A PRETTY good indication that Ruben Amaro Jr. has made the right move in holding on to Cole Hamels is the number of general managers and personnel executives anonymously bellyaching about him in the national press.
Amaro starring in "Little Big League 2" is an easy narrative to peddle, and his colleagues seem happy to play it up, but his culpability for the Phillies' current mess does not mean every decision he makes is a terrible one, and the decision to hang on to Hamels has proved to be the smart play. In refusing to part with his most valuable asset before Opening Day, the GM essentially decided that the risk of injury to Hamels was more than offset by the potential reward of injuries to top-flight starters increasing his bargaining position.
Less than a month into the season, the Dodgers, Cardinals, Rangers and Mets are all down at least one starting pitcher, while Hamels is cruising along in perfect health.
So which one is the front-runner to land him?
None. It's still the Red Sox, just as it has been for much of the last year. While the Phillies have reportedly had conversations with the Rangers and the Yankees, there are still strong indications that they view Boston as the best fit. This week, the Phillies will dispatch Charlie Manuel to Salem, Va., to take a gander at the Red Sox' Carolina League affiliate, where 20-year-old centerfielder Manuel Margot is coming off a breakout season in which he hit .293/.356/.462 with 12 home runs and 42 steals at Class A and Class A Advanced. Through 15 games this season, Baseball America's No. 72 prospect is 21-for-58 (.362) with eight extra-base hits, six steals, four walks and no strikeouts in 64 plate appearances. It's no secret that the Phillies covet 23-year-old catcher Blake Swihart, but the amount of time they have spent covering the Red Sox' system suggests that they are considering the preparation of something other than a take-it-or-leave-it offer for Boston's top prospect.
A package built around Margot and one of the Red Sox' three highly touted pitching prospects (Henry Owens, Eduardo Rodriguez, Brian Johnson) might not pay the immediate dividends Amaro yearns for, but it would represent fair value and a significant boost to the Phillies' chances of putting a competent team on the field before the end of the decade. Most crucially, it is better than any of the other entrants in the derby - late-comers included - are likely able to do.
The quick rundown:
Forget about the Cubs. They already have a top-shelf 1-2 punch with Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta, and Jason Hammel and Travis Wood both have the ability to pitch like No. 3 starters. Kyle Schwarber is demolishing the minor leagues Kris Bryant-style and could slot in at catcher or leftfield next season. It would make much more sense for the Cubs to hang on to that kind of talent and take their chances with their current staff for 2015 and then allocate Hamels dollars to one of the slew of high-end free agents who are scheduled to hit the market. Chicago has tons of talent, but no motivation to move that talent.
As for the Cardinals, their World Series hopes clearly took a significant hit with Adam Wainwright's season-ending injury, but even if they were determined to replace him with another proven top-of-the-rotation starter, their best offer probably can't match the Red Sox' second- or even third-best offers. St. Louis is heavy on young pitching talent, but its top position prospect is outfielder Stephen Piscotty, who hit .288/.355/.406 at Triple A last year but with little power and who is not regarded as having a ton of upside.
The Royals are even less of a fit. To a Phillies' front office that seems to want as close to a sure thing as possible, the Royals' system has way too much risk. Top position prospect Raul Mondesi is only 19 years old and one of the toolsiest prospects in the game, but he has yet to hit consistently in the minors. KC's next best position prospect is infielder Hunter Dozier, who posted a .615 OPS at Double A last season and is off to another slow start this year. Top pitching prospects Sean Manaea and Miguel Almonte have both had some command issues in the minors (Manaea, the No. 34 pick in the 2013 draft, has yet to make his 2015 debut because of an oblique injury). Again, not a fit.
The Dodgers seem to be a better match for Aaron Harang, provided they are unwilling to part with blue-chippers Corey Seager or Joc Pederson, the latter of whom is off to a blazing start in his first time through the big leagues. Even if the Dodgers were willing to part with young lefty Julio Urias, the Phillies wouldn't be adding the type of offensive upside they are looking for in any Hamels deal. And, like the Cubs, it simply doesn't make sense for the Dodgers to trade away blue-chip prospects. Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke are as formidable a 1-2 punch as there is. Take your chances on adding a middle-of-the-rotation starter or two and take advantage of the free-agent market in the offseason.
The Rangers have some minor league talent, but at 7-12 they need a lot more than a No. 1 starter to turn this season around, and are probably better off folding 2015 and retooling in the offseason.