Why Jeremy Hellickson and Neil Walker Accepted Qualifying Offers
Players in any sport work their whole lives to be able to do it for a living. Professional athletes work hard and put in years of service with the hope of one day hitting free agency and scoring what could be a paycheck that will sustain them for the rest of their lives.
Free agency is no joke. It was a major fight for players in all four major sports to get it, and it is no less valuable today than it has ever been.
So it is interesting that two players have decided to eschew free agency this year and accept qualifying offers from their respective teams. Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson and New York Mets second baseman Neil Walker decided not to enter free agency and will instead play under a one-year, $17.2 million deal (the $17.2 million is the average salary of all MLB players this season).
If a player declines a qualifying offer, he becomes a free agent. However, the team that signs a player who has declined the qualifying offer must give that player's previous team their first-round draft pick the following year. And if that team's first rounder is in the top 10, they will give up their second rounder.
Most players who were made a qualifying offer have declined it and will enter the free agent bazaar. They are the Los Angeles Dodgers' Justin Turner and Kenley Jansen, the Mets' Yoenis Cespedes, the Toronto Blue Jays' Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista, the Chicago Cubs' Dexter Fowler, Ian Desmond of the Texas Rangers, and the Baltimore Orioles' Mark Trumbo. All are expected to sign multi-year deals for big money with other teams, mainly because the signing team will value that player more than the draft pick they would have to relinquish.
So what makes Hellickson and Turner different? Frankly, there are still questions about both players.
Was Hellickson For Real?
Coming into the 2016 season, Hellickson had not been terribly good. He won the Rookie of the Year award with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2011, when he went 13-10 with a 2.95 ERA in 189 innings. He followed that up with a solid 2012, but from 2013 to 2015, Hellickson posted an ERA of 4.86, FIP of 4.29 and rWAR (Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement) of -0.7 over those three seasons.
However, last year, the 29-year-old found it again, putting up a 3.71 ERA with a FIP of 3.98, allowing a career-low 2.1 walks per nine innings while maintaining his career strikeouts-per-nine rate of 7.3. That was his lowest ERA since the 2012 season, and his 189 innings tied a career high.
Given the weak starting pitching market (only the Dodgers' Rich Hill was seen as superior on the free agent market), and his age (still under 30), it was assumed Hellickson would be able to find a team that would sign him to a multi-year deal, even with the draft pick compensation.
But as his agent, Scott Boras, fielded calls from interested teams, the duo decided teams weren't sold on him enough to give him the three- or four-year deal he was looking for, if that team also had to give up a first round draft pick.
So the Phillies, who decided not to trade Hellickson at the deadline because they believed the value of the draft pick compensation would be better than the prospects they were offered at the time, will have a productive starting pitcher anchoring a very young rotation in 2017. Yes, it's for $17.2 million, but for a team with no payroll restrictions and just $32 million currently on the books for 2017, the money is not a problem.
Neil Walker's Back
Walker was having one of his best seasons last year as August was drawing to a close. He was hitting .282/.347/.476 for an .823 OPS and an OPS+ of 118 (100 being league average) with 23 homers and 55 RBI's. His rWAR of 2.4 matched last year's total and was on pace to match his totals of 3.5 in 2014 and 3.9 in 2013 with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Unfortunately for him, Walker underwent season-ending surgery for a herniated disk in his back in early September, and teams are notorious for avoiding players who are coming off a back surgery.
It's no problem for the Mets, however, as there had been considerations to sign him to a long-term deal anyway. The Mets should have a power-hitting second baseman on a one-year deal, which is usually a good thing no matter the cost.
Before last year, no player had ever accepted a qualifying offer. It was seen as a formality by teams looking for a free draft pick heading into free agency. However, for the first time ever, three players -- Matt Wieters, Colby Rasmus and Brett Anderson -- accepted qualifying offers, because teams were reluctant to give up a valuable first-round draft pick to sign them. And many players, like Fowler and Desmond, lingered until deep into spring training after rejecting qualifying offers and ended up taking less money.
Now, it appears as though there will be major changes to the qualifying offer process. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement is being negotiated, and it would surprise no one if draft pick compensation tied to free agency is either drastically altered or done away with entirely.
It's likely the agents of both players knew that, even in a down market for starting pitchers and offensive middle infielders, the market would probably open up a lot more next off-season without the draft pick compensation attached to them.
And so, the Phillies and Mets have two productive players back at $17.2 million this season.
There are worse things.