Is David Price or Cole Hamels MLB's Best Available Pitching Trade Target?

Mike Rosenbaum@GoldenSombreroMLB Prospects Lead WriterDecember 18, 2013

Is David Price or Cole Hamels MLB's Best Available Pitching Trade Target?

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    David Price will become a free agent after the 2015 season.
    David Price will become a free agent after the 2015 season.Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

    Rumors surfaced last week during the winter meetings that David Price may be traded to the Seattle Mariners in exchange for a prospect package including right-hander Taijuan Walker.

    This week, another All-Star left-hander popped up in trade rumors after Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. mentioned he’d be willing to discuss trades for Cole Hamels, according to ESPN’s Buster Olney

    The nearly 30-year-old Hamels and Price, 28, each have ranked among the best pitchers in the game annually during their respective careers and even posted eerily similar numbers along the way.

    Now, they’re both sources of ongoing trade rumors.

    This, of course, begs the question: Is David Price or Cole Hamels baseball’s best left-handed pitching trade target this offseason?

    *All contract information courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.

    *All statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted.

David Price

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    Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

    2014 Age: 28

    Contract: Third-year arbitration eligible (Super Two status); will become a free agent after the 2015 season.

    Career Outlook

    Price has been an absolute workhorse for Tampa Bay, averaging 208 innings per season over the last four years (his age-24 to age-27 seasons).

    The left-hander’s 3.02 ERA and 127 ERA+ (adjusted ERA) both rank sixth among starting pitchers that logged at least 800 innings since 2010. Price also has posted the ninth-best strikeout-to-walk rate (3.34) during that span.

    In terms of his value to a team as a staff ace, Price’s 17.3 WAR (per Baseball Reference) is the seventh-highest total over the last four seasons. And, like Price, four of the six pitchers that rank ahead of him on the list—Felix Hernandez, Clayton Kershaw, Cliff Lee, Justin Verlander—have won a Cy Young Award during their careers.

    In 2012, Price won the American League Cy Young Award after going 20-5 with a 2.56 ERA and 205-59 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 211 innings (31 starts). As a result of his enormously successful campaign, the Rays elected to avoid arbitration and signed him to a one-year contract worth $10.1125 million prior to the 2013 season—a new record for a second-time arbitration-eligible pitcher, according to MLB Trade Rumors. However, $4 million of that total was deferred to the 2014 season.

    Price is now in his third year of arbitration this offseason thanks to his Super 2 service-time status, which essentially means that he’ll become increasingly expensive over the next two years and then really expensive, far too expensive for the small-market Rays, when he hits free agency following the 2015 season. According to Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports, the left-hander has the potential for $30 million in salary.

    However, it’s not a guarantee Price will continue to pitch like an ace in the next two years (and beyond). While his outstanding résumé since the 2010 season puts the odds in his favor, several red flags cropped up during the 2013 season that will make any interested team at least slightly skeptical of his health and durability moving forward.

    Price made his first trip to the disabled list this past season, spending roughly a month-and-a-half on the DL with a left triceps injury. As a result, Price failed to eclipse the 200-inning threshold for the first time since 2010.

    The 28-year-old also endured a worrisome decrease in fastball velocity. In 2012, Price averaged 95.5 mph with his four-seam fastball, according to FanGraphs. This season, he averaged only 93.5 mph.

    Price’s drop in fastball velocity in 2013 also impeded his ability to challenge hitters in the zone with the pitch as he did in previous years. Specifically, opposing hitters made contact 88.3 percent (per FanGraphs) of the time on fastballs within the strike zone this season, which represents a considerable regression compared to 84.6 percent in 2010.

    Logically, Price’s reduced velocity also led to a decreased whiff rate last season, as he lacked the extra oomph to blow it past hitters at the top of the zone. Just look at his 2012 fastball whiff rate compared to his one from 2013 (per Brooks Baseball).

    In early December, FanGraphs’ Dave Cameron discussed Price’s potential value over the final two years of his contract:

    David Price has roughly established himself as a +4.5 WAR pitcher, and heading into his age-28 season, there’s no huge reason to think he’s going to diverge from that path any time soon.

    So, for the next two years, it’s fair to expect Price to produce something like +8 or +9 WAR, depending on how much you want to regress for aging and how concerned you are about Price’s velocity and strikeout drops in 2013. Let’s just give Price the benefit of the doubt and call it +9 WAR over the next two years, keeping him at the rate he’s established over the last two years.

