On Trading Cole Hamels, Part 1

When the Phillies bought out Cole Hamels‘ final arbitration year this January, I did the writeup, titling the post with an allusion to this being Hamels’ last go-around in Philadelphia. I did that not so much out of an expectation that Hamels would, in fact, leave the team this offseason, but from a place of frustration and anger. I was frustrated that the Phillies had failed to make sure that their best homegrown pitcher since Robin Roberts would stay with the team as long as Roberts did, and I was angry that they seemed to fail to grasp the urgency of such a predicament. In truth, I had no idea what was going to happen to Hamels long-term.

But since the news leaked yesterday that general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. was floating trial balloons on a potential Hamels trade, the tenor of the conversation has changed. Now, Hamels’ departure is no longer a thought exercise, but a very real possibility. Since then, Ruben Amaro has flatly denied shopping Hamels. So with about four weeks to go until the trade deadline, and the Phillies closer to last place in the National League than they are to a playoff spot, let’s talk briefly about what this means.

  • I can see the pros and cons to both signing Hamels or not signing Hamels at this point. I don’t know that either one or the other is necessarily the right decision. However, given the changes to draft pick compensation rules since last season, if the Phillies don’t think they’re either 1) in the playoff race in 2012 or 2) in a good position to re-sign Hamels this offseason, they should trade him.
  • I’m assuming Amaro lied when he said the Phillies weren’t shopping Hamels. I disagree with a lot of things Buster Olney and Jon Heyman say about player evaluation and their normative stances on the game, but I consider both to be trustworthy breaking news reporters, even where unnamed sources are involved. I’d trust them over Amaro.
  • There is absolutely nothing wrong with putting Hamels on the block. In fact, considering how far out of first place the Phillies are, it would be foolish not to. There’s no harm whatsoever in feeling out the market.
  • The closest thing to Hamels that has hit the trade market in the past few years is CC Sabathia in 2008. Milwaukee gave Cleveland four prospects in that trade, only two of which (Matt LaPorta and Michael Brantley) have spent significant time in the majors for Cleveland. Brantley is an average center fielder, more or less, and LaPorta has been pretty much an unmitigated disaster as a 1B/DH. At the time of the trade, the only prospect in the trade who had been in Baseball America’s Top 100 was LaPorta.
  • Scuttlebutt is that the Phillies want to hang on to Hamels at least until Roy Halladay and Ryan Howard come back later this month. Seems reasonable–it would be foolish to give up on the season with two pieces as important as Howard and Halladay return to the lineup.
  • There is a counterargument–At this point, a trade partner would be paying for about 15 regular season starts’ worth of Hamels, give or take, plus as many as five postseason starts. Wait until the deadline and Hamels might only make 10 starts–if you’re cutting off as much as a third of Hamels’ remaining regular-season value, you might expect the trade return to drop accordingly. In 2008, the Brewers acquired Sabathia on July 7. In 2004, the Astros traded for Carlos Beltran on June 24. A potential trade partner, particularly one trying to break into the playoffs for the first time in several years, might pay more to get Hamels earlier. If such a trade doesn’t materialize, however, the Phillies are right where they would have been if they’d waited until the deadline to trade Hamels. There’s little to lose.
  • Now for the bad news. The rules have changed since the Sabathia trade. The new CBA has eliminated draft pick compensation for free agents who were acquired in the final year of their contracts. Going back to the Sabathia trade, the Brewers traded four prospects for 17 starts’ worth of Sabathia, plus a sandwich-round pick and a second-round pick when the Yankees signed Sabathia as a free agent. The second-rounder, by the way, would have been a first-rounder if the Yankees hadn’t signed Mark Teixeira that same offseason. It is said that the loss of those picks (essentially, two first-rounders) will dramatically decrease the value of rental players in the trade market. For instance, the Giants traded for Carlos Beltran last year, despite a stipulation in his contract that forbade the Giants from offering him arbitration and netting those two draft picks. They sent the Mets only one prospect, pitcher Zack Wheeler, No. 27 on Keith Law’s Top 100 list going into this season, and even that was viewed at the time as a massive overpay by San Francisco. Not having those two picks as insurance for not re-signing Hamels might kick down the trade price quite a bit.
  • How much? I don’t know, and neither does anyone else, which is a point that I cannot stress enough. As unpredictable as the trade deadline market usually is, it’s doubly so now that we’re operating under a completely new set of rules without any historical precedent. But those picks matter–with the pick the Angels got when the Yankees signed Teixeira, they drafted Mike Trout.
  • Finally, it’s way too early to tell if anything at all is going to happen with Hamels, much less what. So before you go and start making up fake trades in your head, remember that no one has any idea what Cole Hamels is worth on the trade market right now. I know it’s hard, but try to be patient. All things will be revealed in time.

