Big news came out this morning on the Philadelphia Phillies front, as the team's young, homegrown ace Cole Hamels has reportedly agreed to a six-year, $144 million contract extension with the team.
Hamels, 28, who would have been the top left-handed starting pitcher on the market this coming offseason and arguably the top overall free agent, has instead chosen to bypass free agency in favor of playing for the only team he's ever donned a uniform for in the Phillies.
Upon signing Hamels, the Phillies now have "achieved" a first in baseball by having three starting pitchers in their rotation earning an average annual value of at least $20 million. And along with teammates Ryan Howard and Jonathan Papelbon, the Phillies have tied up over $100 million to just five players next season.
Before this year, the Phillies had always feared surpassing the $178 million luxury tax. And they very well may still be wary of it. But with a new TV deal on the horizon in 2015, the Phillies should be more than able to afford all of their players, and possibly then some.
But what if the Phillies still have reservations of going over the luxury tax? Under the new CBA, first-time offenders only have to pay a 17.5 percent tax compared to 20 percent in previous years, but regardless that much on the dollar for millions over $178 million isn't necessarily any small sum of money.
The only way the Phillies may be able to shed some payroll is to move some of their other pieces. While they've won the battle with Cole Hamels, they may not be able to retain other fan favorites such as Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence. But could the Phillies make another player, perhaps a starting pitcher, available in a trade?
Before he was extended, Hamels' biggest suitor on the trade market was the Texas Rangers. The Rangers, who have had rotation woes this season and also have a deep farm system, were expected to make a push to acquire Hamels if an extension could not be reached. Now that a lost cause, there's a possibility that the two teams could still match up on another player. Per Buster Olney of ESPN:
With Cole Hamels off the board, TEX effort to add an elite starter down to this: Josh Johnson pursuit; ask on Cliff Lee; maybe Greinke.— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) July 25, 2012
While the Rangers could go after Zack Greinke, now the top starting pitcher on the free agent market this upcoming offseason, he's had social anxiety issues in the past and could have a problem pitching in a somewhat large market in Arlington. The Rangers could also pursue Josh Johnson of the Marlins, but since his shoulder injury last year he just hasn't been as effective, save for his most recent start in which he went six innings, allowing one hit and striking out nine before being removed for a blister on his finger.
It had come up that this past weekend's start against the San Francisco Giants could have been Hamels' last at Citizens Bank Park, and that Joe Blanton's start against the Giants could have been his last at home as well. But could last night have been Cliff Lee's last start as a Phillie at Citizens Bank Park?
Lee, who was pursued by the Rangers as the top free agent starting pitcher after 2010, was believed to have been deciding between the Rangers and the New York Yankees. However, at the eleventh hour, the Phillies swooped in and signed him to a five-year, $120 million contract. The rest is history.
But with the Phillies' bloated payroll in light of the Hamels extension, would the team consider trading its ace who loved the city so much in his 2009 stint with them that he was willing to forego extra money to return? For that move and that move alone, Lee is a fan favorite, although in his start last night against the Brewers (and Zack Greinke), he was booed coming off the mound after allowing six runs on 12 hits.
With his disastrous 1-6 record and near-4.00 ERA, maybe it's best for everyone that Lee is dealt. The Rangers have reportedly had interest in him since the Phillies signed him two years ago, and it's also been reported that his 21 team no-trade list does not include the Rangers.
If Cliff Lee is to be traded, the Phillies would likely demand a prospect package headlined by third base prospect Mike Olt, center fielder Leonys Martin and potentially left-handed pitcher Martin Perez. The Rangers would almost certainly want the Phillies to send over salary relief for Lee's contract in any deal, even though they were willing to pony up more money than what the Phillies paid him two years ago. That's just the nature of the trade market.
There's no certainty that Lee's even on the block and the Phillies have told other teams that they want to keep their trio of Halladay, Lee and Hamels together. But with Phillies GM Ruben Amaro, Jr., you never know what's going to happen before the July 31st trade deadline. A Cliff Lee trade to the Rangers could be the biggest surprise of them all.