Cole Hamels: With Past Trades in Mind, Phillies Should Not Rush to Trade Ace

Blink, and you may have missed this bit of news that scrolled across the waiver wire late last week. Right-handed pitcher Kyle Drabek was claimed by the Chicago White Sox after being placed on waivers by the Toronto Blue Jays. Why did this seemingly innocuous claiming of a pitcher with an 8-15 record and 5.27 ERA in five big league seasons catch my eye, and how does it relate to one of the potential blockbuster trades that will go down later this summer?

Well, let me tell you why. Way back in 2009, Drabek was a prospect on a meteoric rise through the Phillies’ farm system, who was the centerpiece of the deal that brought Roy Halladay to the City of Brotherly Love. This trade, and the fact that the Phillies have made it clear they are actively shopping staff ace Cole Hamels, got me thinking back on all of the trades the Phillies made during their rise to glory that saw them win a World Series in 2008, come up short in the 2009 Series, make it back to another NLCS, and have a 100-win season in 2011.

Also moving out of the Phillies’ system in the Hallday deal were catcher Travis d’Arnaud and outfielder Michael Taylor. Cliff Lee, whom the Phillies had acquired at the 2009 deadline, ended up in Seattle for a few months before re-signing with the Phillies during the 2010 offseason. To acquire Lee, the Phillies traded away a mother lode of prospects that included pitchers Jason Knapp and Carlos Carrasco, infielder Jason Donald, and catcher Lou Marson.

The Phillies were not done adding to their rotation, and in the summer of 2010, added Houston Astros’ ace Roy Oswalt to complement Halladay and Hamels. The Phillies parted with starter J.A. Happ and two prospects, outfielder Anthony Gose and infielder Jonathan Villar.

There was one final blockbuster move to be made by the Phillies, and that came in the summer of 2011. Returning to pick the pockets of the Astros once more, the Phillies sent first baseman Jon Singleton, outfielder Domingo Santana and pitchers Jarred Cosart and Josh Zeid to Houston in exchange for outfielder Hunter Pence. Pence played only 155 games with the Phillies before being traded at the 2012 deadline to the San Francisco Giants for an underwhelming package of Nate Schierholtz, Seth Rosin and Tommy Joseph.

Take a quick breather and process all of that, as it was quite a busy few years for the Phillies. Ruben Amaro and his staff went all in, and the result was three of the best baseball seasons in the history of Philadelphia baseball. Yes, the Phillies burned through the farm system faster than a Silicon Valley startup burns through cash, but who could blame them when they were in the process of rolling up a 292-194 record.

Now, the Phillies find themselves a shell of the team that dominated the National League for four consecutive seasons. Over the past three years, the Phillies have gone only 227-259. Injuries and age have decimated the Phillies, and all of the wheeling and dealing that wiped out the farm system left no reinforcements waiting in the wings as players like Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and Ryan Howard ride off into the sunset. Halladay’s career ended with a whimper, as a bum shoulder forced him out of the game. Lee’s career appears over, as the left-hander’s elbow is tattered with Tommy John surgery his only hope of pitching again. The lone holdovers from the 2008 World Series team still producing at or near All-Star level are Hamels, Utley, and catcher Carlos Ruiz.

The Phillies have entered a full-blown rebuilding effort. This once proud team is now nothing more than a salvage yard, relegated to flipping their pieces for whatever shiny new prospects a contender will give them. Lee’s injury troubles leave the Phillies with one real tradable asset, Hamels. There have been rumblings surrounding Howard, but his bloated contract and crippled body render him worthless on the trade market when it comes to what the Phillies are looking for — prospects. Utley will not be traded, as the organization must preserve at least one member of the 2008 Series-winning team. That leaves Hamels as the only truly valuable trade asset. The Phillies’ ace has already made it publicly clear his desires to play for a winning team. It is not a matter of if, it is a matter of when, in the case of Cole Hamels departure from the only Major League city he has called home.

