PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — It appeared all but certain in July that Jeremy Hellickson would finish the season wearing something other than red pinstripes.
He had pitched well, the trade market was barren, and the Phillies were not invested long-term in the veteran right-hander.
But Hellickson is now the team’s highest-paid player, and for the second straight season, he will start the first game.
On Sunday, the team named Hellickson, who turns 30 in April, as its opening-day starter. The 2017 season will begin just as the 2016 one did, with Hellickson on the mound at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, on April 3.
“He opened up for us last year, and he had a real good year for us,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “I have a lot of confidence in him. I think he earned the right after last year.”
With Hellickson atop the rotation, the Phillies likely will follow with Jerad Eickhoff and Clay Buchholz in Cincinnati. Then, for the home opener April 7 at Citizens Bank Park, Vince Velasquez would oppose Washington. That makes Aaron Nola the fifth starter. He started the second game last season.
Hellickson is the first Phillies pitcher to start consecutive opening days since Roy Halladay started three in a row from 2010-12. Mackanin said the team discussed the idea of opening with Eickhoff, a younger pitcher who posted a lower ERA and proved his big-league value, but instead chose experience.
“We just felt it was the right thing to do for a number of reasons,” Mackanin said. “I don’t feel there’s any need to change that. It seemed like the right thing to do.”
The first pitcher is nothing but a symbolic gesture, although Hellickson disagreed with that notion.
“It definitely matters,” Hellickson said. “There’s another guy on our staff that probably deserved it a little more than me, in my opinion. That’s Eick. What he did last year was pretty remarkable for his first full year. I would love to have seen him get it. It would have been awesome, but I see plenty of opening-day starts for him in the future.”
Hellickson tied a career high last season with 189 innings. His 3.71 ERA was his best since 2012 with Tampa Bay. His 3.42 strikeout-to-walk ratio was, by far, the best of his career.
Realistically, Hellickson will be traded this season, provided he remains healthy and somewhat effective. The Phillies held on to him last summer when they did not find a suitable offer because they stood to either gain a draft pick or retain Hellickson for another season at the qualifying offer of $17.2 million.
The rules of the new collective bargaining agreement stipulate that Hellickson cannot be extended another qualifying offer. He will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, and he could seek a multiyear deal elsewhere. The Phillies, without a trade, would risk receiving zero compensation for him.
But that is a scenario for later. Hellickson, by accepting the lucrative qualifying offer, made another bet on himself. He pitched last season for long-term security. The mild-mannered Iowan settled for a one-year salary that doubled his career earnings.
The Reds, another rebuilding team, will counter April 3 with either young lefthander Brandon Finnegan or well-traveled right-hander Scott Feldman.
Mackanin would not yet confirm the order of his rotation. But Velasquez and Nola will be at the back, with Velasquez likely ahead of Nola. Even if caution is required for both pitchers’ workloads, Mackanin feels good about the potential alignment.
“I do, especially with Velasquez and Nola at four or five, whichever way they go,” Mackanin said. “We just have to be careful with both of them. We don’t want to baby them, per se. But it’s a nice rotation when you have those two guys at the end of it.”