Make your best pitch for Phillies ace Hamels
If the Phillies are serious about being in a rebuilding mode, they at least have to consider trading lefty ace Cole Hamels.
PHOENIX - When teams are uncertain whether a player fits into their future plans, or have to make a decision on said player's contract status, their front office evaluates the player and his worth, both to their own team and to others, and then makes a calculated decision they feel best suits the team.
Sometimes that means trading a popular pitcher who has served as the face of the franchise.
"That's one of the reasons we traded [Jeff] Samardzija when we did," Cubs president Theo Epstein said yesterday. "Sometimes it'd be difficult to get full value or a return that you feel justifies moving a statured player like that, with a year left [on his deal]. So we tried to act a little bit early with Jeff, just to get the full return. Sometimes you need to do it with a little more than a year of service left to capture that."
Samardzija, who had a 2.99 ERA this year, has a year to go before he can become a free agent. The Cubs sent the ace righthander and pending free-agent pitcher Jason Hammel to Oakland in July in exchange for three prospects including shortstop Addison Russell, who last winter was rated baseball's seventh best prospect by BaseballProsepctus.com.
In a twist of irony, Epstein and the Cubs are suddenly on the other end of that phone, seeking top-tier pitching while holding several, top position-player prospects as bounty. While they could just as easily sign a free agent, like Jon Lester, the Cubs have interest in Cole Hamels, too.
The Phillies, listening intently if not actively shopping Hamels, have put a high price tag on their pitcher - a price tag that would begin with a prospect the caliber of Russell, or fellow can't-miss types like slugger Kris Bryant or middle infielder Javier Baez.
A team that trades for Hamels this winter could have control over the former World Series MVP for the next 5 years. So using Epstein's earlier logic, you certainly can't fault the Phillies for trying to get the "full value," or a deal that "justifies" moving a pitcher of Hamels' caliber, who is already under contract.
But the fact of the matter is Hamels is far more likely to stay put in Phillies pinstripes this winter rather than join a contending team because of the complexities of making such a trade, for both sides, and the evaluating teams will have to do in weighing the positives and negatives of such a deal.
The story line isn't likely to go away this winter, because rebuilding teams have to consider all options, no matter how difficult they may be. And Hamels would, by far, yield the most of any of the Phillies' players in a trade. But just because a name is churned out in a rumor mill every week doesn't mean that name is definitely showing up on a transaction wire before long.
"There's no pressure to move him and no necessity to do it," general manager Ruben Amaro said. "And, frankly, I'm not dying to move him."
Before moving any further, here's our yearly, winter warning about listening to and reading what front-office people (and agents and players and "sources" and anyone, really) say during the offseason. Everyone has an agenda and posturing is often part of the negotiating process.
With that said, there are certain facts that you go back to with individual teams and players. The Phillies, once again, are rebuilding. The Cubs, Red Sox and Dodgers, among others, are seeking ace-type pitchers on the free-agent and trade markets.
While the Phillies will look up and down their own roster, evaluating who they can trade, and for what, and whether it makes sense in an attempt to contend again in, say, 2 or 3 years, opposing teams have to decide if they'd rather trade for a guy like Hamels (who has a guaranteed $96 million remaining on his deal), and give up prospects in such a trade, or to hit the free-agent market and give a more lucrative contract to a Jon Lester or Max Scherzer.
"I think more than anything else, you've seen in the last several years, more recently, that those prospects are highly coveted," Amaro said of teams having to make those latter decisions. "It seems like teams are more apt to just spend money, because it's just money. It's not entities that they're giving up as far as players are concerned, or talent. That's kind of the trend we're in. At the same time, there's risk with that: You're doling out a lot of money. It's a difficult balance. But the reality of it is, there aren't that many elite pitchers out there."
Hamels, who turns 31 next month, surely qualifies as elite. He had a career-best 2.46 ERA in 30 starts this season; in the last 5 years, Hamels' 3.00 ERA is the fourth-best in baseball (among pitchers with at least 1,000 innings pitched).
The only pitchers who have had lower ERAs in that time: Clayton Kershaw (2.26), Felix Hernandez (2.78) and Jered Weaver (2.99). In the same time frame, only five pitchers have been more durable, pitching more innings: Fernandez, Kershaw, Justin Verlander, James Shields and David Price.
Hamels also has something none of those pitchers has: a World Series ring.
"I don't want to use the word 'overwhelmed,' " said Phillies acting team president executive Pat Gillick, "but you'd have to be very well-compensated in players in return to even think about moving a pitcher of his caliber."
Although prospects are more coveted than ever, it's also debatable whether a team gets that aforementioned "full value" back when they do decide to move forward and trade an ace-caliber pitcher.
Five years ago, Toronto traded Roy Halladay to the Phillies for Kyle Drabek, Travis d'Arnaud and Michael Taylor. Although they turned around and swapped two of those three players in the time since, all the Blue Jays really have to show from that deal is R.A. Dickey (acquired for d'Arnaud and others). It's hard to say that turned out to be full value for Halladay.
In the span of 2 years, Cliff Lee was traded away from Cleveland, Philadelphia and Seattle. The best of the 11 players in any of those trades is Justin Smoak, a career .224 hitter who was selected off waivers by Toronto from Seattle last month.
"There's always risk with young players," Amaro said of the uncertainty of dealing for prospects. "But there's also risk with veteran guys, whether they're going to break down or what have you. There's risk on everybody. These are not inanimate objects."
Which brings us back to Halladay and Lee. They aren't just examples of veteran pitchers who yielded poor trade returns. They also could be Exhibits A and B for why the Phillies should maximize Hamels' current value.
In 2012, Halladay turned 35 and began to break down physically; he never returned to form and eventually retired. Halladay entered the 2012 season having pitched in 378 games (2,531 innings) over his career, and as a regular member of a rotation for 10 straight seasons.
Lee had pitched as a regular member of a rotation for 10 seasons (with 315 career games, 2,075 innings) entering 2014. He was limited to 13 starts last season while spending two lengthy stays on the disabled list; his future health is uncertain and he is still owed a minimum of $37.5 million from the Phillies.
The 2015 season will be Hamels' 10th as a regular member of the Phillies rotation. There is no way to predict whether a pitcher will or won't eventually break down with age.
But pitching a baseball is an unnatural act. And it is leading to more elbow surgeries than ever. Major League Baseball acknowledged this yesterday, when it launched a "Pitch Smart" initiative, aimed at attacking the issue at the lowest level by educating parents, coaches and players.
Hamels might or might not become the latest pitcher lost to an injury in the next 5 years. But given the fragility of pitching, you could certainly argue that the Phillies might be better to sell high on Hamels, and replenish the farm system, then run the risk of having another player like Lee, with uncertain health, and thus, without any trade value whatsoever.
Of course, teams like the Cubs, Red Sox and Dodgers aren't blind to the trend of aging pitchers, either. Just as they'd give pause to awarding a 30-year-old Max Scherzer a free-agent contract of, say, 7 years, $180 million, they'll also think long and hard about acquiring a guy like Hamels while also unloading two or three premier prospects to boot.
Or they won't think about it long and hard at all, and move on to other, more enticing options.
"We're not rushing to move any of those guys for pitching, even though we admit we'd like to acquire impact pitching over the next year or 2," said Epstein, whose Cubs franchise is home to a handful of the game's top prospects. "But we feel like if we move some of those position players, we're going to look up and be in the same position as some other teams are, looking for those impact position players . . . It's easier to come up with a pitcher, whether it's through free agency or smaller trade, than it is with a position player these days. We're not going to close the doors on anything, but we're certainly not in a rush to trade away our position-player prospects."