Cole Hamels will be discussed at winter meetings, trade unlikely

Ruben Amaro can’t afford to miss on the return in a potential Cole Hamels trade. That pressure may keep a deal from actually occurring. 

Cole Hamels made his Major League debut on May 12, 2006. Since that time, Hamels has been an ace for Phillies rotation, helping guide them to five straight division titles, two National League Pennants and one World Series Championship. Not only has Hamels been a staple in the Phillies rotation over past nine seasons, but he has made a name for himself across Major League Baseball. Hamels is a three-time All-Star, who has finished in the top 1o in Cy Young voting on four separate occasions (2007, 2011, 2012 and 2014). Hamels hasn’t just accomplished those regular season feats, but he has a NLCS and World Series MVP under his belt.

Those accomplishments earned Hamels a six-year, $144 million contract that runs through 2018. The contract features a club-option in 2019 worth $20 million. The 2019 club-option is guaranteed if he throws 400 innings between 2017-2018, including 200 innings pitched in 2018. In order for the option year to become guaranteed, Hamels cannot be on the disabled list with an elbow or shoulder injury at the end of 2018. The All-Star left-hander also has a limited no-trade clause (20 teams). This means that Hamels has provided a list to the Phillies of teams that he cannot be traded to unless he gives approval. As the Phillies move into the Winter Meetings, expect to hear a variety of Cole Hamels trade rumors. Cole Hamels is an ace and the only player with substantial trade-value on the Phillies roster, and he is among the best pitchers in the game—so Ruben Amaro Jr. must seek a high value return for Hamels services. 

The 2014-2015 MLB Hot Stove is on and cooking. Cole Hamels has been at the forefront of trade rumors heading into the Winter Meetings, which begin on Monday. The Phillies, at least publicly, appear ready to rebuild. The best way to do that would be to move your most valuable player. That said, while dealing Hamels makes sense, it does not make sense to deal Hamels just for the sake of doing so.

Since Hamels debuted in 2006, he is third in Wins Above Replacement with 40.4 among pitchers who have started at least 80% of games, trailing Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez. This would make Hamels the most valuable National League pitcher during that time span, but one could argue that Clayton Kershaw has been because of his more recent dominance. The reason Hamels tops Kershaw is because of service time since Kershaw debuted in 2008. To prevent misleading statistics like the whole career sample of Hamels, I will look at the last three years of Hamels career. If I select the same criteria (must start 80% of games) between 2012-2014, Hamels is the fifth most valuable pitcher in terms of WAR (15.9). The only National League pitcher who has been more valuable than Hamels in that three year span is Clayton Kershaw, who has a 21.9 WAR. While that shows Hamels value, I prefer not to rely solely on Wins Above Replacement. Among pitchers who have thrown at least 500 innings between 2012-2014, Hamels ranks eighth in Earned Run Average (ERA) and Innings Pitched and Strikeouts. Hamels is also ranks ninth in ERA+ (126), which is a metric calculated to league average with 100 being league average and the higher the number, the better the performance (100*[LgERA/ERA]). While ERA is the most commonly used metric to evaluate pitcher performance, Hamels ranks 15th in Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP). FIP is a measure of what pitchers can control– preventing Walks, Hit By Pitch and Home Runs, while causing Strikeouts. The reason hits are not included in this metric is because pitchers, like Hamels, cannot control the outcome of the event as they are not fielding majority of these balls. FIP is a better predictor of future performance because it not only judges all pitchers equally, but it will not punish a pitcher for having a lackluster defense behind him.

Advanced metrics are not the only metrics that favor Hamels. Between 2012-2014, Hamels allowed a .668 OPS against, which ranks eighth best in the National League and 17th in MLB. In the metrics that make up OPS (On-Base and Slugging Percentage), Hamels ranks 16th in OBP (.292) and 22nd in Slugging Percentage (.376). While Hamels pitching metrics are among the best in baseball, he also excels at picking off runners, ranking 3rd in baseball with 15 in the last three years. Overall, Hamels ranks among the elite arms in all of baseball and will be an asset to his team for the foreseeable future.

As I displayed above, Hamels has been among the elite arms in baseball in the last three years. While Hamels has shown great value for the Phillies, he has been on the disabled-list several times. Hamels has had two noteable DL stints in his nine year career. Following the 2008 season, Hamels missed time due to arm fatigue. The DL stint was troubling for Philadelphia because Hamels, the World Series MVP was coming off a career-high in innings pitched. Following the early 2009 DL stint, Hamels struggled to regain his World Series MVP form. Hamels posted a 4.32 ERA and 3.72 FIP, while finishing with a carrer high 1.286 WHIP (Walks+Hits/Innings Pitched). While Hamels struggled in 2009, he bounced back in a big way in 2010 finishing with then career bests in ERA, FIP and Strikeouts.