On a personal, self-aggrandizing note, I’ll be going on actual broadcast radio late this evening (12:40 a.m. EDT) to talk about this very topic with Spike Eskin of 94.1 WIP. If you’re in greater Philadelphia, tune in to 94.1 FM, and if you’re on the West Coast or in Europe (where you’re far more likely to be awake), you can stream the segment online here.

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27 comments

  1. Eric Longenhagen

    July 02, 2012 05:08 PM

    Softening the blow of the new CBA’s rules, at least a little bit, will be the larger number of teams who consider themselves buyers because of the extra wild card spot. I think the net is still going to be negative.

  2. Michael Baumann

    July 02, 2012 05:15 PM

    Good point. That’s certainly possible, though I don’t personally think it’s going to be the case. Just another variable to try to account for.

  3. BradInDC

    July 02, 2012 05:21 PM

    Agreed it will be a negative. That Beltran deal is about the only thing to compare to, with the Arb and Comp out of the equation. I will personally guess Hamels could be had at the deadline for one top 75-100 type and a near big league ready bullpen arm. We shall see.

  4. Jim

    July 02, 2012 05:51 PM

    I wouldn’t accept anything less than one major league ready top positional prospect (ie Mike Olt) and two upside lower minor prospects.

    I realize that its probably too steep a price to reasonably expect, but if we keep Hamels and he signs elsewhere we will likely gain 2 top 40 picks in a very deep draft next year. I’d prefer to resign him, but we should be able to get good value for him, new CBA or not.

  5. James Kerti

    July 02, 2012 06:11 PM

    I think it would be foolish at this point not to trade him.

    They’re likely to get better overall talent via trade than in the draft with the compensation picks.

    Plus, given that this team isn’t likely doing a complete rebuild from scratch, they’re better off trying to trade for prospects who are within a year or two of the majors.

  6. Scott G

    July 02, 2012 07:14 PM

    While I understand that a lot of teams don’t want Lee’s contract, wouldn’t it make more sense to try and trade him? Hamels is still young and could be around for a long time. So, whatever prospects you get back for Lee could play with Hamels in a few years.

  7. BradInDC

    July 02, 2012 07:25 PM

    The size of his deal will limit the trade market for Lee, and unless you have locked up Hamels, you can’t possibly deal Lee and expect to sell any tickets. That’s a rebuild, and that’s like the first domino in a big bad line that leads back to half-capacity weeknight games and $80mil payrolls. Perennial contenders don’t sell off. Hamels can go because he’s at the end of a contract and people get over that as a necessity in a bad year. Lee has to stay.

  8. LTG

    July 02, 2012 07:39 PM

    BradInDC,

    I take you to be representing how the front office is probably thinking and not your own considered view. So, this response is not meant as a rebuttal to you so much as the line of thinking you present.

    If the Phillies lose Hamels, they won’t be perennial contenders any longer. They will be a team trying to eek out a few more contending years before the rebuild starts. Even if they keep Hamels, it is unlikely they can keep contending past a couple of years. (One more reason for Hamels to walk.) The farm system is depleted, and they have little to no budget flexibility. If the reason not to trade Lee is that the team thinks of itself as a perennial contender, then we are in for a return to less than half-capacity games and less than $80M payrolls that lasts nearly 2 decades.

  9. nik

    July 02, 2012 08:32 PM

    LTG – completely disagree. Phils have enough payroll to never need to ‘rebuild’.

  10. Frank Reynolds

    July 02, 2012 09:25 PM

    Nik I agree with ownership willing to spend money I don’t think a 5 year “rebuild” will happen.

  11. BradInDC

    July 02, 2012 09:28 PM

    LTG- I believe trading Lee and not signing Hamels as opposed to one or the other would be a disaster. Losing Hamels is not a disaster, as they will have payroll flexibility to make other deals to improve the club. Whether RAJ will make the right deals is up for debate. I lean towards no, but it could happen. Now, the idea that you would trade one ace while leaving yourself at risk of losing another, to me, personally, is lunacy, and that’s the position I was opposing. Losing two high quality starting pitchers, for any team, is a quick way down. Not sure why you think that’s me taking the theoretical company line as opposed to making an argument based on the fairly accepted notion that front-line starting pitchers are hard to come by and important for successful teams to have.

