As the Philadelphia Phillies wrap up their most recent losing streak — a six-gamer — speculation rages on regarding the landing spot of the franchise’s ace pitcher, Cole Hamels. Hamels will be traded as the Phillies continue the rebuilding process. Hamels, in his tenth Major League season, will command a high price, as he should. The Phillies and General Manager Ruben Amaro have made it clear that it will take a treasure trove of elite prospects to pry Hamels away. Amaro and his staff have been criticized roundly for continuing to hold out for an offer that blows them away, but the Phillies are making the right move in continuing to hold Hamels as long as they can. In fact, I do not think it would be a mistake to hold him into the offseason.
Every year, aces get traded at the deadline. Last year, for example, both Jon Lester and Jeff Samardzija ended up wearing Oakland Athletics jerseys. David Price landed with the Detroit Tigers. Neither Lester or Samardzija play for the Athletics this season. There is a good chance that Price will not top the Tigers’ rotation next year. The pitchers acquired by the Athletics were classic rental-type acquisitions, and many of the other pitchers on the block this July — Johnny Cueto, Scott Kazmir, and Samardzija — are in the same boat. All will be free agents following this season, and any team trading for them may only have their services for a few months.
That is not the case with Hamels. He is signed with the Phillies through the 2018 season. He has a club option for 2019 that will pay him $20 million. Any team that trades for him is guaranteed of having him on their roster for at least three more seasons, and most likely four, as Hamels would most likely require any team that trades for him to guarantee his option. That means whoever acquires Hamels will receive four full years of ace-level performance for only $90.5 million. How bad does that sound when considering Rick Porcello will earn $82.5 million over the same time span. Hamels, with a career 3.26 ERA, is an ace in every sense of the word. Porcello, on the other hand, clearly is not. But over the remainder of Hamels’ contract, he will earn only $2 million more per season. Even as he approaches his age-35 season at the end of the contract, Hamels is likely to remain a bargain.
The trade market is sure to be frothy leading up to the deadline. If the Phillies do still have their mind made up to trade Hamels this season, they must wait until after the rest of the dominos — Cueto, Kazmir, and Samardzija — fall. Only then should they make a deal. There are multiple teams in severe need of starting pitching, and all will be desperate to trade for Hamels should they miss out on the other big three. Even if a deal is not made, the Phillies still have the entire winter to trade Hamels, as well as the next three seasons. The Tampa Bay Rays made a mistake last season by rushing to trade Price and received an underwhelming package. Perhaps that has something to do with an unwillingness to pay Price the $19.75 million he received in arbitration, but nonetheless, the Rays played their card too early and did not receive elite prospects in return.
The free agent pitching class of 2015 is littered with elite names. In addition to the trio already mentioned, Jordan Zimmermann and Price will be free agents. Zack Greinke is also likely to opt out of his contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers to pursue a higher salary. Each of these pitchers is likely to command a deal in the neighborhood of the six years, $155 million that Lester received last winter, with Kazmir the possible exception. The salaries for starting pitchers, much like elite quarterbacks in the NFL, continue to escalate quickly, and this winter will be no different. By the time the ink dries on the contracts of this year’s crop of free agent aces, Hamels may look like an extreme bargain, despite the quality of prospects that will be required to land him.
Those worrying that the Phillies will be left holding the bag on Hamels, as they are with Cliff Lee, should not be. Hamels has been incredibly durable his entire career, and has had no injury history. He has thrown over 200 innings in six of his eight full seasons, and has a smooth delivery that does not portend future arm trouble, at least not in the near future. Obviously the crystal ball reads only so far when attempting to predict the long-term health of an group of ligaments and tendons being asked to do something extremely stressful far more frequently than intended by design. It is very unlikely at this point that Hamels suffers a catastrophic injury over the final three months of the 2015 season.
The Phillies are in a unique position with their trade chip, Hamels. He is not a rental, and that presents them with more of an opportunity to be patient, and wait for the best deal. As the Phillies enjoyed their years of contention, they were very often the ones acquiring the aces. The trades for Lee, Roy Halladay, and Roy Oswalt are no doubt part of the reason the Phillies are sunk so deep into rebuilding mode. The farm system was stripped bare to build the rotation that led to World Series appearances and division titles. However, it is worth noting that of the pieces traded away by the Phillies in these deals, only Carlos Carrasco of the Cleveland Indians could be labeled anything more than a marginal big league success. The Phillies cannot afford to receive prospects for Hamels that fail, and that process requires patience and thorough scouting, analysis, and internal discussion. As the season continues to play out, there will be more opportunity to evaluate performances from this season, which could prove valuable to the Phillies.
The Phillies could go either way at the deadline when it comes to Hamels, and it would not surprise me if he is traded. That does not mean, however, that Amaro and the front office should be derided if they decide to hold onto Hamels into the offseason. For many of the reasons I have laid out above, I believe it to be the right move. Hamels will remain a valuable commodity heading into next season because he offers certainty beyond the 2015 season. Any prospects the Phillies have their eye on right now will not help the ballclub this year, and will remain available come the offseason. Several more months of observation will only help the Phillies feel more confident regarding the potential of any prospects they could receive.
Make no mistake, Cole Hamels will be traded, but not necessarily before this year’s deadline. The Phillies are in a position that differs from most teams who deal their ace. They must use this to their advantage and find the best possible deal. Waiting the out the market is the right thing to do. Phillies fans, never known for their patience, may not agree, but keeping Hamels into the winter is just as wise, if not more so, a move as trading him before the July 31 deadline.