You might have noticed that the Cole Hamels Trade Countdown is stuck. It seemed to be steadily ticking down for a while there, but the Philadelphia Phillies have pushed the pause button.
And not by accident. They appear to have a plan. It's whether they have a good plan that's the question.
Though Jim Salisbury of CSNPhilly.com reported two weeks ago that the Phillies were in "staredowns" with four teams in trade talks for Hamels, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. told Jake Kaplan of The Philadelphia Inquirer last week that he expects the ace left-hander "to be in our uniform, frankly."
As for why Amaro doesn't foresee a trade, he didn't bother arguing that Hamels can help the Phillies win in 2015. Evidently, he understands the Phillies are a bad team that is now undergoing an overdue rebuild.
Rather, here's the real deal: "That said, he’s one of the best pitchers in baseball. And so, if we were to move him, we’re going to have to get some of the best prospects in baseball back."
So it goes. Amaro's asking price has been rumored to be super-high from the start, and there are reports out from Rob Bradford of WEEI.com and Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports that say rival executives perceive Amaro's asking price to be too high.
Which is a fair gripe. Though Hamels has been one of the National League's best pitchers in recent seasons, he's also 31 and is still owed somewhere between $100 and $120 million over the next four to five years. I figure he's worth only one top prospect on top of his remaining contract, which clearly isn't the deal Amaro has in mind.
You can call it stubbornness, but here's guessing "patience" is the word Amaro prefers. He's apparently decided that he's better off waiting for teams to come to him rather than stooping to go to them.
And in fairness, one need not be Spock to see the logic in that idea.
For Amaro to get the offer he wants for Hamels, he needs leverage. To get leverage, he needs more desperate buyers.
That nobody seems desperate now has much to do with timing. The winter has reached the point where rosters are largely set, and teams are more or less ready for the season. A sellers' market, this is not.
But it may not be long before Amaro has a desperate team or two knocking on his door. It's generally accepted that spring training is meaningless, but take it from Amaro's boss that it has been known to change teams' minds.
"It's funny. In this game, things change," Phillies President and CEO Pat Gillick told MLB.com's Todd Zolecki. "People are not in the mood to do something, then they go to Spring Training and all of a sudden...they realize they want to be competitive and want to do something. A lot of this maybe will shake out in Spring Training. I'd look for probably more interest in a lot of our players come Spring Training."
It's not unthinkable that a team will get midway through spring training, suddenly have second thoughts about its rotation and decide to get serious about Hamels. The injury bug could also steer teams toward him, just as it steered the Atlanta Braves toward Ervin Santana last spring.
And if the demand for Hamels doesn't heat up this spring, it could always heat up during the season.
As FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan explained at Fox Sports:
The big upside is this: during the year, wins are valued more highly than they are during the offseason. ... During the year, teams know more about their quality and place in the standings than they know in December or January. Also, there are just fewer pieces available, especially in this era with additional wild cards, where it's easier than ever to believe your team's in contention. The trade deadline makes for a good seller's market.
If their plan is to open the season with Hamels, these things bode well for the Phillies.
Also, Hamels is only going to get cheaper. More and more money will be chipped off his $23.5 million salary for 2015 as the season moves along. And if he's still available next winter, prospective buyers would be looking at a $76.5-94.5 million pitcher rather than a $100-120 million pitcher.
Basically, Amaro is going by the book. He's put a big price on Hamels' ace status and is now playing the waiting game to hopefully strike when the iron is hot later rather than striking while the iron is cold now.
Again, you can see the logic. Just as easy to see, however, are the potential pitfalls of this plan.
For starters, there's no guarantee that demand for Hamels will increase in spring training.
Teams may have second thoughts about their rotations or experience injuries, but expendable assets don't conveniently increase as needs appear. And with six full months of real baseball directly ahead, it's not the best time for teams to get desperate enough to sacrifice what assets they do have.
In theory, the Phillies stand a better chance of moving Hamels during the season, when teams know what they need and the trade market favors sellers. But in reality, 2015 is a year when the Phillies could be out of luck.
Teams are undoubtedly going to need pitching help when the trade deadline rolls around, but the point about assets not conveniently increasing when needs appear still stands. Teams are always looking to be cost conscious, which is why you hear so much about cheap rental players around the trade deadline.
And looking ahead, this summer could be teeming with rental pitchers. The list of free-agent-to-be pitchers includes: Mark Buehrle, A.J. Burnett, Bartolo Colon, Johnny Cueto, Doug Fister, Yovani Gallardo, Hisashi Iwakuma, Scott Kazmir, Ian Kennedy, John Lackey, Mat Latos, Kyle Lohse, Rick Porcello, David Price, Jeff Samardzija and Jordan Zimmermann.
Not all of those names are going to find their way to the trade block. But some of them will, and their modest prices could absolutely make it difficult for the Phillies to peddle Hamels at their price.
And that's a problem that could extend into the winter. It's probable that all of those pitchers will be looking for work on the open market. In that case, the pitching supply would easily outweigh the demand and, in turn, make a huge asking price for Hamels look decidedly laughable.
|Cole Hamels' Remaining Contract|
|2019||$6M buyout, $20M team option, $24M vesting option|
All of this is to say nothing of the other issue with holding on to Hamels. Though the passing of time will indeed make his contract more affordable, it will also shorten his controllability. If teams are unwilling to meet Philadelphia's asking price for Hamels' four remaining years, they may be even less willing to meet a similar asking price for three and a half or three remaining years.
Then there's the outlook of Hamels himself. He may hold ace status now, but injuries and/or a good old-fashioned decline could easily take it from him.
And with Hamels, these are real concerns.
He's less than a year removed from arm trouble that delayed the start of his 2014 season. He also has elbow and shoulder injuries on his medical track record and probably isn't getting any more durable now that his 31-year-old arm has over 1,800 innings on it.
If Hamels does remain healthy, the career-best 2.46 ERA he authored in 2014 strongly suggests his performance isn't due for a step back. There are metrics that strongly suggest otherwise, however.
Per FanGraphs, Hamels had one of the largest differences between his ERA and his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) of any pitcher last season. Two other metrics (xFIP and SIERA) liked him even less than FIP did. Because these metrics are more useful with predicting future performance than ERA, this doesn't bode well.
So, in a nutshell: Hamels is both an injury and a regression risk, and his trade market is poised to be clouded by a wealth of alternative options and his own ever-descending controllability.
The potential reward of holding on to Hamels is definitely there. But this is where we say that the risk appears to be stronger than the reward. And in this case, that's our cue to say the Phillies are better off making a safe trade now than holding out for an ideal trade later.
Don't expect the Phillies to change course, though. Amaro's calling the shots, and the Rosenthal report cited way back when included a note from a rival executive that Amaro might need a "perfect" trade to save his job. If true, he has nothing to gain from moving quickly and everything to gain from waiting.
What's best for Amaro, however, may not be what's best for the Phillies. They already have a long rebuild ahead of them, and not trading Hamels now could well make it even longer.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.
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