Why the Phillies Can’t Trade Cole Hamels Rashly, Before I Kill Someone

This isn’t a great time to be a Phillies fan–the team has been bad for a couple years now, and will probably be bad for at least one more, and while there are a few exciting young players on the horizon, odds are the next good Phillies team will not resemble this one very closely.

And quite frankly, this blows, because nothing interesting is happening. No big signings, no anticipation for breakout seasons from prospects, no sizing up competitors’ moves, because the Phillies are probably going to finish last in the division in 2015. So we’re waiting on trades–Marlon Byrd, Carlos Ruiz, Jonathan Papelbon, Antonio Bastardo, maybe even Jimmy Rollins. But the big one is Cole Hamels. Where might he go, and when, and what might he bring back in return when he does?

I get the anticipation, because any headlining prospect in a Cole Hamels trade would be a building block for a good Phillies team, and Hamels is the only trade chip the Phillies have that could really bring back a needle-moving return. We want to see action.

But all the news coming out of the national media is that potential trade partners–particularly the Dodgers–aren’t interested in paying Ruben Amaro‘s asking price. And Amaro’s asking price is high–outrageously or preposterously so, or so it is said.

Good. That’s exactly what Amaro should be doing, and that’s exactly what I’d do in his place, and because the kvetching about how the world is ending because the Phillies haven’t traded Hamels for Mookie Betts by Thanksgiving is driving me into a homicidal rage, I thought it’d be helpful if I explained why this is so.

1) The contract isn’t odious at all.

Hamels is owed somewhere between $100 million over the next four years and $118 million over the next five years, depending on which way the wind blows on the option. That might sound like a lot, and it’s more than the Phillies would be paying him if Amaro hadn’t bollixed the extension back in 2012, but keep 5 years, $118 million in the back of your head when Jon Lester (who isn’t as good as Hamels) gets 6 years/$150 million in a couple weeks, or James Shields (who is two years older than Hamels, in addition to not being as good) gets something like that in free agency.

Hamels has thrown at least 180 innings in every one of his eight full seasons in the major leagues. He was second in the National League in WAR last year, behind only Clayton Kershaw, despite missing a month due to injury. He is largely a finesse pitcher who gets by on command and his changeup, and those kind of guys tend to keep to their mid-30s, and in terms of performance, I don’t think there are 15 pitchers in the game I’d have over Hamels right now. He is the best pitcher the Phillies have developed since Robin Roberts, and he has a non-trivial chance at being a Hall of Famer.

The problem with using $/WAR as the evaluative tool (which is how you arrive at the conclusion that Mookie Betts is an appropriate return for Hamels) is twofold. First, players of Hamels’ quality are extremely scarce, and can very seldom be bought for money alone. Second, a team like the Phillies (or Red Sox or Dodgers) is like a mint, and if you’re a fan of a big-market team in a league without a salary cap, and your primary concern with evaluating a player has to do with how much money he makes, you’re being co-opted by the oppressors to fight against your own people in a war of class. There’s a Polish idiom I’ve become fond of recently–“Not my circus, not my monkeys”–which applies to Hamels’ contract.

Hamels is the kind of player you send out into the wild in April with the expectation that he’ll collect five or six wins when he returns in October–there are maybe a couple dozen guys like that in baseball. Teams invest tens of millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of man-hours in scouting and development staff every year in the hope of cultivating one player like that once every couple years. You’re fucking right Hamels makes a lot of money, and he’s worth every penny. If the Phillies were in a position where paying part of his salary would increase the trade return, they should do so, but this isn’t Ryan Howard, who is problematic because he’s very bad and also makes a lot of money. The contract isn’t one you should just dump for the sake of not paying him–Hamels’ contract is not my circus, not my monkeys.

2) He could be on the next good Phillies team.

The phrase I say to myself over and over when considering a rebuild is: “Could this player be on the team the next time it’s good?”

Let’s say the Phillies start thinking about contending again in 2017–Hamels will be entering his age-33 season, one year older than Shields is now and Cliff Lee was when he signed with the Phillies before the 2011 season, and the same age Roy Halladay was when he was traded to the Phillies before the 2010 season. It’s not unreasonable to expect a pitcher who’s been as good as Hamels has been through age 30 to continue to be at least almost as good through age 33. If nothing else, Hamels is signed to a long enough deal and is still young enough and effective enough that the Phillies can wait until conditions are more favorable before they trade him, and if conditions don’t change, they’ve got an ace to rebuild around.

3) Any risk of decline or injury is overstated.

Now, there is a risk of injury or decline, but Hamels has been one of the most durable pitchers in baseball over the past decade–he could experience a massive shoulder injury tomorrow, just by virtue of being a pitcher, but given his track record, that risk isn’t great enough that I’m willing to live in fear of it.

Pitchers don’t get less risky, from a health standpoint, than Hamels. He’s still relatively young, he’s a good athlete, he’s never experienced a major injury to his elbow or shoulder, and his game doesn’t rely on velocity or sharp breaking stuff–though his fastball velo went up last year anyway. And before you bring up Lee and Halladay blowing up out of nowhere, remember that both of their declines came at age 35–four years off for Hamels.

There’s risk in keeping Hamels, because he’s a pitcher and because this is baseball. If you don’t like risk, you should stop rooting for baseball teams to win and start rooting for baseball teams to get handouts from the government–because that’s the only safest bet in sports.

4) There are many ways to rebuild.