Here’s the thing though about all of the trades the Phillies made between 2009 and 2011 — they came out on top in every one except the Pence deal. Halladay pitched four seasons in Philadelphia and went 55-29 with a 3.25 ERA. His WAR in Philadelphia was 17.1. The three prospects the Phillies traded away to land him, Drabek, d’Arnaud, and Taylor? They have a combined career WAR of -1.2. Drabek, once thought to be a future ace, is relegated to the bullpen, d’Arnaud has been handed the Mets’ backstop job, but had 12 passed balls last year and only a .302 OBP, and Taylor has been the least valuable with a -1.1 WAR in parts of four Major League seasons. Final score of this trade, Phillies 17.1, prospects -1.2.

The Lee deal may be even more skewed in the Phillies’ favor. In five seasons wearing red and white, Lee has put up a WAR of 22.3. Let’s take a look at the players he was swapped for, Carrasco, Knapp, Marson, and Donald. Carrasco finally blossomed last season with the Indians, posting a 2.55 ERA, pitching mostly out of the bullpen. He has 3.3 WAR for his career. Knapp has yet to reach the big leagues, and has undergone two separate shoulder surgeries. Marson last played in the Majors in 2013, when he received five at-bats for the Indians. He signed as a minor league free agent with the Cincinnati Reds this winter and has a career 1.6 WAR. The final piece of the trade, Donald, played only 170 Major League games and put together a 1.3 career WAR. He is currently out of professional baseball. Again, the final score comes out as a rout for the Phillies, 22.3 to 6.2, without considering the fact that one of the pieces of the trade has yet to throw a pitch with the Indians.

The trades with the Astros begin to feel a little more even-sided. Oswalt made only 36 starts with the Phillies before beginning to break down. The highlight of his time in Phildelphia was the 7-1 stretch with a 1.84 ERA he put together to close out the 2010 season. From those 36 starts, the Phillies managed to squeeze out 5.4 WAR from the Mississippi country boy. Happ has not been able to replicate the success he experienced in Philadelphia, and has since been traded a second time. Happ has not had an ERA below 4.00 since leaving the Phillies, and has a WAR of 1.4 with Toronto and Houston. Gose is still seen as a potentially promising player, although at this point in his career, it appears he is destined for little more than replacement-level production. Gose holds a .234 career batting average, but does have 34 stolen bases. His career WAR is 1.2. Villar rounds out this deal, and he is the proud owner of a .224 career batting average, .291 OBP, and 151 strikeouts in 145 games with the Astros. All of that is good for a WAR of 0.6. Despite the abbreviated stint Oswalt had in Philadelphia, the Phillies still come out on top yet again, 5.4 to 3.2.

Finally, we come to the two Pence trades. These two trades reek of the Phillies fully entering win-now-mode. At the time of the trade for Pence, the Phillies were stuck between a rock and a hard place, with Domonic Brown not truly ready for the Majors. So, Amaro pulled the trigger and brought Pence in to help finish out a 102-60 season. Pence was then flipped to the Giants less than a full season later. In his time in Philly, Pence added 3.0 WAR, not bad for 155 games. He has since gone on to register 7.7 WAR in 383 games in the Bay Area. Not to be forgotten are the two World Series rings he has claimed in that time.

It is difficult to evaluate what the Phillies gave up to acquire Pence because of how recently the trade was made. Unlike the other trades, the prospects given away for Pence are just now reaching the Majors. You cannot fault the Phillies for parting with Singleton. He is a carbon copy of Howard, a bad-body, poor-fielding first baseman who will strike out a lot and hit home runs. Singleton got his first taste of Major League pitching last season and struck out 134 times in only 95 games. He batted .168 and also made 11 errors. Not quite the most auspicious debut if you ask me. Cosart appears to be the best of the bunch of prospects the Phillies dealt away. Cosart went 13-11 in his first full big league season, and excelled in ten starts with the Miami Marlins after being traded by the Astros. That being said, the book is still out on Cosart, as he needs to show he can pitch effectively over the course of a full season. Zeid was a throw-in in this deal, and has a 5.21 ERA in 48 career relief appearances. Santana drew the collar in 17 at-bats with the Astros last season, but has a .273/.364/.470 slash line in the minors.

