Heading into last week’s July 31st trade deadline — not to be confused with an actual deadline after which you can no longer make trades, because MLB doesn’t really have one of those — the Phillies were expected to be among the primary sellers. They had expensive veterans who had openly talked about playing elsewhere in Jonathan Papelbon and A.J. Burnett. They had a right-handed hitter with some power in Marlon Byrd, and there were a bunch of teams looking for right-handed power. They had Jimmy Rollins, an above average big-league shortstop, who turns 36 in a few months and could have helped a number of contenders.
And they had Cole Hamels, one of the game’s best left-handed starting pitchers, signed through the 2018 season (with a team option for 2019) at salaries that look downright reasonable in baseball’s current economy. Well, it’s now August, and not only do they still have Papelbon, Burnett, Byrd and Rollins, but they also still have Hamels. The team with the seventh-worst record in baseball did not make a single trade in the month of July, and soldiers on with Hamels surrounded by a group of mostly overpaid under-performers. Because of their contracts, it remains quite likely that the Phillies can still trade Papelbon, Burnett, Byrd or Rollins over the next few weeks — or, if someone puts in a waiver claim on any of them, just let them go and be free of the remaining contractual commitment — but Hamels is unlikely to pass through waivers, and the team’s decision to not trade him last week is tantamount to a decision to not trade him during the season.
If you’re the Phillies, you trade high-priced (or for that matter, low-priced) players who won’t be around when you’re ready to win again. That’s why you trade Cliff Lee and, of course, you trade Ryan Howard just because. You trade Cliff Lee because he’s locked up through just 2015 (with a team option for 2016), and you trade Ryan Howard because he’s probably never going to do much in terms of actually winning baseball games.
Cole Hamels, though? Cole Hamels is locked up through 2019. That’s one-two-three-four-five seasons after this one. And considering the Phillies’ current financial edge over much of their competition — thank you massive television moneys! — if they’re not competitive again at some point in the next two or three years, then someone in the front office is probably doing a lousy job …
… Could a trade make sense? Sure. If you’re the Phillies, you ask for the earth and the moon and the sun and the stars. And maybe you can do without the moon.
Otherwise, though, Cole Hamels is the one guy you keep if you’re serious about winning again in this decade.
Now, I like Rob, and we agree on a lot of things — which is probably why I like him so much — but I don’t really agree with the words above, or the Phillies’ decision to keep Hamels in general. So let me try and lay out the opposing case. I agree with the stance that a bad team should not necessarily just act as a farm system for good teams, giving away every good player it has just because it is "rebuilding". And as a very good pitcher on a below-market contract, Hamels certainly isn’t the reason the Phillies are bad.
But the reasons he is still valuable to the Phillies are the very same reasons he would be even more valuable to a team that is far more likely to contend over the next couple of years. While Hamels is still under contract for four more years after this one, his value is only going to depreciate. Good pitchers should be viewed as used cars; as their mileage goes up, their value only goes down. It is very unlikely that Hamels will ever again have as much value as he did last week.
For one, pitchers get hurt, as the Phillies should have learned from their reluctance to trade Lee last year. A year later: Lee’s elbow hurts, his trade value is completely gone. If surgery is required, there’s a good chance that the Phillies will pay Cliff Lee $37.5 million to not pitch for them next year. A year ago, the Phillies could have traded Lee for some real package of young talent and freed up $62 million in future salary; now, they don’t have that talent and might end up getting as much in return as if they had just lit the money on fire.
OK, but you might argue that the top 10 cutoff is unfair. After all, there’s Clayton Kershaw at No. 11, and Hamels himself at No. 12, so there are two more positive examples. Except those two are followed by Ubaldo Jimenez (decline), Matt Cain (injured), Josh Johnson (injured) and Josh Beckett (decline and often injured).
These are the pitchers who were in Hamels’ place just two years ago. Those 10 pitchers have combined for 19 WAR this season; by season’s end, it will probably be closer to 23 or 24, assuming Hernandez, Greinke and Lester keep pitching well. So the average is going to be about 2.3 or 2.4 WAR per pitcher from the guys who had been consistent top 10 starters just a couple years ago. Maybe Hamels is Hernandez, Lester or Greinke, but he’s just as likely to be Verlander, Lincecum or Weaver if he stays healthy — and that’s not even getting into the guys who didn’t stay healthy.
While Rob references the high bust rate on minor league prospects, the reality is that the bust rate on high quality veteran starters is just as high, or even higher if you’re talking about high quality hitting prospects, who only fail about 40 percent of the time. Hamels getting hurt or declining over the next few seasons isn’t just worst-case-scenario fear mongering; it’s the most likely outcome.
Rob notes that the Phillies should want to trade guys like Lee and Howard because they won’t be around the next time the Phillies are trying to win, while Hamels very well might be. But it’s overly optimistic to think that by the time the Phillies are ready to win again Hamels will still be the same high quality starting pitcher he is today. And here’s the thing: Even if we had perfect knowledge of the future, and we knew for an absolute fact that Hamels was going to remain healthy and excellent for the next four years, the Phillies still would have been better off trading him last week than keeping him for themselves.
On Monday, I took a stab at looking at the price teams paid to acquire the three big starters who got traded last month: Jeff Samardzija, David Price and Lester. The estimate, while not the final word on the subject certainly, was that all three trades cost teams about twice as much as the market rate for talent in free agency. Buying a pitcher at the trade deadline is like buying popcorn at a movie theatre. The markups are hilarious, and selling it is more profitable to the theatre than the movie itself.
The Phillies sat out a market that would have paid an astronomical price for Hamels. Even the oft-derided return of Drew Smyly, Nick Franklin and an A-ball prospect for Price would have been a fantastic acquisition for the Phillies, because not only would they have acquired several interesting young talents, but they also would have cleared Hamels future salary commitments from their books. And if we’re sure that the Phillies can sustain their $175 million payrolls even while rebuilding, then there’s no reason to think that they couldn’t have taken the money they still owe Hamels and given it to other free agents to replace him on the big-league roster.
This is exactly what the Red Sox did two years ago, in fact. In the midst of a terribly disappointing season, they shipped out Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and the aforementioned Beckett. The Red Sox dumped more than $50 million in salary off their books for 2013, and then a few months later, they reallocated that money to sign Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Ryan Dempster, Stephen Drew, Jonny Gomes and Koji Uehara, who helped make up the core of their 2013 championship squad.
Trading an expensive veteran like Hamels for prospects isn’t just trading risk for risk; you’re also creating a significant opportunity to buy new talent with the money that you aren’t paying the expensive veteran you just traded. Maybe you’d rather have Hamels than Smyly for the next four years, but would you rather have Hamels than Smyly and $70 million — roughly the difference in salary we should expect from those two over the next four years — to spend on some free agent additions? Yeah, you won’t get a pitcher as good as Hamels with $70 million to spend, but you could probably get Ervin Santana and a lower-tier hitter for that price. Would you really rather have Hamels than Smyly, Santana, and a decent big-league outfielder, plus whatever prospects the Tigers might have sent with Smyly to acquire Hamels?
You shouldn’t. Not when you look at the bust rate of pitchers, even pitchers as good as Hamels. Rebuilding teams — and the Phillies absolutely are a rebuilding team, even with their payroll advantage — should rarely count on pitchers to stay excellent through their rebuilding phase. Especially when faced with an opportunity to take advantage of some desperate sellers, the rational decision is to diversify and go young, and then use the cost savings to buy new veterans to replace the one you just traded away. Trading expensive for cheap isn’t just about the players you get in return; it’s about the players you’ll get with the cost savings as well.