    As for the farm being depleted, I agree it is in general, but if there is a ray of hope, it is in the top two prospects, May and Biddle, both of whom are projected by most to be mid-rotation starters. Just saying, if you’re going to lose some value at starting pitcher, there may be help on the way in the next few years. I don’t know that losing Hamels alone sinks the franchise. But I believe losing both will.

  12. LTG

    July 02, 2012 09:31 PM

    nik,

    1) What do you mean by ‘enough’? They so far have not been willing to break the luxury tax threshold. And even after some free agents depart after this season, most of that money is already spoken for. Money goes fast when you’re trying to buy a team.

    2) Even the Yankees rely on producing home-grown talent consistently. With it they either make trades for important pieces like Granderson or use it on the club like Cano et al. So, even if the Phils have deeper pockets than they have shown so far, they won’t reproduce the Yankees longevity without repairing their farm system. (And the Phils don’t even come close to the Braves model for perennial success.)

    3) There’s no guarantee that high quality free agents will be available to fill the holes the Phils have each year and that, if there are such free agents, they will want to come to Philly. So, merely being willing to spend money doesn’t mean they will be able to contend perennially.

    The main point here is: if the farm system is not churning out a Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury, or Jason Heyward every so often*, no team can be a perennial contender. In this respect, the 2012 Phils look a lot more like the 2008 Mets, 2004 Giants, or 1984 Phils, than the 2008 Yankees.

    *and not just this but also other MLB talent on a regular basis

  13. LTG

    July 02, 2012 09:50 PM

    I don’t disagree that losing two top of the line starting pitchers will sink the team, I just think that it is the risk worth taking because the upside is a quick rebound rather than a slow fade back to irrelevance.

    If we trade Lee, we can match any offer Hamels gets. If we keep Hamels we can either compete with him and Halladay at the top for a couple of years and then who knows after that or sell off parts and try to be competitive again by the time Hamels is 31 or 32 (still younger than either Lee or Halladay now). Keeping Hamels gives us the most flexibility. If Hamels still walks, we can trade Halladay too and start refurbishing the farm with prospects and draft picks.

    If we trade Hamels, we have two top of the line starters who will only be top of the line for two more years. Then they will be mid rotation guys and we will need new aces. But at that point a lot of money will still be tied up in Howard, Lee, and Papelbon; Utley will either be gone or earning a large chunk of change; and we just don’t know what the outfield will look like.

    From destruction comes creation. Fleeing from death only leads to decrepitude.

  14. Bxe1234

    July 02, 2012 10:16 PM

    I disagree with that being a risk worth taking.

  15. hk

    July 02, 2012 10:27 PM

    Scott G,

    Cliff Lee is due > $100M for the next 3.5 seasons if his option for 2016 is declined or > $115M for the next 4.5 seasons if his option vests or is picked up. Whether the Phils can trade him most likely depends upon how much of his contract they would be willing to eat. It looks like overpaying Howard, Papelbon and Kendrick (among others) and waiting too long to re-up Hamels will eventually cost them Hamels. As such, if they don’t turn things around quickly, they will be best served by trading him.

  16. Harley

    July 02, 2012 11:07 PM

    Nice piece. Got me to thinkin’ (and blabbing, as you’ll see below).

    I will not blame Cole Hamels for doing the right thing for his career, which is no less than any of us would do for ourselves. And that thing is, if it is offered, to sign a huge contract to pitch for a spending-and-contending Dodgers team. If the Phillies really valued him, he’d have been signed already.

    The best — and only — thing they can do is try to get the maximum value for him on the trade market, as soon as possible. If the Texas Rangers (who I get to observe up-close and personal, as a Texan since 2006) decide to “go for it” and deal for another pitcher, they are THE team the Phillies need to deal with.

    The Rangers are the best-run and deepest baseball team right now, and they are set up to maintain a dynasty for years to come. For the Phillies to get a quality return for Hamels, they need to contact Jon Daniels ASAP. (Even though Texas has no dire need right now.)

    The Hamels situation is a microcosm of running a baseball team nowadays. Obviously, the most important thing is to have a competitive MLB-level squad. But at the same time, an organization needs to have a steady stream of prospects moving up the ladder while getting solid instruction at every level.

    That’s what Texas has been doing, and that’s why they will be in contention for a long time.

    I hope the Phillies can copy that. Unfortunately, it looks like the first of many steps to get there is trading Cole Hamels.

