If there’s one thing we can say for sure about the men who make decisions for the Phillies, it’s that they have a perversely impressive ability not to see truths right in front of their faces. Until very recently, team president David Montgomery and GM Ruben Amaro repeatedly asserted that "the next few games" would determine whether the team approached this year’s trade deadline as buyers or sellers. And the two are still steadfast in their refusal to acknowledge the need to fully rebuild a team that could finish 2014 as the most expensive 95-loss team in baseball history.
So it’s more likely than not that what I’m about to set forth here will fail to penetrate the impregnably rose-colored glasses of the only two guys who matter. But now that there seems to be some acknowledgement that, no, the Phillies won’t be playing postseason baseball this year, and that some veterans on the roster might depart over the next few weeks, I’ll go the last mile and assert that if a good trade offer comes in for ace Cole Hamels, the team absolutely should send off their youngest, greatest hero of 2008 to continue his career in another uniform.
First, let’s consider the arguments for keeping Hamels. I think they go something like: 1) he’s young enough that he could be a contributor to the next relevant Phillies team; 2) they can afford him; and 3) he’ll be very difficult to replace.
Taking them in reverse order, the last one holds the most salience. Hamels is the best homegrown left-handed pitcher in the 130-plus years of the franchise. He’s pretty surely one of the ten best pitchers in baseball over the last five seasons, and all but certain to be the best player in any trade that includes him. The roster would be immediately worse without him on it.
And so what? Even if you’re willing to dismiss the odd fact that the Phillies don’t win his starts anyway—they’re 5-9 this season in his 14 starts, a worse mark than any other pitcher who’s made more than one start, and went 13-20 in his 33 starts last year—were the team’s performance to reflect his actual excellence in terms of wins and losses, at most it might make the difference between 68 and 71 wins to finish this season. If Hamels is worth five wins above replacement per year over the next couple seasons, we’re probably again talking about 70-75 wins rather than 65-70. This means nothing other than a lower draft selection and smaller bonus allotment.
The fact that they can afford him is an even bigger "so what." Many of us are fortunate enough to have the means to purchase the occasional needless luxury, and that’s what Hamels is on a borderline terrible ball club. If the millions they save on his salary above whoever replaces him go toward international signings, higher pay for minor league instructors, or even reductions in ticket prices as an acknowledgement to the fans that the organization has presented them with a rotten product the last few years, that’s a good thing.
Finally, the argument I’m sure Montgomery, that maudlin moron, will cling to: even if the team isn’t ready to contend again until 2017, Hamels will be only 33, ready to lead a resurgent Phillies team back to the sunlit uplands of the National League. By gum, that’s the same age Roy Halladay was in 2010, when he won the Cy Young Award!
This certainly is a possible outcome. I’d suggest, though, that it’s much more likely Hamels either declines or gets hurt sometime in the next three or four seasons. Johan Santana’s last great season of 200-plus innings came at age 29. CC Sabathia’s was at 31. Halladay was an exception… and of course even he eventually bowed to the actuarially inevitable.
The more pertinent truth is that Hamels is the one commodity under Phillies control that offers tremendous value to other teams—much more so than he would to the Phillies. The A’s just parted with a top-10 in the game prospect for Jeff Samardzija, a talented pitcher with a short track record of success and no playoff history, plus a second arm in Jason Hammel who might not even make a playoff start. Oakland will control Shark through 2015, with Hammel set to hit free agency this winter.
It’s true that Samardzija is a lot cheaper than Hamels… but to a large-market team that can afford him like either LA club, the Yankees, the Red Sox, or even the Mariners, Hamels’s contract is a feature, not a bug. After 2014, he’ll be under team control for four more years at $90 million, plus an option for 2019. Those are his age 31-34 seasons. Large market teams looking for a top free agent starter this winter might choose from the likes of Max Scherzer (represented by Scott Boras) and James Shields (who’ll be going into his age-33 season). That’s it for the top tier. Both Scherzer and Shields will command bigger deals—more years for more total money—than what’s still due to Hamels.
The estimable Matt Winkelman recently took a look at the biggest deals for top-flight starting pitchers over the previous six seasons, observed that the selling team gets hosed more often than not, and concluded that the Phillies shouldn't trade Hamels. In several cases, the Phillies were the beneficiaries of this trend: nobody they gave up for Cliff Lee in 2009 has amounted to much, and even the ballyhooed package surrendered for Halladay has yet to signify in the majors with Kyle Drabek’s injuries and Travis d’Arnaud’s difficulties with the bat at the major league level. (Of course, the team also got jack squat in the idiotic trade of Lee, less than five months after acquiring him.)
But players of real value do move in those deals. Among the names that came back in the ace trades Matt lists are Michael Brantley (Sabathia, 2008), Carlos Gomez (Santana, 2008), Carlos Gonzalez (Dan Haren, 2008), Patrick Corbin (Haren, 2010), Brett Lawrie (Shaun Marcum, 2011), Jean Segura (Zack Greinke, 2012), Chris Archer (Matt Garza, 2012), and Wil Myers (Shields, 2013). Admittedly, not all these players blossomed into stars with the teams that acquired them (just as Gio Gonzalez, traded to the White Sox by the Phillies for Freddy Garcia before the 2007 season, didn’t emerge while on the South Side). But adding even one player of that caliber could help shorten the Phillies’ path back to contention.
And that’s what this is really about. The current 25-man roster doesn’t include many plausible members of the next Phillies team to make the playoffs. Other than Hamels—who, again, is probably more likely to get hurt or decline than to continue his excellent work—you probably could make a case for Cody Asche and Ken Giles. Neither is anything like a cornerstone, but one or both could emerge as an above- average player who offers value in excess of his contract for a few years to come.
Expand your view to the full-season teams in the minors, and it doesn’t look much better. There’s Maikel Franco, maybe starting to find his stroke at triple-A after three rough months. There’s J.P. Crawford, holding his own in advanced A, and his just-drafted Clearwater teammate Aaron Nola. None are likely to grace big league all-star games in the next few years, but it’s not a huge stretch that all could be solid contributors by, say, 2017. If you want to dream on a Jesse Biddle turnaround or Kelly Dugan staying healthy and productive, feel free; it doesn't change the basic story.
The Phillies are a talent-starved organization. If they don’t have the weakest top-to-bottom talent base among the 30 MLB teams, they’re close. It’s going to take at least two or three more good drafts to restock the cupboard, and there will be attrition because that’s how it goes with prospects. They’re going to lose more than 90 this year, and next year, and quite possibly the year after that. The question now is whether they’re stuck in the down cycle for three or four more years, or something like the decade-plus of the worst run clubs. It’s far from a sure thing that trading Cole Hamels will land one or two players who could help turn the tide. But it’s a better chance than that Cole himself will be around when that tide does turn.