    Over those same two years, Price is going to earn roughly $30 million in salary via the arbitration, since he was a Super-Two and his Cy Young season helped accelerate his earnings. $30 million for nine projected wins is certainly a pretty great deal, as we’re seeing the market pay something closer to $6 or $7 million per win right now. If Price was a free agent and told teams he would only sign for two years, I think he’d probably end up around $60 million, maybe even $65 million, for those two seasons.

    Whichever team ultimately trades for Price this offseason will do so with the intent to sign him to a long-term contract extension before hitting free agency. Meanwhile, the fact that he’ll be paid roughly half his market value over the next two seasons makes him an even more attractive trade candidate; it theoretically gives a team an extra year to structure their payroll in anticipation of the extension.

    The Rays are likely to command a greater return for Price than they did with James Shields and Wade Davis last offseason. That trade, of course, got them AL Rookie of the Year Wil Myers.

    The ongoing belief is that the Mariners will pull the trigger on a deal for Price this offseason. It makes a lot of sense: Seattle has both the financial flexibility to extend Price and the high-end prospects to match Tampa Bay’s interests. More significantly, the organization has a need to “win now” after signing free agent Robinson Cano to a 10-year, $240 million deal.

    It’s a foregone conclusion that top prospect Taijuan Walker will be the dealbreaker in a trade for the Rays’ ace. In general, the organization knows that they can get at least one top-ranked prospect by trading Price this offseason, which also speaks to the left-hander’s perceived value in the coming years and for the duration of his career.

    The Arizona Diamondbacks could emerge as a player in the sweepstakes for Price this offseason because why not, right? However, signing him to a long-term extension could be an issue with significant money tied up in offensive assets Aaron Hill, Paul Goldschmidt, Miguel Montero, Martin Prado and Cody Ross. But should the team offer top prospect Archie Bradley—the top pitching prospect in baseball—to the Rays, it would at least give the organization the opportunity to negotiate with Price over the next year-plus.

Cole Hamels

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    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    2014 Age: 30

    Contract: Hamels signed a six-year, $144 million (2013-18) contract extension in July of 2012 that includes a $24 million vesting option in 2019. He will become a free agent after the 2018 season at the earliest.

    Career Outlook

    Hamels has been one of the most consistent and productive starting pitchers in baseball since reaching the major leagues as a 22-year-old in 2006.

    The soon-to-be 30-year-old has proven to be durable over his eight-year career with the Phillies, logging at least 180 innings in seven consecutive seasons and eclipsing the 200-inning threshold five times in the last six years.

    Between starting pitchers that logged at least 1,200 innings between the 2006 and 2013 seasons, Hamels owns the ninth-best ERA (3.38) and ERA+ (123), ranking ahead of both Justin Verlander and Tim Lincecum.

    Furthermore, Hamels’ 33.8 WAR since 2006 is the sixth-highest total among his peers, and his 3.83 strikeout-to-walk rate during that span is good for the fourth-highest ratio behind teammate Cliff Lee and former teammate Roy Halladay.

    In July of 2012, the Phillies and Hamels agreed to a six-year, $144 million contract extension covering the 2013-18 seasons, not including an additional $6 million signing bonus. The deal also included a limited no-trade clause and $24 million vesting option for the 2019 season.

    As outlined in his contract, Hamels is guaranteed to make the full $24 million in 2019 if he 1) pitches in 400 innings between 2017-18, including 200 innings in 2018, and 2) is not on the disabled list with an elbow or shoulder injury at the end of the 2018 season.

    At the time of the signing, Hamels’ contract was the second-largest ever for a pitcher as well as the richest in Philadelphia sports history.

    His first full season as a filthy rich man began ominously, as the southpaw pitched to a 4.87 ERA and surrendered 10 home runs in 74 innings over the first two months of the season.

    Hamels eventually regained his form in late June as the weather improved and proceeded to dominate over the second half of the season. In 13 starts after the All-Star break, Hamels posted a much-improved 2.97 ERA and 84-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 91 innings.

    Hamels’ extensive playoff résumé also played a part in his ginormous contract extension.

