The Philadelphia Phillies have acquired starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson in a trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks, in exchange sending minor league pitching prospect Sam McWilliams out to the desert.
Hellickson, who will turn 29 years old just as the 2016 regular season gets underway, is expected to become part of the mix in the starting rotation, along with Jerad Eickhoff, Adam Morgan, and Aaron Nola.
A native of Des Moines, Iowa, Hellickson was the fourth round choice of the Tampa Bay Rays in the 2005 MLB Amateur Draft out of Hoover High School in his hometown.
Within two years he became the top pitching prospect in the Rays’ organization, which at the time had garnered a deserved reputation for cranking out quality young hurlers.
In 2008, the same year that Tampa advanced to its first-ever World Series against the Phillies, Hellickson fashioned an 11-5 record with a 2.96 ERA in 27 starts across two levels, allowing 148 hits in 152 innings with a 162/20 K:BB ratio.
Brought along slowly and carefully by Tampa Bay, Hellickson finally made his big league debut on August 2nd, 2010 for a Rays club that was tied for first place in the American League East division at that point.
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Hellickson made four starts that month, winning three and providing Tampa with a Quality Start outing in each. The result was that the then 23-year old had passed the 145-inning mark when his workload in the minor leagues that season was factored into the equation.
Tampa pulled Hellickson from its rotation that September, but kept him in the big leagues. He made a half-dozen appearances for them down the stretch as the Rays won the AL East crown.
Hellickson opened 2011 as a member of the Rays’ starting rotation, and one of the top pitching prospects in the game. Often compared to Roy Oswalt at the time for his competitiveness and his ability to adjust velocity to each of the three pitches in his arsenal, he would put together a strong first full campaign.
In the end, Hellickson would take home the AL Rookie of the Year award for his work in the 2011 season. He put together a 13-10 record across 29 starts, allowing just 146 hits in 180 innings pitched with a 2.95 ERA and a 1.153 WHIP.
Somewhat of a red flag went up on him that otherwise outstanding freshman season, as he did walk 72 batters. However, walks had never been a problem for him throughout his five-year minor league career, and so it could be written off to an adjustment to the big league environment.
Over the next two seasons, Hellickson had a 22-21 record, allowing 348 hits across 351 innings, with a 259/109 K:BB ratio. He walked 59 and 50 in those respective seasons, and his overall performance got a bit worse each year. His competitiveness and athleticism did allow him to add a Gold Glove Award for his mantle following his sophomore year in 2012.
It’s possible that Hellickson fell off particularly hard in 2013 due to the beginnings of some elbow troubles. After avoiding his first pass at salary arbitration in January of 2014 by signing a one-year, $3.65 million contract, Hellickson was found to have loose bodies in his elbow while throwing at his Iowa home, and needed surgery in late-January.
On his return later that summer, Hellickson was roped around in five starts for the Rays’ AAA club at Durham, North Carolina. Still, he received the call back to the big leagues in early July, making his season debut on July 8th as the Rays were floundering in the AL East standings. He was not good.
In what turns out to have been a lost season for the righthander, productivity-wise, Hellickson would end up with a 1-5 record in 13 starts. He recorded a 4.52 ERA and a 1.445 WHIP, allowing 71 hits in 63.2 innings, with a 54/21 K:BB ratio.
At the Winter Meetings in November of last off-season, the Rays traded away their once-prized arm to the Arizona Diamondbacks for a pair of lightly considered minor leaguers. Tampa had to be concerned about the elbow situation, his inability to completely solve the control issues, and frankly with the fact that he was going to begin getting more expensive.
Hellickson was awarded a $4.275 million contract in arbitration last winter, and made 27 starts for the DBacks, going 9-12 with a 4.62 ERA and a 1.329 WHIP mark. He allowed 151 hits in 146 innings pitched during the 2015 season, with a 121/43 K:BB ratio.
So what have the Phillies acquired in Jeremy Hellickson, and why have they acquired it? In short, think about where the club is in terms of it’s starting pitching. Just as with this past 2015 season, someone is going to have to go out there and take the ball every five days. In 2015, the team had a pair of veteran innings-eaters in Aaron Harang and Jerome Williams, and neither is likely to return for the 2016 season.
Hellickson will slot into a rotation that at current has only pitchers with one year or less of big league experience. So he will bring his five years in the Major Leagues, and a decade as a professional. He also retains the competitiveness that made him a favorite of the Tampa and Arizona organizations, and that should rub off well on the young Phillies arms.
Phils’ GM Matt Klentak cited that competitiveness, as quoted by Philly.com’s Jake Kaplan.
“I think one of the things on top of the obvious is that he’s a veteran guy, but still just 28 years old. He’ll pitch at 29 this season, so we’re excited that he’s still in his prime. And more than anything, he’s a competitor. He wants the ball. We’ve talked about building an environment and we think he’ll be a very positive influence on our staff.”
Contract speculation is a bit foolish at this point, but let’s take a stab at it anyway. While it is possible that the Phillies will simply go to arbitration with Hellickson, and he will pitch one season at something around $6 million for them, it is also possible that the Phils could sign him to a longer deal.
Consider the Boston Red Sox situation last off-season with a similar starting pitcher in lefty Wade Miley. The Bosox acquired Miley from the same Arizona club last December at basically the same age, and in a similar contract situation. Boston signed Miley to a 3-year deal worth $19.5 million.
A major difference between Miley in Boston and Hellickson in Philly is their pitching styles, or more importantly, their outcomes. Miley is a ground-ball pitcher, which plays well at Fenway Park. However, Hellickson is much more of a fly ball pitcher. That will tend to not play well at all at Citizens Bank Park.
In his arsenal, Hellickson has an average fastball at about 90mph that can get him pounded at times when he makes mistakes. He has the ability to throw a good curve and changeup, and those pitches will help him to his better outings when they are on, and when he has command of them. Once in a blue moon, he will mix in a cutter. He also remains athletic and competitive, a better than average fielder of the pitching position, when that need comes into play.
Assuming health, Phillies fans should expect Hellickson to give the rotation approximately 30 starts and 170 or so innings in the 2016 season. He will sometimes walk a few too many hitters, and he will be prone to the long ball, particularly at home. In 2015, the Phils got 29 starts and 172.1 innings out of Harang, sometimes effective, sometimes not. That is the overall picture here, just a decade younger.
The price paid to acquire him does not appear to be at all substantive. McWilliams is a tall righty drafted by the Phillies in the 7th round of the 2014 MLB Amateur Draft out of a Tennessee high school. He has spent the last two summers pitching for the club’s Gulf Coast League affiliate, fashioning a 2-5 record with a 4.19 ERA across 16 games, 12 of them starts, allowing 57 hits in 58 innings with a 31/11 K:BB ratio. At least at this point, he is purely a project, showing up on no evaluator’s rankings of Phillies’ top prospects.
Hellickson is not an ace, and he is not being sold that way by the organization. He will be one of five regular starting pitchers to help the team get through the 2016 season, which promises to be another in which the big league club loses while incorporating more of it’s growing stable of youngsters to the team.
If somehow Hellickson can make himself valuable enough to become a three or four-year starting, back-end pitcher for the Phillies, this will have been an inexpensive coup for Klentak. If he remains on his current career path, he will be a footnote. But perhaps even that has value, if it helps prop the kids up while they continue to develop.