Phillies

Jeremy Hellickson continues pitching his way toward a nice payday, but will it be with Phillies?

Jeremy Hellickson continues pitching his way toward a nice payday, but will it be with Phillies?

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Jeremy Hellickson may be pricing himself out of the Phillies' range.

Hellickson, a free agent after the season, made his best start as a Phillie on Saturday, pitching a three-hit shutout in an 8-0 win over the Marlins. 

The gem improved Hellickson to 12-9 with a 3.57 ERA in 30 starts ... 30 of the best starts of his career. Hellickson's walk rate (2.1 per nine) is the lowest it's ever been, his changeup is the best it's ever been, and most importantly he's been a consistent workhorse for a team that badly needed innings.

The free-agent starting pitching class this winter is as thin as it gets. Rich Hill will be atop many teams' wish lists, but he's a significant injury risk. After Hill, Hellickson is probably the next best option on the market.

Some team in need of a No. 3 starter is likely going to pony up and offer Hellickson a three- or four-year deal worth at least $12 million annually. The Phillies, after keeping Hellickson at the trade deadline, will surely extend him the qualifying offer, a one-year deal that would be worth around $17 million. If Hellickson accepts, the Phils have him for another year, albeit at a high price. They can afford it. If he declines, they'll receive draft-pick compensation in between Rounds 1 and 2 when he signs elsewhere.

In a way, it's a win-win situation for the Phillies, so long as they believe Hellickson's 2016 progress is real.

"He's been outstanding for us all year," manager Pete Mackanin said after Hellickson dominated the Marlins yet again. Hellickson went 3-1 with a 2.01 ERA against Miami in six meetings, walking just three batters in 38⅓ innings. "Great guy, good worker, very focused."

Mackanin pointed out the number of changeups Hellickson threw against the Fish. The manager guessed 40. The actual number was 34 — 23 of which were strikes and 11 of which were swinging strikes. Hellickson has kept hitters off balance all season with his changeup, limiting them to a .174 batting average entering Saturday. That number's dropped even lower.

It's not an exaggeration to say Hellickson has taken his game to another level this season. He's been more durable, less homer-prone, less fastball-reliant and more efficient. He's pitched 35 more innings than last season and has one fewer walk.

"I've felt good every time out," Hellickson said. "Felt good in between starts. I'm recovering like I was early in my career."

Early in his career, Hellickson was a highly-touted young right-hander. He met expectations by winning AL Rookie of the Year with Tampa Bay in 2011, and the next year he nearly matched that success. Then came three down years, and the Phillies acquired Hellickson this past offseason from the Diamondbacks for a low-level minor-leaguer when his value was at an all-time low.

Hellickson's rookie year was actually the only other time he's pitched a shutout. Was so long ago that Vladimir Guerrero was in the opposing lineup. Hellickson had gone 136 starts without a complete game before Saturday, a fact that was not lost on him.

"I definitely knew when the last time was," he said. "It's been a long time."

He'll have two more starts this season with the Phillies, and then he'll either return for more in 2017 or land a nice payday in another city.

Nick Pivetta is not thrilled about bullpen assignment but he’ll suck it up for the team

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Nick Pivetta is not thrilled about bullpen assignment but he’ll suck it up for the team

PITTSBURGH — Nick Pivetta is going to the bullpen and though he accepts the move, he doesn’t seem particularly thrilled about it. That much was clear by the series of curt responses he offered to reporters’ questions before Friday night’s game against the Pirates.

“They had their explanation and I’m in the bullpen,” he said. “That’s all I have to say.

“It’s their decision. I’m here to support the 25 guys in this room and do the best I can to win baseball games for this team, for the players in this room.”

Pivetta was moved to the bullpen to accommodate Drew Smyly. The Phillies have an agreement to sign the free-agent left-hander, pending the outcome of a review of medicals that was still ongoing late Friday afternoon.

The deal is expected to get finalized. In fact, manager Gabe Kapler spoke as if it was a slam dunk and Smyly was said to already be in Pittsburgh waiting to officially sign.

