As the Phillies have explored the trade market for Cole Hamels, their reported price tag has been high.
Ruben Amaro wants at least two top-flight prospects and at least one or two lower-level prospects in return for his ace left-hander. He's not necessarily demanding every team's top prospect, but he's definitely looking for a couple young players with star potential, as well as another guy who could pan out at some point down the road.
This is understandable. Cole Hamels is really, really good, probably one of the most underrated starting pitchers in the game. Last year, he was worth 6.6 bWAR after going 9-9 with a 2.46 ERA in 204.2 innings, the seventh time in the last eight seasons Hamels has pitched more than 200 innings. His strikeout rate and walk rate are still elite, and his HR/FB rate was the lowest of his career last year.
Look, he's good. His bWARs since 2010 are 5.4, 6.6, 4.6, 4.6 and last year's 6.6. Amaro has every right to ask the moon for him. But so far, no one has been willing to step up.
Earlier today, ESPN Insider Mike Petriello suggested the Phils should be willing to pay half Hamels' salary in order to bring more teams into the mix and make it easier for another team to part with better prospects.
The Phillies don't need Hamels. They don't need the money. They do need the prospects that a Hamels deal could return. If paying part of his contract increases the value of those prospects, in an environment where they are difficult or impossible to obtain otherwise, it's not just a good idea to do it. It's the only idea.
In his piece, Petriello used "surplus value" to show that Hamels' value is going to decrease over the remaining four years of his deal (five if it vests).
If you expect that Hamels is worth another four wins in 2015, and accept that wins are going for roughly $7 million on the open market, Hamels is worth $28 million and will be paid $22.5 million. That's $5.5 million of surplus value, though that number would be expected to decrease over the length of the contract. After all, the price of wins keeps going up, and Hamels at best can maintain his production or decline; he's very unlikely to improve.
From there, the math does itself. If a team takes on Hamels' full contract, they get a small amount of surplus value each year. If a team is asked to take on only half of Hamels' contract, then suddenly his surplus value in 2015 is more than $11 million, and that greatly increases the value of the prospect the Phillies can ask for in return.
Petriello uses Fangraphs' WAR calculations to determine Hamels' value, which is about two wins less than Baseball Reference's WAR calculations. This is because Fangraphs uses Fielding Independent Pitching, or FIP, for their calculations, while Baseball References uses ERA. Hamels has always had a better ERA than FIP throughout his career.
His bottom line is, if the Phillies want to make Hamels more valuable to another team, if they truly want to deal him now and reap the biggest prospect haul possible, they need to pay down a good portion of his contract.
Honestly, this makes a lot of sense.
Certainly, the four years and $94 million (five and $118 million if you could the vesting fifth year) on Hamels' contract is a better deal than the one Max Scherzer just signed with the Nationals. A team would be free of Hamels by his 35th birthday at the very latest (and for teams not on Hamels' no-trade list, they would have the option of bailing after he turned 34).
But it's not an apples-to-apples comparison here. A team is going to have take on a big-money deal AND pony up at least two of their very top prospects.
There's no doubt teams are overvaluing their prospects. But it's the nature of the game today, and it's the reality facing the Phillies.
As Petriello noted, the Phils have a TON of cash. They just signed a $2.5 billion deal with Comcast, and their payroll for 2015 right now stands at about $130 million. That will increase as deals are reached with young players and the team adds another body or two before the spring. But compare that to last year, when it was $177.7 million. And it's been more than $167 million every year since 2011.
So money ain't no thing.
Certainly the Phillies don't HAVE to trade Hamels. And if you believe Amaro, the Phillies think he's going to be on the team when the season starts (quotes via the Philadelphia Inquirer's Jake Kaplan).
"I think Cole Hamels is going to be in our uniform, frankly," Amaro said before the annual winter banquet hosted by the Phillies’ double A affiliate in Reading. "I don’t really foresee him being moved. It is possible because we’re literally keeping our minds and eyes and ears open on every player that we have on our roster.
"That said, he’s one of the best pitchers in baseball. And so, if we were to move him, we’re going to have to get some of the best prospects in baseball back."
"In fact, the ownership group I think would rather keep him than not. But we have to be good listeners and I think we owe it to the franchise and the organization to listen on possible opportunities, and there have been some clubs that have been aggressive. Not aggressive enough, obviously, because we haven’t done anything.
"If I was going to handicap it, I would probably say that he’d be in our pinstripes on opening day and pitching against Boston."
That's all well and good. And maybe that's true. If it is, then there is no reason for the Phils to cave. They absolutely should wait out the process, and if no one bites this winter, see if there are any fish nibbling at the trade deadline. Or, just hold onto him throughout the life of his contract and let a potential Hall of Fame pitcher pitch in Philadelphia until his deal runs out.
But the Phillies should also know that now may be the best time to dangle Hamels to a team that wants to have an ace at a reasonable cost and with a manageable number of years of team control. After all, next off-season, Johnny Cueto, Doug Fister, Zack Greinke, Ian Kennedy, Mat Latos, David Price, Jeff Samardzija and Jordan Zimmerman could all be free agents.
No one is going to give the Phillies want they want next off-season.
So, if the Phils think now is the time to deal, and money is not a restriction, Petriello is right. The Phillies should agree to pay some portion of Hamels' salary, enough to generate the kind of return the Phils really need in exchange for Hamels.
They need to hit a home run with any Cole Hamels trade. And if offering to pay a portion of Hamels' contract is the surest way to get that done, they need to strongly consider it.
The Phillies don't need money. They need young, promising talent.
Kicking in a bunch of cash may be the best way to get that done.