For a year, Hel­lick­son, Phils an ideal match

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - SPORTS - Jack McCaf­fery Colum­nist

PHILADEL­PHIA >> For nine in­nings, for 106 artis­tic pitches, for float­ing change­ups and plung­ing curve balls, the Phillies Satur­day night had their ideal pitcher.

Jeremy Hel­lick­son, 29, former Rookie of the Year, pitch­ing stylist, was rolling, tor­ment­ing the Mi­ami Marlins with his change of speeds, hold­ing them to three hits, pitch­ing a shutout. At the end of a frayed season, the Phils, at least, would have that.

“That was fun,” Pete Mack­anin ex­haled. “Hel­lick­son. What a per­for­mance.”

The Marlins never with a chance, Hel­lick­son would com­plete his sec­ond ca­reer shutout and his first since 2011, when he blanked the Ori­oles for the Rays.

By the time he’d im­proved to 12-9, the most wins by a Phillies pitcher since Cliff Lee’s 14 in 2013, his score­less streak had reached 14.1 in­nings. He’d thrown 73 pitches for strikes, only one of which went for an ex­tra-base hit.

For an op­er­a­tion trad­ing in rook­ies and other hints and prom­ises, Hel­lick­son was a pro’s pro, win­ning with his tal­ent, with his at­ti­tude, with his know-how. He didn’t over­power hit­ters, he over­whelmed them, striking out five, walk­ing none.

“He’s been out­stand­ing for us all year,” Mack­anin said. “Great guy. Good worker. Very fo­cused.”

Check. Check. Check.

But how about pay­check? Of all the de­ci­sions fac­ing the Phillies early in the off­sea­son, it will be what to do with Hel­lick­son, their best start­ing pitcher and one of their best play­ers at any po­si­tion. As much as Hel­lick­son has done ev­ery­thing he could for the Phillies this season, he has done even more for his ca­reer earn­ings. An un­re­stricted free-agent-to-be, he has won him­self some cash. And since the Phillies have vaults full of that, they eas­ily could af­ford the ex­pense. It is not, though, that sim­ple.

Hel­lick­son will blast into the free-agent mar­ket as one of the most ap­peal­ing start­ing pitch­ers. His agent Scott Bo­ras hav­ing a com­pul­sion for mul­ti­year deals, Hel­lick­son can ex­pect up to a $45 mil­lion pack­age over three years.

Be­cause he was en­ter­ing his con­tract year, the Di­a­mond­backs off­loaded Hel­lick­son to the Phillies for a garage-sale price in mi­nor-league arm Sam McWil­liams. For his $7 mil­lion an­nual salary, Hel­lick­son was per­fect for 162 nights of temp work. He could add a vet­eran pres­ence. He could limit the stress on a bullpen. A pro­fes­sional, he had some sta­tus. But he did not have a room-suf­fo­cat­ing at­ti­tude.

If he proved spe­cial, the Phillies knew they could move him at the dead­line for some value. If the mar­ket was not there, they could re­tain him and wait un­til after the off­sea­son to give him a oneyear qual­i­fy­ing of­fer of ap­prox­i­mately $17 mil­lion. If Hel­lick­son ac­cepted, the Phils would gladly pay. If he re­jected it and sought

a longer-term deal in free agency, the Phils would wind up with an added pick at the end of the first draft round. All around, it was a splen­did play by Andy MacPhail and Matt Klen­tak.

Hel­lick­son did his job. He won games and he pro­vided a tem­plate for pro­fes­sion­al­ism for Vince Ve­lasquez, Aaron Nola, Jerad Eick­hoff, Zach Eflin, Jake Thomp­son, Adam Mor­gan and oth­ers. The Phillies, too, proved ther­a­peu­tic to Hel­lick­son, al­low­ing him a stress-free season.

“I felt good every time out,” he said. “I felt good in be­tween starts, re­cov­er­ing like I was early in my ca­reer. I was able to work on stuff on my bullpen days a lit­tle more than I have in the past.”

The Phillies’ de­ci­sion will be dif­fi­cult. How can

a club about to fin­ish its fourth con­sec­u­tive los­ing season sim­ply dis­miss its best pitcher? But the Phils have been com­mit­ted to a strength-in-num­bers ap­proach to their next suc­cess­ful start­ing staff. And they should have seen enough from their young starters to mine four or five for next season. Then, rather than in­vest­ing close to $50 mil­lion in Hel­lick­son, they could grab the bonus pick and spend the money on hit­ters.

Klen­tak should be able to find an­other one-year rent-a-vet­eran pitcher in 2017. And if the young sta­ble of arms is not ready to con­tend for a divi­sion championship in 2018, the whole project will have been a fail­ure and any multi-year Hel­lick­son in­vest­ment would have been waste­ful.

The Phillies can­not lose in the Hel­lick­son trans­ac­tion. They can have him for an­other year at a price they can af­ford. Or they can add a high draft pick.

Their choice. But that’s it. One year. Or none.

“I am just feel­ing re­ally good,” Hel­lick­son said. “And I want to try and fin­ish strong.”

Hel­lick­son likely will make two more starts. The way the sched­ule breaks, both should be on the road. That means he could have made his last Ci­ti­zens Bank Park start for the Phillies. If so, he has given the fans and the fran­chise a season to ap­pre­ci­ate.

To con­tact Jack McCaf­fery, email him at jm­c­caf­fery@21stcen­tu­ry­media.com; fol­low him on Twit­ter @ Jack­McCaf­fery

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