Kapler said Smyly would start Sunday against the Pirates. That start was scheduled to go to Vince Velasquez. It had been widely assumed that Velasquez would go back to the bullpen, where he showed some flashes of success in late May and June. But Kapler said Velasquez would stay in the rotation for now and start Wednesday in Detroit. Pivetta was to be available in relief Friday night.

“Yes,” Pivetta said when asked if he was surprised by the move.

Only one of his 72 major-league appearances has been in relief. That came last year against Washington in a 13-inning game. He blew away the Nationals hitters for one inning with 19 pitches, 11 of which were strikes. He hit 98 mph on the gun. The performance still resonates with some in the organization.

Will moving to the bullpen be a difficult adjustment for Pivetta?

“I’m a pitcher,” he said. “Learn how to adapt quickly.

“I’ve always wanted to be a starter. That’s who I am, but like I said there are 25 men in this room and I’m playing for them, not for myself. I’m playing for these guys in this room because we want to hold the World Series trophy at the end of the year and I’m focused on helping these men compete and win baseball games.”

It has been a disappointing season for Pivetta. He came out of spring training as everyone’s pick to click this season and was awarded with the second start of the season. He made four starts, was sent to Triple A, returned with some success, but has recently struggled again. He has a 5.74 ERA in 13 starts. He is walking 3.3 batters per nine innings, up from 2.8 last year, and striking out just 7.6 per nine, down from 10.3 last year.

Smyly, who missed the last two seasons recovering from Tommy John surgery, had a 8.42 ERA in 51 1/3 innings with Texas earlier this season. The Rangers released him and he spent time with Milwaukee’s Triple A team before asking for his release on Thursday. The pitching-needy Phillies quickly pursued him not as a sure-thing contributor but more as a take-a-chance-and-see-what-happens guy. The Phils have little financial risk as Smyly is making the pro-rated major-league minimum of $550,000.

Kapler explained the Phils’ decision to send Pivetta to the bullpen instead of Velasquez.

“The first (reason) is I think Vince has made some strides in the rotation recently,” Kapler said. “The second is we have a pretty good sample of both Nick and Vince in the starting rotation and we had a little look at what Vince looks like out of the bullpen. What we don’t have is a real look at how Nick looks in the bullpen. We are hurting for right-handed leverage arms right now in the ‘pen and I’m not saying we’re prioritizing what’s happening in the bullpen, but all things considered, we’re looking at it from every angle, and it looked like the right decision for the Phillies and both pitchers individually.

“I think a good precedent is probably what happened with Vince. Vince was in the bullpen for a little bit and it turned out that we needed him in the rotation. He popped back in the rotation. We’ll see how Nick looks out of the bullpen and we’ll see how Vince continues to develop in the rotation. We’ll see how Smyly looks and we’ll make decisions when they’re appropriate.”

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MLB trade deadline tracker: Latest news and rumors across baseball

MLB trade deadline tracker: Latest news and rumors across baseball

Track all the latest MLB trade deadline news and rumors here through July 31.

Phils show interest in Stroman (July 19)

Unsurprisingly, many front offices will have an eye tonight on Blue Jays right-hander Marcus Stroman when he faces the lowly Tigers tonight, MLB Network’s Jon Morosi points out, adding the Phillies are one of the interested parties.

The Phillies hold some level of interest in every available starting pitcher, ranging from the top and most expensive tier to the marginal upgrades.

Stroman is one of the most attractive pitchers on the market. He’s 28, he was an All-Star, and he’s bounced back strong this season. In 19 starts, he has a 3.25 ERA and is allowing a career-low rate of hits. His strikeout rate is similar to Jake Arrieta’s or Zach Eflin’s. Stroman relies on ground balls and has been effective this season getting out of jams. He’s fun to watch when he’s doing it, the most demonstrative starting pitcher in the majors.

Will Cards move Martinez? (July 16)

The Cardinals are 47-45, two games out of first place and tied with the Phillies for the second wild-card spot. Yet they could look to trade Carlos Martinez this month, according to Ken Rosenthal.

