Odds are the Phils got good deal in return for Cole Hamels
The Phillies minimized their risk by getting a diversified return for their ace lefthander.
IF THE Phillies had fallen in love with Mike Olt as hard as fans wanted back in 2012, they would have traded Cole Hamels for a guy who has a .158 batting average, .579 OPS and 119 strikeouts in 314 major league plate appearances.
So before anybody lambastes the front office for failing to land any of this year's supposed blue-chippers in their long-awaited trade of Hamels, consider the possibility that it wasn't a failure at all, but, rather, a prudent decision to limit their exposure to risk by agreeing to a diversified package of talent that contained a solid mix of predictability and projectability.
Falling in love with a prospect is a dangerous thing to do, because it can make you forget that all prospects are a guessing game to some degree. Your job is to know as much about them as you can, to formulate as accurate a projection about their future as you can, but also to remember that there is a significant amount that nobody can ever know or project, and to build the variability of that unknown into whatever formula you use to place a value on them. The value of each prospect in a package diminishes the value a team can expect out of the subsequent pieces.
Say you estimate that Player A has a 50 percent chance of developing into an elite player and a 70 percent chance of developing into an above-average big-league regular, while Player B and Player C both have a 10 percent chance of becoming elite and a 50 percent chance at becoming above league-average. While Player A gives you a much better chance at landing an elite player, he also gives leaves you more exposed to the risk that you won't land an above-average big-leaguer, because the combined probability that either Player B or Player C develops into an above-average big-leaguer is 75 percent.
The actual calculus is a bit more complicated because, well, it is actual calculus. We're talking about the same kind of processes that actuaries use to determine insurance rates and risk pools.
But the principle is pretty basic: A player like Hamels is worth a certain amount of eggs on the trade market. Put all of them in one strong basket instead of two weaker ones, you've got a better chance of getting all of your eggs home safe. You might also have a better chance at losing them all, depending on how you calculate the chance that the strong basket fails.
In Jorge Alfaro and Jake Thompson the Phillies appear to have done a deft job of diffusing their risk. Alfaro has the higher upside, with raw power that scouts consider elite. His ceiling goes all the way up to someone like Pudge Rodriguez. At the same time, he carries some significant risk, with strikeout and walk rates that could prevent him from ever being able to hit big-league pitching. (He has 61 strikeouts and nine walks in 207 PAs at Double A this season.) But that risk is at least partially offset by Thompson, given the variety of ways in which a pitcher of his profile can help an organization even if he falls short of his potential.
One of the problems with the Phillies' trade of Cliff Lee in 2009 was that all three players they landed were boom-or-bust. Phillippe Aumont might have had a higher ceiling than Thompson, but he also had a much lower floor, given that he was still walking batters at an alarming rate two full years into his minor league career.
This isn't an argument that the Phillies would have been unwise to trade Hamels for Corey Seager or Julio Urias or Aaron Judge, just that they seem to have made the best of what is an unenviable situation for any general manager attempting to acquire young, cost-controlled talent in the current market. Even if only one of these players develops into a meaningful contributor on a playoff-caliber team, the deal will be more successful than most that get consummated this time of year.
Another thing to keep in mind is that it takes a lot more than 25 players to field a playoff team, and the bulk of those extra players are pitchers. The Phillies would be a bad team regardless of their rotation, but it is their pitching that makes them look like a historically awful team. The lack of depth at the position in the minors is something that they have addressed over the last year, adding arms like Zach Eflin, Nick Pivetta, Ben Lively and now Alec Asher and Jerad Eickhoff in addition to higher upside pieces in Thompson and Aaron Nola. Nola and Thompson are the two that are most likely to develop into starters in a playoff-caliber rotation, but starters like that often get hurt, and a team needs a capable replacement to stay in the playoff hunt. Sometimes, those replacements can surprise you, like the Phillies saw with Kyle Kendrick, J.A. Happ and Vance Worley.
The package for Hamels appears to be a solid mix of ceilings and floors, probability and potential. The Phillies' next playoff contender will not be built overnight. It will be a process of attrition. This was the obvious next step, and it was a good one.