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"Stupid Germs"? The Case for Trading Hamels (Not Lee)

Non-alternate universe Cole Hamels, taking the mound for the Phils' home opener Monday. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)
Non-alternate universe Cole Hamels, taking the mound for the Phils' home opener Monday. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)
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In a characteristically sharp and otherwise unimpeachable post last week taking dead aim at the case against Phillies lefty Cole Hamels, TGP Blogfather WholeCamels wrote the following:

MYTH: "The Phillies should have traded Cole Hamels instead of Cliff Lee."

FACT: If you believe this, stop reading this blog right now and getting stupid germs all over it.  Three years of a controlled, below-market pitcher likely to put up similar or possibly better numbers, versus one year for a pitcher (presently injured, just sayin') who is almost certain to bolt in free agency after just one year.

As it happened, I was thinking about this question a day or two before the start of the season (because, y’know, I’m lame). As WC wrote it here, I’m pretty sure I agree—but a more interesting question to me is whether the team might have been better off trading Hamels than Cliff Lee plus Kyle Drabek and Michael Taylor and Travis D’Arnaud (and getting Tyson Gillies, Phillippe Aumont and J.C. Ramirez). Suffice it to say I’m not nearly as sure on this one.

Let’s review what actually happened, then consider some alternative scenarios. Combining the two trades, you get the following:  

Phillies trade Lee ($9m), Drabek, Taylor and D’Arnaud for Roy Halladay ($15.75m), Gillies, Aumont, Ramirez and $6 million

with the following payroll ramifications:

Net cost to Phils: $0.75m

Net cost to Jays: -$9.75m

Net cost to Mariners: $9m

To simplify our lives here, a couple basic premises:

1)    the Phillies still would have signed Halladay to the very team-friendly contract extension he subsequently received

2)    the prospect package of Drabek/Taylor/D’Arnaud is preferable to that of Gillies/Aumont/Ramirez. I happen to like the guys the Phils got back in the Lee deal, but this one isn’t remotely close IMO.

Now, consider the alternative scenario: a straight trade with the Blue Jays in which the Phils send Hamels ($6.65m salary for 2010) to Toronto for Halladay ($15.75m), keeping Lee ($9m) and leaving Jack Zdurencik and the Mariners looking elsewhere for another ace to pair with Felix Hernandez. Assuming no other major leaguers are involved, the payroll implications are that the Phils have added $9.1 million while Toronto has subtracted the same amount through the swap of starters.

A few questions suggest themselves:

Would the Jays have done this? My guess is no, at least not in the straight-up version; above all else, they wanted prospects. Toronto’s minor league system was decimated at the end of 2009; according to Baseball Prospectus, their best three prospects now are Drabek, Brett Wallace (immediately acquired from Oakland for Taylor; BP’s Kevin Goldstein made it pretty clear he likes Taylor better than Wallace) and D’Arnaud. Without question, it would have been tempting to acquire a 26 year-old World Series MVP under control for three seasons; Hamels immediately would have become the Jays’ signature player, a guy the team could market around. But Alex Anthopoulos surely would have concluded that even the untouchable Hamels of October 2008 could not lift Toronto into contention in the AL East within the three years that Toronto had Hamels under control. (There’s also the fact that by all accounts, when Ruben Amaro asked Anthopoulos at the winter meetings what it would take to acquire Halladay, the immediate answer was "Kyle Drabek.")

That said, it’s possible he would have taken Hamels as the centerpiece of a package that also included prospects. The Jays had loved Travis D’Arnaud from his amateur days, and at one point last summer they were reportedly quite keen on teenage whirlwind Anthony Gose. Maybe Hamels/D’Arnaud/Gose would have sufficed to land Halladay and some amount of money to offset the difference in salaries. Plus Anthopoulos always could have tried to flip Hamels for a good prospect package to another team, immediately last winter or at some later point.

Would the Phillies have done this? Again, probably not. Such a move would have made the team look ungrateful for what Hamels had done in ’08… and a bit flighty for precipitously ditching their erstwhile playoff hero—especially when the numbers (run masterfully by TGP alumnus Matt Swartz) suggest he was more unlucky than ineffective in 2009. However his season turns out, the work Hamels put in this winter to bounce back from his down season and return to the ranks of elite pitchers suggests that the Phillies knew their man. Finally, it’s never a great idea to sell low; a year earlier, trading Hamels would have been unthinkable, even for Halladay.

On the other hand, a year earlier Kyle Drabek was a kid with attitude questions facing an uncertain recovery from Tommy John surgery; by November 2009 he was one of the 25 or so best prospects in baseball, a three-pitch stud with clear all-star upside and proven strong work ethic. A mid-2010 big league debut was (and is) an entirely reasonable expectation. Given his talent and lineage, and the less pressurized circumstance of slotting in somewhere behind Halladay rather than coming up as an anticipated savior, Drabek might have emerged as a big-time starter with the Phils as early as 2011… and working at the major-league minimum to boot. Add in that Taylor is probably even more likely to show up in the majors this season, and as a right-handed hitter with patience, power, speed and defensive skills he would have been a great fit for near-future Phillies lineups with a pronounced portside lean.

There’s a third Phillies factor to consider, though: the potential weirdness of having Halladay and Lee in the same rotation, with the new guy inked to a long-term deal while the 2009 post-season hero was almost certainly ticketed for free agency after 2010. Unless oil was discovered under the minor-league fields in Clearwater, the Phils couldn’t have afforded both Halladay and Lee for the long term—even if Lee took a deal as far below his likely open market value as Halladay did. Maybe he would have shrugged it off and turned in another season like his 2008-2009 work; maybe he wouldn’t have. How all this—dealing Hamels, extending Halladay, treating Lee like a mercenary—would have played in the clubhouse is tantalizing question we can’t answer. Both the homegrown players and, even more so, the imports have raved about the Phillies’ chemistry; perhaps the cold-blooded nature of that hypothetical series of moves would have damaged the "family" vibe the guys in uniform believe has contributed to the team’s recent success.

The myriad unknowables here—everything from whether the Phils even considered this, to how Toronto would have responded, to what the future holds for Hamels and Drabek—are a big part of what makes baseball so continuously fascinating. (It’s also why GMs get the big bucks, and why Ruben Amaro Jr. has some right to his astonishing smugness.) This is a fun argument, and I think it’s possible to construct a scenario in which the Phillies could have made a deal for Halladay centered around Hamels that Toronto would have accepted. The path actually taken—the Phils acquiring Halladay and money for prospects, while hitting their budget goal and somewhat restocking the upper levels of the farm system by trading Lee—was probably easier and more direct for all concerned. But I think it’s fair to argue that one can suggest otherwise without necessarily communicating toxic stupidity.