Cole Hamels Could Be the Justin Verlander of 2018 Trade Deadline

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterJune 8, 2018

ARLINGTON, TX - JUNE 07:  Cole Hamels #35 of the Texas Rangers throws against the Houston Astros in the second inning at Globe Life Park in Arlington on June 7, 2018 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Texas Rangers gave general manager Jon Daniels a contract extension Thursday, so at least contending teams will have no doubt who to call when they want to bid on Cole Hamels.

As they should.

Forget about Hamels' age (34). Forget anything you may have heard about his fastball velocity going down (according to BrooksBaseball.net, it's basically right where it was when he was dominating October a decade ago with the Philadelphia Phillies). Most of all, forget about that contract that pays Hamels $22.5 million this season and includes a $20 million salary or $6 million buyout for 2019).

You know what happens when you pass on a veteran pitcher because you're worried about the contract?

ANAHEIM, CA - JUNE 02: Cole Hamels #35 of the Texas Rangers winds up for a pitch against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in the second inning at Angel Stadium on June 2, 2018 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images)
John McCoy/Getty Images

You miss out on Justin Verlander and he goes to the Houston Astros and leads them to the World Series title.

Hamels isn't Verlander, and no one is saying he's ready to go on a Verlander-like run the moment he joins a contender. But just like Verlander a year ago, he's a veteran pitcher with an October pedigree, a veteran pitcher who is proving at 34 that he can pitch big games against the best teams.

Check out Hamels' numbers in eight 2018 starts against the Astros, Cleveland Indians, New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Angels, all possible American League playoff teams: 50 innings, 17 earned runs, 37 hits, a 3.06 ERA. Hamels has faced the defending champion Astros four times (including in a 5-2 loss to Gerrit Cole Thursday night), and he has a 3.60 ERA in those games.

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As someone who knows Hamels said Thursday, "He's a huge competitor. Loves to win."

He won't get that chance with the Rangers, who went to the playoffs twice after trading for Hamels in July 2015 but are now a last-place team trying to rebuild. Hamels' value to the Rangers now is whatever he can bring back in a midseason trade.

Maybe that means the Yankees, who are in search of a significant starter but would prefer one whose salary would allow them to stay under the luxury tax threshold. Perhaps it means a trip back to the Phillies, who have the money, or a deal to the Atlanta Braves, who have overachieved but could use a starting pitcher who has experience winning huge games.

They can all wait if they want, as every team in baseball did with Verlander a year ago. The Tigers held him through the July 31 non-waiver deadline, then passed him through waivers unclaimed as he was turning his season around in August. The Astros got him Aug. 31, with seconds to go before the deadline for adding a player who would be eligible for the postseason.

The difference with Hamels is that where Verlander spent the first half of 2017 figuring things out, Hamels has already done that. He adapted his pitch selection, lessening his reliance on a four-seam fastball that opponents have hit .413 against (according to BrooksBaseball.net). Instead, Hamels has learned to emphasize a curveball, a changeup and a backdoor cutters that has been particularly effective against right-handed hitters.

Entering play Thursday, right-handers were hitting just .217 against the left-handed Hamels, the best success he has had against them since 2011.

Hamels realized he needed to change when his strikeout rate fell to 17.1 percent last season. It's back to up to 23.7 percent this year.

It's not like Hamels can't throw a fastball anymore. He threw one 94 mph in the first inning Thursday. But he understands better what it takes for him to get hitters out with what he has now.

He has the stuff to win, the competitive instinct to do it in the biggest games and a history that says he has done it before. Think back to 2008, when Hamels started and won Game 1 in all three postseason rounds for the Phillies.

And any team looking to trade for him has the Verlander precedent to back up the decision. Without trading for a 34-year-old pitcher and taking on a good part of a hefty contract, the Astros don't win in 2017.

Verlander made the difference then. Who's to say Hamels can't make the difference now?

Any team thinking about it knows who to call.

     

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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