This is the one that makes me want to drop a basket of baby rabbits off a bridge, the idea that because the Phillies are rebuilding they should get rid of everyone right now for whatever they can get right now. That’s one way to do it, and I’d argue the right way to do it if your team has no players you can use as building blocks, no overwhelming financial advantage, no real assets in terms of up-and-coming players and no substantive fan support to alienate. That’s the case for the Astros and the Sixers, but not the Phillies. They can afford to keep cutting checks to Hamels and treading water until the kids are ready, if they so choose. Player development is sufficiently unpredictable that you don’t have to bottom out for LeBron or Peyton Manning in baseball if you want to win.

The Phillies could go that route, but tearing the whole thing down won’t make the good times come back any faster–if anything, trading Hamels for a package built around Mookie Betts or Joc Pederson might get you a young, cost-controlled potential starting outfielder, but then you have to go and find another No. 1 starter, of which there are very few, and that’s problematic because you just traded one away. Why would a team do that? Just to clear the decks for the sake of looking like they’re doing something? That’s the only reason to accept a below-market-value deal for Hamels right now. If Ruben Amaro’s got the keys for the rebuild, he can do this at his own pace and on his own terms, rather than let the impatience of the fans and media force his hand.

5) You’ve got to make this one count.

I’ve heard it said that Hamels needs to be traded in order for the Phillies’ rebuild to start in earnest, because they’ve got so little to build around and nothing else of substance to trade for a tentpole prospect. But look at that sentiment another way: The fact that Hamels is the only player who could bring back a franchise cornerstone makes it all the more important that if the Phillies do trade him, they actually get a franchise cornerstone back. In my lifetime, I’ve watched the Phillies trade away Scott Rolen, Bobby Abreu and Cliff Lee–all Hall of Famers or close to it–and get nothing back, and their failure to do so has a lot to do with why the 2008 World Series team was built so heavily on players acquired through the draft. Five years ago, the Phillies dumped Cliff Lee to clear salary and got nothing back–don’t demand that the Phillies do the same with Hamels just because you’re impatient.

Getting Betts or Pederson as the star of a return package won’t cut it. Getting Betts and, say, Brian Johnson from the Red Sox won’t do enough to kickstart the rebuild to make it worth getting rid of a player of Hamels’ quality when there’s no temporal or economic incentive to do so.

I hate coming up with fake trades. If I had my way, “Thou Shalt Not Make Fake Trades” would be one of the Ten Commandments, because who really gives a shit about graven images, right? But just for the sake of clarity, let’s say Amaro would trade Hamels to Los Angeles for Julio Urias and Corey Seager, the Dodgers’ two top prospects, both of whom are likely to wind up in the top 25, if not higher, of a lot of prospect rankings lists this offseason. And let’s say Dodgers GM Farhan Zaidi counters with Joc Pederson (a top-50-ish prospect) and Zach Lee (back end of the top 100 last year, before he posted a 5.38 ERA and a 5.8 K/9 in AAA last year. I know it was the PCL, but that fucking blows).

Neither Pederson nor Lee would be as good as Hamels even in the most optimistic future scenario. Both Urias and Seager could be, but being 18 and 20 years old, respectively, both represent more than a little uncertainty. If I’m going to trade Hamels, I want the possibility of getting an equivalent player back, and I want enough cracks at the wheel that it’s more likely than not I get him. Urias and Seager represent that. Pederson and Lee do not. 

6) Hamels’ value is not at an all-time high.

There seems to be a belief that Hamels’ value will never be higher. In a vacuum, that’s true, because players tend to get worse as they get older, so as time goes by, Hamels gets older and therefore worse. I’ll concede that, but there are other factors in play that influence Hamels’ trade value. First of all, as time goes on, Hamels’ contract comes closer to being over. Maybe a team won’t commit to paying a pitcher $25 million a year for four years, but maybe three years doesn’t sound so bad. The less future we have in front of us, the less scary that future is.

Second, conditions can change for the other 29 teams. Right now, it’s a buyer’s market for top-end starting pitching. You can get Max Scherzer, Shields or Lester and spend a little more money and not give up a prospect. Or you can go get Jeff Samardzija and get, I dunno, 80 percent of the pitcher for 40 percent of the prospect return. In the offseason, teams have options. Come July 30, when the Red Sox (or the Blue Jays) are a game out of first place because they have an all-world offense but only one decent starting pitcher, the incentives will have shifted. A million things could change that shift the balance of power back into the Phillies’ favor, and they’ve got the time to wait for some of those things to happen.

7) Opportunity cost.

Right now, I’m willing to risk Hamels losing value because Pederson and Lee is all that’s on the table, and Hamels’ value would have to fall quite a bit before it gets to the point where Lee and Pederson is an acceptable return. But let’s say I’m crazy, that Hamels isn’t worth Urias and Seager, or that he is, but the market hasn’t shaken out to the point where anyone will give them to me.

If I hold out in the hope of getting Urias and Seager and can’t get them, Pederson and Lee–or a roughly equivalent package–will be there in eight months or a year, or a year and a half. If I trade Hamels for Pederson and Lee now, that’s it. There’s no alternative.

That’s the only card Ruben Amaro holds: Hamels is 31 with a track record of health and excellence, and is signed through 2019. There’s no impending age-related blowup the way there was with Cliff Lee, and there’s no impending free agency like there was when the Blue Jays traded Roy Halladay.

The “or else” in “Trade Cole Hamels or else” isn’t bad enough that it should scare Ruben Amaro into trading Hamels for anything less than sticker price. I know the default position on any baseball ops decision the Phillies make is to mock it, particularly in the national media. Amaro doesn’t have to trade Hamels just because other people might say he’s being intransigent if no deal gets made right now.

You’re fucking right he’s being intransigent, and that’s not only his prerogative, it’s the only way the Phillies are going to get anything approaching a fair return for the best asset they’ve put on the market in a generation–maybe ever–and the only one that can make a difference now.

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