Matt Wieters of the Baltimore Orioles and Jeremy Hellickson of the Philadelphia Phillies. The Jays are not going to give Saunders the offer, but the Phillies have decided to extend a qualifying offer to Hellickson. That means Hellickson has a one year deal worth 17.2 million dollars on the table.
So this begs the question, will the 29-year-old right-hander accept the offer, or decline it to test the free agent market? Hellickson will have until 5 pm EST on November 14th to make up his mind (You can check out all of the important MLB offseason dates here). Let’s take a closer look at what could influence the mind of the starting pitcher.
First off, Hellickson is set to enter a free agent market that is brutally bad in terms of starting pitching depth. After Rich Hill, Hellickson could very well be considered the second best option to add to a starting rotation via the open market this winter. Now Hellickson is far from a top of the line arm, but given the lack of competition out there, Hellickson could very well see this winter as a chance to lock down some security for the next three years. Some of the more intriguing names who could have entered the market, like Clay Buchholz, Jamie Garcia, and Gio Gonzalez, all had their club options picked up. This means the best of the rest will include guys like Derek Holland, Jason Hammel, and Andrew Cashner. You can check out a more in-depth look at the market here.
So why exactly is Hellickson considered one of the top names in this mediocre (at best) starting pitchers market? Well, he is coming off one of his better seasons in quite some time, and he is still in the prime of his career. As a former top prospect and AL Rookie of the Year back in 2011, Hellickson does come with a nice background when compared to other candidates. In his lone season wearing a Phillies uniform, Hellickson tossed 189 innings over the course of 32 starts, while posting a 3.71 ERA and 1.15 WHIP. He had a career-best strikeout to walk ratio, as well as walks per nine. It was hands down his best campaign since 2012, before going in the tank in 2013 while with the Tampa Bay Rays.
Now to look at the other side of the pillow, after that 2013 season, Hellickson essentially became a problem when he took the mound. The next few seasons he struggled with the Rays, and the former top prospect was sent to the Arizona Diamondbacks for the 2015 season. During his one year in the desert, Hellickson was pretty much average at best, before the DBacks decided to send him to Philly last winter. He has earned the reputation of being a soft-tosser who is more of an innings eater than being a guy a team can rely upon. It is this type of profile that could come back to haunt Hellickson, despite the decent season he had in 2016.
The qualifying offer is a tricky beast for impending free agents. Winters past has shown the association of draft pick compensation can really hurt a player. Prior winters have seen names like Kendrys Morales and Ian Desmond struggle to get a deal. It is a move that is a win-win for the Phillies. If Hellickson walks away from the offer, they are in line to gain a draft pick if he ends up elsewhere. But if he accepts, they get a guy they clearly have some faith in on a one year deal who can help bridge the gap to their future as they continue their rebuild. But for Hellickson, a decline of the option is certainly a risk given his profile and past history. He may think he is in line for a three-year deal because of his status as one of the better arms out there, but then teams could turn to the trade market instead for a guy with more upside.
So Hellickson has some thinking to do. If he accepts, he gets one year at an annual salary he will certainly not see on the free agent market. The Phillies have the cap space and are comfortable paying more than Hellickson is worth for a single season. But in doing so, Hellickson would run the risk of missing out for the long-term. If he struggles this season, he is not going to get much next winter as people will look at him as reaching his peak. Also, next winter sees a better crop of starting pitchers on the market, with names like Yu Darvish, Marco Estrada, Chris Tillman and possibly Masahiro Tanaka. So if Hellickson wants the chance at long-term stability, he is going to have to gamble and pass on the 17.2 million dollars.
When all is said and done, I have the feeling that is the decision he ends up making. While it is never easy to walk away from that kind of money, I think Hellickson takes that gamble. At this stage in his career, he is in the best possible situation to get a decent multi-year deal. This could be his only chance, so I think he has to take it.