WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Jeremy Hellickson was in Southern California on Friday afternoon, expecting to throw four innings of a simulated game against fellow unemployed Scott Boras clients who have gathered to work out together, when he got the call. The Nationals were offering him a minor league contract, and though that carried no official assurance of a spot on the big league roster, the opportunity was too good to pass up.
“They were actually the first team that called,” Hellickson said. “When Scott told me the Nationals, I thought: ‘That’s a perfect situation.’ “
How perfect? Enough to convince Hellickson it was worth it to pack his stuff immediately, take a red-eye flight to West Palm Beach, report to Nationals camp, take a physical and then throw those four simulated innings off a bullpen mound here this morning.
The Nats haven’t revealed their plan yet to slide the 30-year-old right-hander into their rotation. A.J. Cole remains listed as Sunday’s pitcher against the Cardinals, occupying the No. 5 starter’s slot. But the newest member of the club insists he doesn’t need any extra time to get caught up.
“It’s up to them, obviously,” Hellickson said. “But I definitely feel ready.”
It was a strange winter and spring for the veteran of seven big league seasons, whose first foray into free agency came at the worst possible time. With the worst open market the sport has seen in decades, Hellickson could only watch as a handful of other, more-prominent players signed below-market contracts, left to work out at Boras’ facility with others still looking for a job even though opening day is a week and a half away.
“Being a free agent for the first time, working for seven years to finally get that opportunity, and that’s how it goes,” he said. “It wasn’t fun. It definitely started to wear on me for the last couple weeks, but it’s all worth it now. I’m excited to be here.”
It didn’t help matters that Hellickson was coming off the worst season of his career, one in which he went a combined 8-11 with a 5.43 ERA in 30 starts, the first 20 of which came with the Phillies before a late-July trade to the Orioles.
Four of Hellickson’s first seven starts came against the Nationals - he went 1-0 with a 3.32 ERA - but things really turned sour following the trade. In 10 starts for Baltimore, he went 2-6 with a 6.97 ERA.
“The trade just kind of got to me a little bit,” he said. “Going from not expecting to get traded to getting traded to a team that’s three games out of the wild card, I put a little too much pressure on myself. Then things would start going bad and I’d put more pressure on myself and it would get worse. That’s really it.”
The American League Rookie of the Year in 2011 with the Rays, Hellickson is thrilled to be reunited with Davey Martinez - “He’s definitely the perfect guy for the job. He learned from the best in Joe (Maddon), and I can’t say enough good things about him.” - and now hopes he can rediscover the form he displayed while posting a 3.71 ERA for the Phillies in 2016 and reach the postseason for the first time since 2013.
“I really haven’t been on a team that’s been expected to win pre-season in four or five years, so it’s exciting to get in here and see the guys in here and meet my teammates finally,” he said. “I can’t wait. It’s going to be a fun year.”