    The left-hander has appeared in the postseason in five of his eight seasons with the Phillies, making 13 starts over 10 different playoff series. Overall, Hamels owns a 3.09 ERA and 3.69 strikeout-to-walk rate in 81.2 postseason innings.

    However, the 2008 NLCS will always be remembered as Hamels’ coming-out party. After carving up the Brewers in the LDS, the then-24-year-old helped the Phillies take down the Dodgers with a pair of brilliant starts. At the conclusion of the series, Hamels was named the NLCS MVP after recording two wins and allowing only three earned runs in 14 innings.

    Although Hamels has been a model of consistency over the last four years, the left-hander was plagued by injuries early in his career.

    In 2006, not long after he reached the major leagues, Hamels landed on the 15-day disabled list with a left shoulder strain. He returned to the disabled list the following year, this time missing 30 games after he suffering a mild UCL sprain in his left elbow.

    Hamels’ left shoulder once again flared up during the 2011 season, resulting in another trip to the 15-day DL. And last but not least, the southpaw underwent surgery after the 2011 season to remove loose bodies from his left elbow.

    So, with his history of left elbow and shoulder problems, you can start to understand why the Phillies wanted certain contingencies in place with this contract before guaranteeing him $24 million in 2019 as a 35-year-old. Unfortunately, that doesn’t offer insight as to why the organization is willing to pay Hamels $23.5 million per year during the pitcher’s age-32 to age-34 seasons.

    The Phillies reportedly are willing to discuss trades involving left-handers Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee this offseason, according to ESPN’s Buster Olney (via Twitter).

    However, Jayson Stark (also of ESPN) later clarified that Philadelphia will only trade Hamels if it’s a “win-win” situation, meaning that the organization wants a solid return of young players and relief from Hamels’ current contract.

    The reality is that, given the current market, no team in its right mind will be willing to part with multiple young players and take on the remaining five years and $112.5 million of his contract.

    Plus, after the Phillies re-signed Chase Utley and Carlos Ruiz, dealing Hamels, the face of their franchise, this offseason would mean the organization is rebuilding—and we all know that’s not true.

    If the Phillies were to hypothetically match up with another team in a deal for Hamels, then it would have to be one with top-ranked positions prospects.

    That being said, the Dodgers could emerge as a suitor for Hamels this winter, as they have both the money and talent needed to complete a deal. In exchange for the left-hander, the Phillies would likely receive some combination of outfielder Joc Pederson and shortstop Corey Seager, with 2010 first-rounder Zach Lee possibly being offered as the dealbreaker.

So, Which Lefty Is the Better Trade Target?

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    Jim Rogash/Getty Images

    Amazingly, Hamels is one of a select few starting pitchers to outperform Price statistically in recent years, as he’s produced 3.9 more wins than the Rays’ left-hander since the start of the 2010 season.

    However, my problem with attempting to compare Hamels and Price so linearly is that both pitchers excelled in different roles on their club.

    Despite the presence of James Shields at the front of Tampa Bay’s rotation, Price has been considered the staff ace since he finished second in the Cy Young Award voting in 2010. He officially earned the “ace” label by winning the award in 2012.

    Hamels, on the other hand, has spent a majority of his career pitching in the middle of the Phillies’ rotation behind big guns such as Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. So even though he’s put up numbers comparable to Price’s and pitched extremely well in the postseason, experience (or rather success) as an ace/No. 1 starter will always carry significant value.

    While both pitchers have spent time on the disabled list during their respective careers, Hamels’ medical history is far more concerning, with three trips to the 15-day DL between the 2006-11 seasons for elbow and shoulder injuries, as well as a minor surgical procedure performed on his elbow.

    Price’s only DL stint came during the 2013 season due to a triceps injury. However, the left-hander’s diminished velocity upon returning raised questions about an ongoing, more serious injury—a discussion that will surely carry over into 2014.

    Simply put: Both Hamels and Price have their own respective levels of risk moving forward.

    But what makes Price the more appealing trade candidate is that he’s still under team control for two more seasons. Any team that trades for Hamels will be obligated to pay him $112.5 million over the next five.

    Because Price’s contract is potentially manageable for a wider range of teams, more suitors should emerge this offseason as free agents fall in place. Signing him to an extension won’t be cheap, as he’s likely to command a contract similar to Hamels’, but having him for the next two years during his age-28 and age-29 seasons could make it worthwhile.