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Phillies Cole Hamels: the danger of trading an ace

As the Phillies consider potential deals for Cole Hamels, their recent history proves trading an ace is a risky proposition.

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball trades are hard.

There are many reasons why teams decide to trade players. Sometimes, a team offers a package of players that is simply too good to pass up. Sometimes, a player is in the last year of their contract and, knowing that player won't be back the following year, a team will try to get something for that player before he leaves.

Sometimes, a franchise is down on a player, like Domonic Brown, and decides it's time to cut bait and move on. And sometimes, a team has a surplus at a certain position and trades a player to another team in order to fill a hole somwehere else on the roster.

In the case of the Phillies, they are looking to trade players for different reasons. They want to unload some of their high-priced veterans in order to get young guys playing time during a rebuilding effort. They also want to clear some salary so they can prepare to stock the next great Phils team with good players.

In the case of Cole Hamels, the Phils could move their best player, a true ace starter and one of the 10 best starting pitchers in all of baseball, in order to jump-start a rebuilding effort. General manager Ruben Amaro is looking for three top prospects, one or two of which are Major League-ready, in exchange for Hamels.

This idea makes a lot of sense. Hamels will be 31 years old next year and has likely already had his peak. By the time the Phillies are good again, he will likely be 33 or 34 years old. If the Phils could ship him off to a team like the Cubs or Red Sox, two franchises flush with Major League-ready prospects, they will probably do it.

But past Phillies history has shown that trading away ace starting pitchers for prospects does not always work out.


The circumstances surrounding the Schilling trade back in 2000 were unique. The Phillies had a malcontent on their hands in the final year of his deal. They knew they were going to lose him, and as a result, their leverage was compromised.

Knowing the Phils had to make a deal, the Arizona Diamondbacks shipped Travis Lee, Omar Daal, Vicente Padilla and Nelson Figueroa to Philadelphia in exchange for Schilling.

We tend to forget that, in 2000, Schilling was 33 years old and had seen his strikeout rate drop from 11.3 in 1997 and 10.0 in '98 to 7.6 in 1999 and 7.7 in 2000 before he was traded. Trading him made sense, however, he was not seen as a declining pitcher at the time, and you can bet some of those statistics escaped the attention of the Phils' front office.

As a result, the Phils didn't get much in return. The highest-performing player out of that deal was Padilla, who put up 5.3 bWAR in his time with the Phils. Lee was worth 2.3 bWAR, with Figueroa 1.2 and Daal 1.1 for a grand total of 9.9 wins above replacement by all four players with the Phillies.

Schilling was worth 46.4 bWAR for the rest of his post-Phils career.


It's still mystifying why the Phillies traded Lee away after his remarkable half-season with the team in 2009. After leading the team back to the World Series against the Yankees (winning two World Series games in the process), he was quickly traded away by the team after the Phils had acquired Roy Halladay.

The explanation to the public was that the farm system suffered a serious talent drain in the Halladay deal, and they needed to recoup some of those prospects by trading Lee. He was also in the last year of his deal, and the Phillies felt they would have a hard time re-signing them.

Unfortunately, the team screwed themselves over. They knew that if they were going to acquire Halladay but couldn't afford to have Lee in the rotation at the same time, they had to make it look like a three-way deal so that fans wouldn't be able to get used to the idea of a super rotation in 2010.

They simply couldn't allow fans to think, for one second, that a rotation of Halladay and Lee was even a remote possibility. So, they rushed to trade him without really exploring the market. And, as a result, they did a deal with the Seattle Mariners for Phillippe Aumont, Tyson Gillies and J.C. Ramirez.

Could the Phils have gotten a better prospect package from another team? It's impossible to know, because Ruben Amaro never established a market for him.

Hey, sometimes prospects don't pan out. That happens and it's why trades for prospects are risky. The greater "crime" was not exploring all options and seeking out the best prospect package possible.

It's even more ironic that, in the end, the Phils didn't even really need to trade Lee in the first place. They recognized their mistake and signed him to a free agent deal anyway before the 2011 season, giving fans at least one season with a super rotation.

Meanwhile, Aumont put up a bWAR of -0.4 in 39.2 career innings with the Phils, Ramirez put up -0.7 bWAR in 24 innings, and Gillies never made it to the bigs. Only Aumont remains in the organization.


Of course, both the Schilling and Lee situations were unique. Unlike those situations, there are no real time constraints on trading Hamels here. He's still relatively young and is signed at a reasonable contract for ace pitchers through 2018. And Hamels is not trying to work his way out of town. He is quite happy to be a Phillie, although it's clear he would likely accept a trade to a contender should the situation arise.

It also appears the Phils are quite happy to hold onto him unless they get a true bonanza in return.

Hopefully, if Amaro and Gillick get an offer they like for Hamels, the prospects will turn out better than in the two examples listed above.

I mean, they would kind of have to be, right?