The risk and reward of waiting to trade Cole Hamels

Let’s begin with what I hope will be uncontroversial statements. The Phillies, at present, are a bad baseball team. Arguably the worst baseball team, as long as we’re only talking about 2015. The farm system’s improving but the big-league roster’s declining, and while every year there are teams that surprise, I’d be surprised if the Phillies won 75 games. It’s not going to be pretty, and even the most optimistic fans are wondering if contention might be feasible three years from now. Rebuilds suck. Just how they are.

And the Phillies have Cole Hamels, who is good. He’s actually been very good, for a very long time, and he’s not old. His remaining contract terms are reasonable. If Hamels were available for just his contract, every team that could afford him would place a call. A trade market for Cole Hamels does exist. Just because nothing has happened doesn’t mean there aren’t teams that would like for something to happen.

Yet, increasingly, it looks like the Phillies won’t be moving Hamels this winter. One point of evidence: the Phillies haven’t yet moved Hamels this winter. Another point of evidence: the Phillies, reportedly, are sticking to their high demands, leading to this quote in a post by Rob Bradford: “According to a source familiar with the Phillies’ thinking on the matter, Philadelphia GM Ruben Amaro and his club have been ‘unrealistic in their expectations’ in regard to a return on Hamels.”

As they say, situations are fluid. Hamels could, in theory, get dealt any minute. Some team might become unusually desperate. Maybe a team that feels like it’s on the outside with Max Scherzer and James Shields. Amaro, certainly, is selling Hamels as a rare ace you could get today. But, there would be a lot of ground to make up if Hamels were to get traded before spring training. Negotiations with different teams have been described as a staredown. It’s becoming increasingly likely that the Phillies will hang on to Hamels, putting him back on the market in July. After all, there’s no deadline by which the Phillies have to bid Hamels farewell. They could even potentially keep him through the end of his career, given his status, talent, and popularity. The Phillies never have to trade Cole Hamels, which is allowing them to be patient.

That patience has upsides and downsides. For the sake of this article, I would like to set aside matters of marketing and fan morale. I simply want to talk about Cole Hamels’ trade value. The Phillies have determined, so far, that no one has offered enough for their ace. So they disagree with where Hamels’ trade value has been in the offseason. But what would happen to Hamels’ value if he were to become available in July? Might the Phillies then be better able to recover the haul they’ve been seeking?

The big upside is this: during the year, wins are valued more highly than they are during the offseason. The math isn’t easy to perform, and these things are always complicated, but the idea makes sense, and reality seems to bear it out. During the year, teams know more about their quality and place in the standings than they know in December or January. Also, there are just fewer pieces available, especially in this era with additional wild cards, where it’s easier than ever to believe your team’s in contention. The trade deadline makes for a good seller’s market.

When teams value wins more highly, they value good players more highly, so they’d value Cole Hamels more highly. The same version of Cole Hamels would fetch a bigger return in July than he would in January. Potentially, this July, the Phillies could market Hamels as the only available ace. We can’t predict exactly how things will go, but Hamels is the most obvious candidate. It’s possible Johnny Cueto could find himself on the market as a rental player, if the Reds have an unsuccessful first half. Cueto would represent trade-market competition, but more than one team would want a good starter.

The key phrase in there, though, is "the same version of Cole Hamels would-". This isn’t about pure reward; there’s also obvious risk in waiting to trade Hamels until later. The question the Phillies have to consider is whether it’s worth it. The Cliff Lee example is fresh in their memory, where a valuable and trade-able asset got hurt and couldn’t get moved. But, maybe Lee isn’t a representative case; last season, he turned 36. Hamels just recently turned 31. What is Hamels’ level of risk? What are his chances of preserving his trade value for another three or four months of baseball?

Before getting to the data, I want to acknowledge that I don’t know anything about Hamels’ medicals, specifically. This is just a simple and general study, and the Phillies know better than anyone what might be going on in Hamels’ elbow or shoulder. But this is pretty much always the case. Let’s look at the numbers anyway.

I decided to examine a 30-year window, 1984-2013. I looked for starting pitchers who, between the ages of 28 and 30, threw at least 600 innings, and were worth at least 3 wins above replacement, per 200 innings, by both WAR metrics available on FanGraphs. I then took those pitchers and selected the ones who, when they were 30, threw at least 200 innings, and were worth at least 3 WAR, per 200, by both WAR metrics.

This was my pool of rough Hamels comparables, although it’s more just a pool of durable, quality starters. I did make a judgment call and eliminate Tom Candiotti, because knuckleball pitchers don’t work like other pitchers.

I had a pool of 19 names. I knew what they did between the ages of 28 and 30; I wanted to know what they did at 31. This is supposed to represent Hamels’ 2015. Of the 19 pitchers, 15 threw at least 200 innings at 31 years old. Of those 15, ten were worth at least 3 WAR per 200 innings. Of those ten, seven were also worth at least 3 RA9-WAR per 200 innings. The first WAR is based on peripherals, like strikeouts, walks, and home runs. The second WAR is based on actual runs allowed. So one could say that seven of 19 pitchers stayed healthy and pitched at or around the same level.

In reality, maybe the number is eight. One just missed, even though his first WAR was fine. And then Roy Oswalt is an interesting case; he got hurt right at the trade deadline, with a back problem, but he did still clear 180 innings, and his performance was excellent. So maybe that’s not so bad. Maybe our number, now, is nine of 19.

But still, that’s not even half. There are success stories, but there are also tales of woe. When he was 31, Orel Hershiser underwent extensive surgery on his shoulder. John Smoltz had an elbow problem flare up, that eventually required Tommy John surgery. Dan Haren developed back problems. Justin Verlander just completed his age-31 season, after having resembled a dominant workhorse. Though Verlander showed modest signs of improvement down the stretch, he saw his trade value get destroyed by under-performance. Now his contract looks like an albatross. Bartolo Colon was worse at 31, and so on, and so forth. Colon actually won the Cy Young at 32, but teams wouldn’t have guessed that the year before, and then his career hit another rough patch.

Hamels’ track record is incredibly steady. That much is encouraging, and I don’t think anyone believes he’s about to have a disastrous regular season. He projects, once more, as a real good starting pitcher. But one shouldn’t understate the risk, if the Phillies try to deal him in July instead. Ruben Amaro hasn’t liked the trade offers yet, but they won’t get better during the season if Hamels has problems or gets himself injured. And that’s not wildly unlikely. You could almost say it’s 50/50. I don’t actually believe it’s 50/50, but I do think it’s closer than one would otherwise assume.

This is the dangerous game. By holding on to Cole Hamels, Ruben Amaro raises the stakes. There’s more for him to gain, and more for him to lose. If it’s July, and Hamels has been his usual self, Amaro can get away with demanding one or two upper-tier young players. But Hamels could also very possibly blast his trade value into nothingness. Justin Verlander’s 2014 season literally just happened. There’s an awful lot riding on this move, for Amaro and the organization. By waiting, they’d be at least maximizing the potential upside. That’s the optimistic perspective.