Martinez is acting as St. Louis' closer with Jordan Hicks out for the season. Martinez has pitched well in relief, posting a 2.18 ERA with more than a strikeout per inning in 18 appearances.

But he's also making $11.5 million, more than a team in the Cardinals' position would ideally like to pay a pitcher to get three or four outs. 

Martinez was a very effective starting pitcher from 2015-18, going 50-33 with a 3.22 ERA and making a pair of All-Star teams. A year's worth of shoulder pain forced the Cardinals to move him from the rotation to the bullpen.

Martinez is an interesting trade candidate because there figure to be at least a few teams who check in on him as a starting pitcher.

Race for Ray (July 15)

The Phillies are again showing interest in Robbie Ray, according to Jon Morosi. We have mentioned Ray frequently here as a Phillies trade target dating back to last summer.

Ray would help any contender. He’s a 27-year-old lefty with an extremely high strikeout rate. He experiences bouts of wildness and does lead the National League with 56 walks, but he has also settled in to a mid-3.00s ERA the last three seasons.

The left-handedness and legit swing-and-miss stuff make Ray the type of pitcher the Phillies do not have.

Ray turns 28 on Oct. 1. Based on his age and remaining contract — 2020 is his final arbitration year before he becomes a free agent — he would be a great fit for the Phillies, even if they do continue to fall out of the playoff race. Ray would help them now and next season and would be a prime extension candidate if he pitches well.

The competition for his services via trade will be intense. The Astros (more on them below) are also in on Ray, and plenty of other clubs have expressed interest in the past. The Phillies would have to trade a player or two they don’t want to trade to acquire him.

Speedsters available (July 15)

The Royals have made lightning-fast outfielders Billy Hamilton and Terrance Gore available. Neither is much of a fit for the Phillies, who already have Roman Quinn in that role.

Hamilton and Gore could both help a contender in need of a late-inning defensive replacement/pinch-runner. They are both impactful defenders and baserunners who can't hit.

As for Whit Merrifield, it seems unlikely Kansas City would move him despite being 30 games under .500. Merrifield is such a good, multi-dimensional player that the Royals deserve a huge score for him. At 30 years old, he is enjoying by far his best season, hitting .309/.361/.500 with 26 doubles, eight triples, 11 homers, 45 RBI and 14 stolen bases. Merrifield's .861 OPS is 55 points higher than his previous career-high.

Merrifield's dynamic offense and positional versatility make him a fit anywhere. The Cubs would make a ton of sense. 

Astros after a starter? (July 15)

The Astros have gotten huge production from their top three starters, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Wade Miley. But the back of the rotation remains a question mark. Collin McHugh is pitching in a mop-up role, Brad Peacock is dealing with a sore shoulder, Framber Valdez has been lit up three starts in a row, and Corbin Martin underwent Tommy John surgery the first week of July.

The Astros are still maybe the deepest team in baseball. Anything less than a World Series win would represent disappointment in 2019. Madison Bumgarner would make a whole lot of sense for Houston, which is still rich in prospects after all of their graduations to the majors.

Trade season begins

A pair of solid but unspectacular starting pitchers were moved this past weekend to kick off trade deadline activity.

Remember, these next two weeks figure to be even more frenzied than usual in July because there is now a hard trade deadline of July 31. No more August trades, except those involving a swap of minor-leaguers.

The Orioles sent Andrew Cashner to the Red Sox for a pair of 17-year-old position player prospects who had been playing for Boston's Dominican Summer League team. 

The soon-to-be 33-year-old Cashner went 9-3 with a 3.83 ERA in 17 starts with the Orioles. Baltimore went 11-6 in his starts and 17-59 in all other games.

The Red Sox needed another starting pitcher with the Nate Eovaldi experiment going sideways. Eovaldi has missed much of the season and will shift to the bullpen upon his return later this month. 

As of Monday afternoon, the Red Sox were 2½ games out of the second AL wild-card spot.

The Royals, meanwhile, traded Homer Bailey to the A's for a fringy Double A infielder. Bailey has been just OK this season, with a 4.80 ERA and 1.41 WHIP. 

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