Where the Phillies really lost this trade is in their panicked unloading of Pence less than a season after parting with some of their top prospects to get him. None of the players acquired in the deal contributed to the Phillies in a meaningful way. This may go down as one of the most lopsided deals in the history of baseball. Schierholtz played only 37 games with the Phillies and had a WAR of -0.1, Rosin has not yet thrown an inning for the Phillies and Joseph has a career .251 minor league batting average. Simply put, it’s not pretty.

How does this relate to the Phillies’ current situation? Amaro went all-in to bring a second World Series title to Philadelphia. He got damn close. At the end of the day, the Phillies came out on top in nearly all of the trades made in that time span, as evidenced by the 47.8 WAR the Phillies received from Halladay, Lee, Oswalt, and Pence. To get that 47.8 WAR, the Phillies gave up only 15.9 WAR. The moves can be viewed as a failure if you want to focus only on World Series titles. To position themselves to contend for the World Series in three straight seasons, these were moves that had to be made.

The Phillies are now staring down the barrel of another move that has to be made. There is no hope on the horizon for the Phillies, and Amaro knows it. His lineup puts the R in WAR. I could list the names, but outside of Utley, Ruiz, and Howard, none are worth knowing. Hamels is due to earn $23.5 million per season through 2018. He has an option for $20 million in 2019. If the Phillies have no shot at contending, it would be ludicrous to pay Hamels a guaranteed $94 million over the next four seasons. A pitcher of Hamels’ caliber serves no real purpose on a ball club that will struggle to win 75 games. The Phillies’ minor league system is bereft of Major League-ready position player prospects, and if they can net a haul of big league-ready prospects, it may go far in preparing this franchise to win again.

What the Phillies cannot do, is rush into a trade of Hamels. He is going nowhere fast, and has had no history of injury in his career. Hamels has made over 30 starts in seven consecutive seasons. With Lee’s trade value now next to nothing, Hamels is the Phillies only hope for bringing in real premier prospects, but that does not mean they should rush to trade their ace as the Tampa Bay Rays did a year ago with David Price. The Rays traded away an ace and got a back of the rotation starter in Drew Smyly and an infielder with a career .213 batting average in Nick Franklin. The Phillies cannot afford to make such an underwhelming trade.

If the Phillies are not overwhelmed by a trade offer for Hamels, there is no reason to pull the trigger on a deal. Expect the Red Sox to pursue Hamels heavily given the shoddy state of their rotation. The Red Sox have six of the MLB.com preseason top-100 prospects in their farm system. Catcher Blake Swihart could be seen as the most desirable, outside of the untouchable Yoan Moncada, but the recent injury to Christian Vazquez likely renders Swihart untouchable as well. A group of Arizona State University students recently won the SABR Diamond Dollars Case competition by designing the ideal trade between the Phillies and Red Sox. In it, they determined that a swap of pitchers Henry Owens and Eduardo Rodriguez and outfielder Manuel Margot would produce the most value for both sides.

In numberland, this looks like a winning trade, but predicting the future success of raw baseball players is perhaps the most difficult thing to do in sports. USA Today wrote an interesting piece on Lee, who has been traded four times over the course of his career. Thirteen prospects have changed hands in these four trades. Their resulting WAR is a robust 6.6. Lee put up 7.3 WAR in 2013 alone. Trading Hamels is something the Phillies must do in order to restock their farm system, but Amaro must exercise extreme caution when evaluating the players he will receive. In each of the Phillies’ recent trades for an ace, they, not the team receiving the package of prospects, came out on top. The team cannot afford to come out on the short end of the stick in an eventual Hamels trade.

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