PHILADELPHIA -- Jeremy Hellickson will need to prove himself over one more season before he lands the lucrative, multiyear contract he desires.
The right-hander accepted the Phillies' one-year, $17.2 million qualifying offer on Monday, taking him off the free-agent market. The decision came as a bit of a surprise, as Hellickson was seeking a long-term contract amid a thin market for starting pitching. But if Hellickson had rejected the Phillies' qualifying offer, any team that signed him would be required to forfeit their top unprotected pick in the 2017 Draft, affecting his value in the market. That fact helped Hellickson decide to accept the offer.
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"I was leaning toward declining it last week," Hellickson said in a telephone interview with MLB.com. "But then I talked with Scott [Boras] over the last few days. The teams he talked to said that I was at the top of their free-agent list, but they were reluctant to give up a first-round pick. It's unfortunate that free agents like myself this year and in the past have had to deal with that, but at the same time I'm going back to a team I love playing for. It was an easy decision with the uncertainty in the market right now."
Hellickson, 29, went 12-10 with a 3.71 ERA over a career-high 32 starts and a career-high-tying 189 innings with the Phillies in 2016. If he can repeat that success next year, he should find the deal he wants next offseason. If he cannot, his $17.2 million salary should soften the blow.
"I believe in myself that I can repeat what I did last year," Hellickson said. "I'll just establish my track record a little more, and we'll see what happens."
The Phillies had the opportunity to trade Hellickson before the Aug. 1 non-waiver Trade Deadline, but they did not. Sources said the club was looking for talent commensurate with the Draft pick they would have received had he rejected the qualifying offer. The team could look to trade him again this season, though they are not allowed to do so without his consent until June 15.
Hellickson's return will also make things more interesting on Friday, when the Phillies have to place prospects on the 40-man roster to protect them from the Rule 5 Draft. Hellickson gives them 33 players on the 40-man roster, although the Phillies could reduce that number this week.
Releasing injured pitcher Matt Harrison could help free up space on the roster. If they release Harrison, the Phillies will not receive the full benefit of the insurance policy they have on his $13 million salary, but it might be worth it if it means protecting a prospect they covet.
The list of prospects eligible to be protected include Nick Williams, Dylan Cozens, Mark Appel, Andrew Knapp, Ricardo Pinto, Nick Pivetta, Elniery Garcia, Malquin Canelo, Carlos Tocci, Ben Lively, Jose Pujols, Alberto Tirado, Andrew Pullin and Jesmuel Valentín.
Hellickson said he has been following the Phillies' offseason moves to this point, which include trades that acquired left fielder Howie Kendrick and relief pitcher Pat Neshek.
"I've always said Howie is one of the best hitters in the game. That was a huge pickup," Hellickson said. "Neshek has been doing it for a long time. He's really going to help the bullpen. That was another thing that made this decision easier, trading for those two guys. I see us competing next year."