    (Re-printing this response on my unaffiliated and unsponsored blog, here’s the link if you care) addude13.wordpress.com/2012/07/02/phillies-a-response-to-on-trading-cole-hamels-crashburn-alley/

  17. Harley

    July 02, 2012 11:11 PM

    Separately, I’m not sure what being able to spend money will get you when *there is no core to build around.* Who are the talented Phillies under 27 right now? And a quick look at the 2013 free agent market is bleak at best.

  18. pedro3131

    July 03, 2012 05:05 AM

    @LTG… The Yankees don’t really rely on producing home grown talent…. Derek Jeter is the only home grown Yankee in their starting 9. Of their non-injured rotation you have Ivan Nova and Phil Hughes, their 3 and 4 starters and however you want to count 40 year old Andy Pettitte. Of their bullpen you would have Mariano, and Robertson. That’s it. None of those guys are impact players drafted in the past decade. Hughes and Joba were supposed to be top of the rotation guys, but they aren’t, so this notion that the Yankees are grown from within isn’t really consistent with the Yankees since 1999.

  19. hk

    July 03, 2012 08:13 AM

    pedro3131,

    Robinson Cano and Brett Gardner are home-grown Yankees. They signed Cano as a 19 year old international free agent and they drafted Gardner.

  20. 3r0ck

    July 03, 2012 08:23 AM

    IMHO, we won’t get back anything that will make up for what Hamels does for this team. I hope he signs with the Phillies, we don’t need another Abreu or Schilling situation.

  21. topherstarr

    July 03, 2012 08:49 AM

    To those advocating trading Cliff Lee: he has a partial no-trade clause that allows him to block trades to 21 teams. It’s pretty easy to figure out the eight teams not on his list–just figure out which 8 teams have the lowest payrolls and could therefore never absorb even part of his salary. In effect, it’s a full NTC. So while it might sound nice to trade the older pitcher to free up funds for the younger pitcher, it’s not realistic.

  22. LTG

    July 03, 2012 09:14 AM

    As I’ve pointed out before, no trade clauses can be waived. I’m sure Lee would rather play on a contender than a sinking ship.

    But hk’s point about the Phillies eating Lee’s salary is a good one. If trading Lee doesn’t free up enough salary for the Phillies to match any offer Hamels receives then it is not worth trading Lee.

    And, pedro3131, the Yankees have 3 highly regarded pitching prospects nearly MLB ready and just traded a big prospect for Pineda. It is not just the home-grown talent on the field (which they have anyway) but also their ongoing ability to make trades for pieces that contribute to longer term, not just short term, success.

  23. LTG

    July 03, 2012 09:21 AM

    Also, right on, Harley. But I’m not sure I agree that Texas is the best-run org. My unjustified preference is for Tampa Bay.

  24. Tom

    July 03, 2012 10:05 AM

    Assuming they go to arbitration with Pence and pickup Ruiz’s $5m option the Phils are at ~129m next year leaving about $45m until they hit the current payroll. After that $129m is spent they will still need to pay for:
    A starter
    An entire bullpen (minus closer)
    Third base
    Left field
    Center field

    That seems like it could be done on $45m. Minus 20 of that for Hamels and I think you’re rolling out a lot of Eric Bruntlets. I think Hamels is gone and already crossing fingers on the incoming prospects.

  25. Scott G

    July 03, 2012 10:08 AM

    Brad,

    The only reason I would trade Lee is if the Phillies thought they could/would re-sign Hamels. Granted I fully understand they’d probably need to eat a lot of Lee’s salary, which makes it a wash (at best) in terms of payroll). I’m talking about building a contending team. Hamels is better than Lee right now, and has his best years (hopefully) in front of him. I fully agree with LTG re: the quick rebound vs. slow fade. Keeping Hamels, who would be part of the young core to build around, and trading Lee for prospects to grow around him would be the best option in my mind.

    Also, would the haul for Hamels be that great? Unless he got traded to a contender that was confident they could sign him, there wouldn’t be much leverage for 10 starts/playoff run if a team thought they’d lose him to the Yankees/Dodgers (examples) in the off-season.

  26. Chris S

    July 03, 2012 02:46 PM

    First of all I think trading Hamels is telling the Philadelphia fanbase that we are entering a re-building mode. Not sure how the general fanbase would take such news, but if we are entering a re-building phase we need to trade Lee and Halladay and keep Hamels. Hamels is the pitcher I would want to build a new core around, not Lee or Halladay. If Lee’s numbers normalize and he gets some better luck I don’t think we would need to eat most of his contract to get a great return for him to start building our franchise around. I am convinced that this would be the quickest way to re-tool an aging team.

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