THE SMOKE signals speak volumes this time of year, if not with their content, then certainly with their timing. This year, the pattern has an unmistakable feel to it.
A random Tuesday afternoon in early July: The list of teams left uncovered by Cole Hamels' no-trade clause is leaked.
Two weeks later: A national reporter reports the self-evidential nugget that the Phillies would rather trade Cliff Lee than Hamels. A second national reporter says that the Phillies are "telling other teams Hamels is not available." A top scout from the Red Sox appears at one of Hamels starts.
Six days later: A third national reporter writes that "the Red Sox will not be making a trade for Phillies lefthander Cole Hamels. He is not available, a major league source confirmed."
Two days later: A fourth national reporter reports that the Phillies "have made Cole Hamels available."
That last one occurred yesterday. The truth?
The truth is that Hamels has always been available, because the truth is that everybody has a price. The great unknown was whether the Phillies felt they could complete a return to competitiveness without parting with either of their two most highly prized assets, Hamels and second baseman Chase Utley. But as the chatter about the lefty begins to shift in tone, and the markets for their other assets turn more grim, there is increasingly reason to suspect that they have decided that they can't.
None of this means that a deal for Hamels is imminent. The Phillies have all of the leverage, and their potential partners have zero. Hamels is in the thick of his prime, and in the midst of his most dominant season as a pro. The Phillies are under no financial pressure to shed his salary. As long as Hamels remains healthy for the final couple months of the season, the market for him in the offseason will be just as strong, if not stronger.
At this point, there is no reason for the Phillies' asking price to be anything less than unprecedented. That means three top prospects, two of them major league ready, with the acquiring club assuming the rest of the $90+ million owed to Hamels. The Phillies would be foolish to let the money be the deal-breaker if that is what it came down to at 3:59 p.m. on July 31. They have money. They need young talent, and the trade market is the one place where they can use their financial muscle to acquire it.
The way these things usually work, it comes down to the quality of that third prospect. The two major league-ready pieces are non-negotiable. But where the Phillies could earlier assume the posture of the third elite prospect being a necessity, they now must seriously contemplate whether to lighten the ask just a bit. The reason? There is a decent argument to be made that the Phillies are a better team with those two major league-ready pieces than they are with one Cole Hamels. Not 3 or 4 years from now. Next season.
Look at the roster. Look at the remarkable lack of options, particularly on the starting-pitching side of things. There is a good chance that A.J. Burnett, Kyle Kendrick and Roberto Hernandez are all gone next season. Let's say the Phillies can parlay Hamels into two young arms who end up slotting into the middle of their rotation next season. Are they a better team with seven innings of one-run ball once every 5 days, or six innings of three-run ball twice every 5 days? That's just a for-instance. The Phillies would be aiming much higher than middle-of-the-rotation arms. The point is that they are caught in a numbers game right now. It doesn't do much good to have a Cy Young ace if the other 4 days are staffed with bunk.
Consider the Mets. In 2012, they finished 74-88 despite a rotation fronted by Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey. That offseason, they traded Dickey to the Blue Jays for a package fronted by catcher Travis d'Arnaud and pitcher Noah Syndergaard. Last night, d'Arnaud went 3-for-4 with two doubles and a home run. In the month since he returned from a stint at Triple A Las Vegas, the one-time Phillies prospect is hitting .302/.336/.521 with four home runs. Syndergaard is their top pitching prospect, a consensus top 20 prospect in the game.
After last night's 7-1 victory, the Mets are 51-55, 5 games ahead of the Phillies in the NL East standings.
The Phillies held out hope that they would not be forced to consider such things. If they could trade Cliff Lee for a couple of major league-ready pieces, and supplement them with another player or two parlayed from some combination of Marlon Byrd, A.J. Burnett and Jonathan Papelbon, then maybe with a fast ascension by Aaron Nola and some luck from Roberto Hernandez and Maikel Franco, the Phillies would have some reason to think that Hamels' talents would not go to waste. But Lee is a nonentity at this point, with future value to be determined between now and the end of the season. There do not appear to be huge markets for Burnett and Papelbon, while Byrd has a vesting option and the ability to block a trade to at least one leading suitor.