May 15, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels (35) sits in the dugout as the Phillies bat during the fourth inning against the Cleveland Indians at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Hamels arm would not become an issue again, until 2014. Hamels missed the early weeks of the 2014 season dealing with bicep tendinitis However, Hamels did not regress due to the tendinitis. Hamels had a career year in 2014, finishing with a career best in ERA (2.46), FIP (3.07), while tying his career best in Win Above Replacement (6.6). Without a doubt, Hamels DL stints have been the biggest concern thus far in his career, but they don’t suggest any long-term durability issues.

So if Cole Hamels is one of the tops arms in baseball, as his numbers would suggest, then what is he worth in the trade market? Ruben Amaro Jr. thinks one of the biggest returns in the history of the sport. Amaro is reportedly seeking a deal with three to four top prospects. I believe Ruben Amaro Jr. is right in seeking a high return for Hamels. Over the past three years, Hamels has been one of the best arms in baseball. The issue the Phillies may have in trading the 30 year-old Hamels will be his contract and other pitchers on the market. The Dodgers, Cubs and Red Sox have all been linked to Hamels this offseason. Those teams have to ask themselves the question of whether or not Hamels, plus his contract, are worth acquiring if they are giving up top prospects who could help their club in the future.

Personally, I do not know that answer, but I can speculate that they are currently leaning towards no. Trading for a player is a risky option, especially when you are the club parting ways with top prospects while acquiring a player over 30, who has a massive contract. I believe there is a market for Cole Hamels, but I do not see it truly developing until Jon Lester signs (which could very well happen over the course of the next 10 days). All three of the teams linked with Hamels (Red Sox, Dodgers, Cubs) have been linked Lester. Over the course of the next four seasons, the Phillies owe Cole Hamels $94 million ($22.5 million base + 1 million signing bonus per year). Hamels contract could end up being worth $114 million over five seasons if Hamels club-option is picked up or Hamels meets the criteria to guarantee the option year. If not, the Phillies could opt out (buyout) of Hamels contract following the 2019 season for $6 million. Opting out of the deal would bring the remaining value to four years at $100 million. According to NESN, Jon Lester has received an offer for 6 years, $138 million. The average annual value of that deal would be $23 million. If this is true, it would make sense for a team to hold onto their top prospects and sign Lester, who is coming off a year where he posted a 4.6 WAR, 2.46 ERA and 2.80 FIP. Not only did Lester post career numbers in 2014, but he was selected to his third All-Star game and finished fourth in American League Cy Young voting.

It’s also worth looking at the fact that this is a relatively deep free-agent pitching class. Max Scherzer, the 2013 AL Cy Young Award winner, is a free-agent. Not-so-big-game James Shields, who isn’t Cole Hamels, but is still a very good top of the rotation arm, is available. Teams may even look at second-tier options such as Ervin Santana and Brandon McCarthy, before parting with what it would take to land Hamels.

The Red Sox need to acquire numerous front-line starters (which may or may not make them more likely to spend big on just one in Hamels), and one would assume are motivated to do so this offseason after already signing Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez to massive deals. The Cubs are loaded with prospects and young talent at the major league level, but aren’t going to be a serious contender this year, even with Hamels. That said, they are firmly in the Lester sweepstakes and a report from ESPN Chicago’s Jesse Rogers suggested that if the bidding reaches $150 million, the Cubs are out. So maybe they turn out to be the most motivated to make a Hamels deal. But who is going to bid against them? The Dodgers are reportedly in on Hamels and Lester, but only really as a luxury. Sure, a splash after a playoff disappointment would be nice, but the top three of Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu is among the most formidable in baseball as it is. Are the Dodgers really going to give up three or four top prospects for someone who wouldn’t even be their ace? And if they don’t, the Cubs interest in Hamels might turn out to be a moot point, because if they are bidding against themselves, Theo Epstein and company aren’t giving up three or four prospects and taking on the money left on Hamels deal.

Ultimately, I believe that the Phillies will discuss potential trades for Cole Hamels at the Winter Meetings. However, I do not see the market for Cole Hamels heating up until Jon Lester signs. Cole Hamels has been one of the best pitchers in baseball over the past three seasons, and if the Phillies decide to trade their 30 year-old left hander, they should demand a high return involving several top prospects. But top prospects are prized possessions to Major League organizations, meaning a deal for three or more top prospects will probably not happen. If teams shy away from a deal involving the reported three or four top prospects, then the Phillies should hold onto Hamels until the 2015 trade deadline. While Hamels has spent time on the DL in the past, he has never suffered a severe injury. Hamels is only 30 years-old and has not shown signs of regression. Ruben Amaro Jr. must test the market for Cole Hamels at the Winter Meetings. If the market is not where it should be, the Phillies do not need to force a trade. There is a market for Cole Hamels, but don’t be surprised if it takes Jon Lester signing to make that market flourish, and even then, teams may very well shy away from the high asking price for Hamels.