Every start Cole Hamels makes is an audition. And with each performance, his audience appears to be growing.
If that is indeed the case, they must be liking what they're seeing.
Hamels made his fifth start of 2015 Monday night, and it was a good one. The ace left-hander led the Philadelphia Phillies to a 4-1 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals with seven innings of one-run ball. He did allow four walks, but he also permitted just four hits and struck out nine.
That makes it three starts out of four that Hamels has pitched at least six innings while allowing no more than one earned run. His overall ERA is 3.19, which looks an awful lot like his career 3.27 ERA. If one didn't know any better, one would say he's still one of the best pitchers in the National League.
So, that sound you're hearing is Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. rubbing his hands together with excitement. He has a pretty massive rebuilding job on his hands, and the guy who was supposed to be his best trade chip isn't letting him down.
That alone would be good enough for Hamels' trade value. But as you might have noticed, what's helping it even further is that his list of possible suitors is growing by the day.
And at the top of the list might be the team Hamels just beat.
The Cardinals confirmed Monday that staff ace Adam Wainwright has been lost for the season with a torn Achilles. He's a guy few pitchers are capable of replacing, and the club's in-house options certainly fall well short in that regard.
Because it's still only April, the Cardinals understandably aren't rushing to make a trade. But GM John Mozeliak did tell Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he "might have to look outside" eventually, and it's a good bet Hamels will be at the top of his wish list if and when that time comes.
It was reported during the winter that the Cardinals were interested in trading for Hamels, with the idea being to add a left-handed ace to their rotation. The 31-year-old's production obviously still fits the bill, and so does his stuff. FanGraphs can vouch that Hamels' velocity is still in the low-90s, and that his trademark changeup is once again contributing to an outstanding swinging-strike rate.
There is one complication, though. The Cardinals might be able to afford to take on the bulk of Hamels' remaining contract—four years and at least $100 million—but Bob Nightengale of USA Today says they "don't quite have the pieces" to satisfy the rebuilding Phillies in trade talks.
Part of that has to do with how there are at least two other major suitors whose need for Hamels has only gotten larger.
One is the Los Angeles Dodgers. They were also connected to Hamels over the winter, and they too have an injured starter that needs replacing. The club announced Monday that veteran right-hander Brandon McCarthy needs Tommy John surgery, and is done for the year.
Because the Dodgers are even shorter on in-house options than the Cardinals, what Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register says here makes perfect sense:
The Dodgers are indeed a legit threat to land Hamels. This is yet another championship-or-bust season for them, and they have more than enough money to afford him. According to Baseball America, they also have the No. 3 farm system in the league to entice the Phillies with.
But the Boston Red Sox might be able to beat the Dodgers to the punch if they deem their need for Hamels strong enough. And the way things are going, it's trending in that direction.
The Red Sox don't have any major injury problems in their starting rotation. Their problem is more that the rotation itself is a problem, as the 5.84 ERA owned by Boston starters is by far the worst in baseball. They're obliging the many skeptics who claimed the Red Sox rotation was lacking a truly reliable starter.
If the Red Sox decide Hamels can be that guy, they definitely have the means to go get him. They also have a lot of money to throw around, as well as Baseball America's No. 2-ranked farm system. It's been reported that the Red Sox won't part with Mookie Betts or Blake Swihart to land Hamels, but they have plenty of other goodies they can pony up to get him.
The Cardinals, Dodgers and Red Sox were already lurking on the Hamels market before the season even began. Now it's probably fair to say the three of them are front and center, and that any of the three could decide in the near future that having Hamels is a necessity rather than a luxury.
But they may not be alone there.
The Chicago Cubs were another team linked to Hamels over the winter, and they could still move on him with 2015 shaping up to be a return to form for the franchise. Like the Red Sox, the Baltimore Orioles, Toronto Blue Jays and Chicago White Sox are would-be contenders in need of starting pitching. Justin Verlander fell from grace in 2014 and is now dealing with a nagging arm injury, so don't rule out the Detroit Tigers as a mystery team in the Hamels sweepstakes.
This is all music to the ears of Amaro. He was criticized during the winter for putting too high a price on Hamels, and warned by some know-it-alls that waiting to deal him during the summer was an unnecessary roll of the dice. But the way things are shaping up, it now looks like there's a real chance his gamble will pay off.
For now, it's unlikely anything is imminent. Prospective Hamels suitors and all other teams are still in the beta testing phases of their seasons, so it's a bit soon for such a massive trade to go down. The Hamels waiting game will probably be resolved in weeks, not days.
But a blockbuster trade should happen eventually. With needs for Hamels' services arising left and right and in all the right places, this is a scenario that's seemingly been upgraded from an "if" to a "when."
Assuming, of course, that Hamels can keep nailing his auditions.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted/linked.
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