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Jeremy Hellickson just made an awful free agent market even worse

Hellickson is going to accept the qualifying offer from the Phillies. Here’s what that means for him, the Phillies, and all of us.

Miami Marlins v Philadelphia Phillies
That’s a 65-grade curveball face
Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Jeremy Hellickson might have been the best starting pitcher on the free agent market. If you factor in Rich Hill’s age and injury history, it might not have been close. My word, those are two very, very strange sentences to type, and I need to lie down for a bit. Hold on.

Anyway, Hellickson would have been one of the best available pitchers, but we have a twist! Instead of getting a multi-year deal for a lot of money somewhere else, he accepted the Phillies’ qualifying offer, which means he’ll make $17.2 million to pitch for them in 2017. That’s a lotta clams for a pitcher with a career 101 ERA+ and 3.90 ERA. The Phillies were likely hoping for a) the draft pick and b) more money to save or spend this offseason. Now they have a surprise innings eater at a premium price, but it doesn’t seem to be bothering them.

So let’s figure out just what happened. What are the Phillies thinking? What was Hellickson thinking? What should we think?

What this means for the Phillies

We just took a look at the Phillies and the fascinating decisions they’ll have to make this offseason. They have a lot of money coming off the books, and they would be more than capable of becoming a financial titan again. At the same time, this offseason stinks, and next year’s market could be incredible, so there’s an advantage in waiting around to spend the money. There would be an advantage, perhaps, in saving that money. Pretty sure the owners are expecting dividend checks, and that’s not quite how low-payroll/high-revenue teams actually work, but in theory, it makes sense for a team that’s about a year away from immolating the offseason.

Instead, Hellickson might make roughly a fifth of the total payroll. The Phillies gambled that the market was just too awful for an average pitcher to pass up, and now they have an average pitcher at All-Star prices. On the surface, this seems like a bit of a bummer.

However, we’re all optimists* here, and it’s far more fun to look at what Hellickson can add to the Phillies. If he weren’t in the rotation, the Phillies would have turned to Random Rookie or Uninspiring Free Agent, neither of whom would have been better than Hellickson. So we can say with some degree of certainty that he’ll help the Phillies win more games.

Considering that Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, and Vincent Velasquez make up a dandy front three on their own, now the Phillies are at the stage where they should at least plan for the contingency that they’re ... good next year? That is, they should build a lineup that could at least surprise with a few breaks.

Hellickson helps that, and now. The Phillies might throw their hands up and declare this to be an impediment to their lineup-building plans, but this should work in concert with those plans, not opposed to them. Now the Phillies really have a rotation worth supporting.

They could also trade Hellickson in July if he repeats his production. That’s better than a silly ol’ supplemental first-rounder. The Phillies should be happy with this decision. The team is better, and all it took was money that they clearly had. It’s hard to see a downside.

*this is not true and we’re all going to die

What this means for Hellickson

This means that Jeremy Hellickson is supremely confident in his ability to pitch and the trajectory of his career. He’s not ditching a $40 million contract. He’s shooting for a $100 million contract.

Optimistic? Certainly is. But there’s reason to be optimistic about Hellickson. From August Fagerstrom at FanGraphs this summer:

Our run-value leaderboard’s got Hellickson’s change as baseball’s sixth-most valuable this season. Even on a per-pitch basis, it still ranks among the elite. It’s getting more arm-side run than it used to, Hellickson’s been working to get more drop on the pitch every year since he’s been in the league, and that extra movement’s allowing him to consistently spot it lower in the zone. Hellickson’s changeup, as it stands, is better now than it’s ever been.

The changeup is getting better, and the curve was already elite, at least when it came to movement and spin. If you’re looking for a boring pitcher who could emerge from a chrysalis next season and becoming a majestic All-Star, Hellickson is one of the safer bets.

But not a safe bet. That is, he’s still a pitcher, and one with 975 career innings of pretty OK to his name. The odds were much better that this weak market and Hellickson’s strong year were going to be a cocktail that ended with a surprisingly large contract. The kind of contract that he wouldn’t have come close to in previous or future seasons. Even if the qualifying offer was going to depress his market a touch this year, which might not have been a problem next offseason, this was still the kind of perfect storm that most free agents dream of.

As is, Hellickson will take a huge chance, with the ultimate downside being that he makes $17.2 million. Which isn’t a very scary downside, so you can see where he’s coming from. The competition will be much better next year, but he’s hoping his portfolio will be much better, too. He’s a Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? contestant approaching the final round with a much better safety net. It’s understandable, even if it’s nothing I would have done.

What this means for us

That this boring, miserable offseason is even more boring and miserable. Rich Hill, Jason Hammel, and Ivan Nova? Are those the three best starting pitchers left on the market now? We can’t even get giddy over Bartolo Colon coming to one of our favorite teams because he’s gone, too.

Woe be the teams who are just a starting pitcher or two away from meeting all of their offseason goals. This winter is going to ruin them and their dreams.

I think I was already expecting to get excited about Jeremy Hellickson free agency rumors. We’re all sick, and this is just shining a hideous spotlight on our sickness. Help us.

As is, the Phillies are probably going to win a couple more games in 2017 than they might have, and they should really figure out a way to make the team better without futzing up the long-term goals. Hellickson is going to be rich with the potential to be incredibly rich instead of exceptionally rich. And we’re going to scavenge around for Ivan Nova rumors because it’s all we can do.

Welcome to the first big surprise of the offseason. And watch out for that mix of upside and competence that the Phillies are bringing back next season.