SAN DIEGO - For the first time in a few years, the Phillies departed the winter meetings looking as if they had a reasonable plan and the ability to execute it.
Trading a player with a no-trade clause isn't easy, but Ruben Amaro Jr. accomplished it, and the early reports are that he netted a couple of plausible big-league pitchers in return for shortstop Jimmy Rollins. If the reports from scouts are to be believed, neither Tom Windle nor Zach Eflin possesses top-of-the-rotation upside. Windle, for instance, was widely regarded as the fourth-best pitching prospect in the Dodgers system, and the Dodgers have made it no secret that they are looking to add big-league starting pitching this offseason. Eflin was similarly situated in the Padres' hierarchy of pitching prospects. But, at this point, both sound like more probable big-leaguers than all but two of the pitchers whom they will join in the Phillies system. For that, Amaro and his front office deserve credit.
The Phillies have talked a lot about building "a new core" in recent weeks, but equally as important is building depth. The only assets who have the potential to land near major league ready, core-type pieces are Cole Hamels and Chase Utley. The latter has full no-trade protection. The former has 4 years and $90 million remaining on his contract.
It is looking increasingly unlikely that the Phillies will end up landing the haul they say they want in order to part with Hamels. That's not to say a deal is impossible. But two potential suitors have dramatically increased their leverage in recent days, whittling away the likely effectiveness of a take-it-or-leave-it offer on the Phillies' part.
The Red Sox have done the most to lessen their desperation for Hamels, acquiring Diamondbacks lefty Wade Miley and Tigers righty Rick Porcello. While neither profiles as a top-of-the-rotation starter, they do stabilize a Red Sox rotation that had entered the winter meetings as a serious offseason dealbreaker. With Clay Buchholz, Joe Kelly and Brandon Workman joining Miley and Porcello, Boston at least has five potential middle-of-the-rotation types. Of course, it still has question marks. The injury-plagued Buchholz has never made 30 starts in a season. Porcello is more of a No. 5 starter in a playoff rotation. Workman is still more potential than actuality. And, of course, there is no true workhorse ace, something Hamels would certainly give them. Yet the Red Sox have at least given themselves options, whether it is trading for a less expensive pitcher or signing another middle-of-the-rotation type and waiting until the trade deadline to re-evaluate their need for an ace.
Meanwhile, the Cubs' signing of Jon Lester to a 6-year, $155 million deal diminishes their need for Hamels. Again, you can never have too much pitching, and Chicago is clearly looking to make a splash. But Lester gives them more leverage. Meanwhile, the Dodgers' trade of Matt Kemp does not bode well for a potential Hamels deal, both because it moves some money that could enable them to sign a free agent and, even moreso, because it opens up a spot in the outfield for centerfield prospect Joc Pederson, whom the Phillies would seem likely to demand in any Hamels deal (if they are honest with their qualification of the haul that they are seeking).
Look, it was always unlikely that Hamels would be dealt, for the precise reasons that we are now watching in action. Star pitchers simply do not get traded with 4 years and $90 million remaining on their contracts, because any team that can accomodate such money also can afford to sign an elite starter on the free-agent market. The Phillies' best chance at the package they are looking for could involve shipping Hamels to a team with some financial constraints and then eating some of his contract in order for that team to accommodate him. That's just how it works. Maybe Boston covets Hamels enough to disprove this logic. We might have to wait until much later in the offseason to find out.
Say this, though: For the first time since the post-2011 offseason, it feels as if the Phillies have a realistic direction. It will take time, and plenty of luck. But it has begun.