The Cliff Lee Effect: Cole Hamels and His Rising Contract Demands

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The Cliff Lee Effect:  Cole Hamels and His Rising Contract Demands
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While the current successful run the Philadelphia Phillies are experiencing is unprecedented in the team’s 128 year history, there is also another situation brewing that's just as unique.  Unless a long-term extension is worked out beforehand, the moment the last out is recorded in the 2012 World Series, Cole Hamels will be eligible to file for free agency and sign with any team he chooses.

This is a situation the Phillies have never faced before.  Mostly because throughout its history, the team has, quite frankly, never been very good.  Nor have they produced many great players, which obviously goes hand-in-hand with producing great teams. 

During the franchise's only other successful run during the late 1970s/early 1980s, free agency was in its infancy, and neither of the team’s two truly great players (Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton—Pete Rose was great too, but he wasn’t a Phillie for the majority of his career) were never granted free agency until it was too late in their careers to matter.

However, Cole Hamels is a different story.  He is perhaps the greatest pitcher the Phillies have developed since the onset of the free-agent era, and if he is allowed to enter the free agent market many teams will be lining up with open checkbooks to sign the soon-to-be 29 year old left-hander.  He’ll probably be close to (or above) 100 career victories, and with two post-season MVP trophies resting on his mantle already, teams know he can produce in October.  

Hamels, unless he wins one beforehand (and it’s looking good this year), won’t have the Cy Young trophy that CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee did before signing their massive contracts.  Yet neither one had multiple post-season awards, and teams might find them more valuable.   Guys like Jake Peavy and Pat Hentgen have won Cy Young’s; very few have won multiple post-season MVPs.

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The Phillies may have shot themselves in the foot by signing Cliff Lee.  If he's worth $24 million a year at age 32, then what's Hamels worth at age 29, with just as impressive a resume?  Pat Gillick brought a lot of good things to Philadelphia, including his unwritten rule of never giving a pitcher more than three guaranteed years.  But after handing out five (and very likely six) guaranteed contract years to Lee, how can the Phillies honestly tell Cole Hamels he’s only worth three to them?

Potentially, Hamels could have a Cy Young award and at least two World Series Championships by the time he's 29. His agent could make the case he’s worth more than Sabathia or Lee was when they signed their deals.  At 29, he would be younger than Lee was, and with his trophies and championship rings he’s more accomplished than Sabathia.  It wouldn’t be unreasonable for his agent to ask for $200 million over 8 seasons, would it? 

Could the Phillies afford that?  Could a team that once considered itself “small market” (barely twenty years ago) maintain a pitching staff where three hurlers earn north of $70 million?  Would the Dodgers (whose financial mess should be sorted out by then), Angels or Mariners make a play to get Hamels closer to his hometown of San Diego?  Would the Yankees or Red Sox get in on the bidding and make it interesting?

The Phillies have been on a great run, but as Robert Frost once wrote, “Nothing Gold Can Stay”.  It will end one way or another, and perhaps things could collapse when they become to expensive to hold together. 

The Phillies and Hamels negotiated his current contract with this situation in mind.  It gives the team and player a full year to decide what to do.  Do they give him a one-year deal and attempt to trade him at the deadline before his free-agency year?  Do they let him walk for draft picks?  Or do they sign him the richest contract in franchise history and hope his left-arm holds up for the duration?

My gut says they lock him up after the season, meeting somewhere between what the Phillies are comfortable with and what Hamels could get on the open market.  A 6-year contract extension worth $22 million per season sounds fair and should get it done.  However it might spell the end of Chase Utley in Philadelphia.

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