Nationals Signing Max Scherzer Throws a Wrench Into Cole Hamels Market


The dust is beginning to settle after the Washington Nationals signed coveted free-agent, Max Scherzer. The 30-year old right-hander, signed a seven year, $210 million deal late Sunday night. The deal is the second highest of all-time for a starting pitcher, trailing regining National League MVP/Cy Young award-winner Clayton Kershaw.

To this point, two of the three big arms available via free agency have signed. First, Jon Lester signed with the Chicago Cubs and now Scherzer to the Nationals. Both pitchers received long-term, lucrative deals in excess of $150 million. James Shields is the only front-line starter left on the market. It is rumored that Shields is looking for a deal in the $100 million range. But since the best two pitchers on the market have signed, teams may call Ruben Amaro Jr. about the services of Cole Hamels. 

It is no secret that the Philadelphia Phillies are in rebuild mode. Ruben Amaro Jr. has made it clear that the Phillies are willing to part ways with their 31-year old left-hander. The real question becomes whether or not teams are willing to meet the Phillies trade demands, which are rumored to be very high. 

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There are several factors that go into a deal for Hamels–all of which the Phillies don’t control. As the market begins to settle on Scherzer, another market opens. The Cole Hamels market has been open and active for several months now, but no deal has been made. The Scherzer signing opens another door that should concern the Phillies.

The Washington Nationals now have a rotation packed with talent, but some of that talent is expendable. The Nationals could now look to trade one of Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister or Stephen Strasburg. You may ask why this is an issue for the Phillies. Let me explain. First of all, Zimmermann and Strasburg are younger than Cole Hamels, which means buyers may feel that they may get more peak value out of them. If you’re following the aging curve, players tend to peak right before or at their age-30 season. By no means does this mean Zimmermann and Strasburg are going to be more valuable than Hamels over the next four-to-five years, but a team may find the younger arms more investable. The third available Washington arm is 30-year old, Doug Fister. Similar to Hamels, Fister is getting better with age and finished 2014 with his highest WAR total of career.

Currently, Cole Hamels is locked up through 2018, with an option for 2019. If Hamels option year  (2019) is picked up, his remaining contract will be worth $110 million over five years. Following this season, Jordan Zimmermann will be a free-agent. This makes him easier to trade for the Nationals—especially if they don’t believe they can sign him. While it is a risk that Zimmermann will test free agency following the 2015 season, the acquiring club would not be tied into a long-term deal, which may be attractive to said club. The reason that it is attractive is the fact that the acquiring club can negotiate their own terms with Zimmermann rather than acquiring an existing deal like Hamels.

Over the past two seasons, Zimmermann has been one of the most valuable pitchers in the National League. Zimmermann has two top-10 finishes in the CY Young voting to go along with consecutive All-Star appearances. Since 2011, Zimmermann has yet to finish with an ERA higher than 3.25, displaying his consistent dominance. Given how much it will take to re-sign him, it’s understandable if the Nationals are hesitant to hold on to Zimmermann moving forward. But it would also be understandable if they felt it was worth keeping him until he is due to hit free-agency, in hopes of potentially locking him up. 

If the Nationals don’t want to part ways with Jordan Zimmermann, they could move former number one overall pick, Stephen Strasburg. Strasburg is entering his age 26 season—coming off his 2014 season where he finished ninth in Cy  Young voting. While some cite Strasburg as overrated–which he isn’t–he remains a very interesting pitcher for the next ten years. Following the 2016 season, Strasburg will become a free-agent. This means the acquiring team would have two seasons of Stephen Strasburg at a discounted price due to arbitration.

This year, Strasburg will earn $7.4 million–which is very fair. If you compare Hamels and Strasburg, it may be closer than you believe. In the past three seasons, Strasburg has not exceeded a 3.16 ERA. While Strasburg underwent Tommy John surgery early in his career, he has since rebounded—finishing with over 200 innings for the first time in his career in 2014. Along with his low ERA, Strasburg has averaged over a strikeout per inning for his career (746 Strikeouts in 649.1 innings pitched). In terms of Wins Above Replacement, Strasburg doesn’t match Hamels, but Strasburg has increased in WAR each of the past three seasons–topping out at 3.5-WAR in 2014.

Similar to Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister will be a free agent following the 2015 season. Fister will be 31-years old and will command a multi-year deal. This year, Fister will earn $11.4 million for his services–which is an afforable price for an acquring team. Another similarity to Zimmermann is the risk that Fister will test free agency following the 2015 season. When he does hit free agency, Fister will likely come at a discount compared to Zimmermann, but that could change with their upcoming seasons.

In the past three seasons, Fister ranks 14th in Wins Above Replacement (11.9-WAR), trailing Hamels and Zimmermann, but leading Strasburg. While Fister’s 3.22 ERA over the last three years is impressive, his value may never be higher for the Nationals since he is coming off a 2014 season where he finished with 2.41 ERA–finishing eighth in the National League CY Young voting. The concern for an acquiring club will be Fister leaving after the 2015 season and his 3.51 FIP in the last three seasons, which is the highest of the three Nationals pitchers.

Let’s take a look at the past three seasons (2012-2014) and Zimmermann, Strasburg and Fister to Cole Hamels (Statistics according to Baseball-Reference). 


 As the chart above shows, Hamels has been the most valuable over the past three seasons. The real dilemma for teams will come with the price tag along with future price. This is one of the factors that the Phillies can control. The Phillies price tag for Hamels has been very high to this point, seeking two or more top prospects for the left-hander. As I previously stated, an acquiring team would pay Hamels at least $90 million over the next four seasons. Hamels has been a 5.3-WAR player averaged out across the last three seasons. That breaks down to $4.43 million per Win Above Replacement. For comparison purposes, fellow left-hander Jon Lester just received a six year, $155 million deal. Over the past three seasons, Lester was 8.3-WAR—which averages out to $2.76 million per Win Above Replacement. Basically, Hamels has been more valuable than Lester at his price-tag, and if Hamels hit the open market-today, he could command a deal higher than the $144 million he received from the Phillies.

The price-tag for Zimmermann, Strasburg and Firster is unknown to this point, but considering they are among the top 20-25 pitchers in baseball, we can assume it will be high. Here is where the Nationals younger arms provide them with leverage. Since Zimmermann and Strasburg are younger, teams may find them more investable. On the open market, Zimmermann and Strasburg could command lucrative contracts. Zimmermann will make $16.5 million this season and is likely to get a raise when he hits the open market. If a team is going all-in and they need a front-line arm going into 2015, Zimmermann is a great option. The risk associated with Zimmermann is that he could walk after the one season.

Doug Fister is an interesting option for a team who needs a front-line starter heading into 2015. As I previously stated, Fister can test free agency following this season which is a risk for the acquiring club. The risk maybe worth taking, though. If Fister can duplicate his 2.41 ERA, a deal for the 30-year old would be of great value. Fister is a cheap one-year buy and should be cheaper than Zimmermann next winter–which could allow the acquiring team to re-sign Fister for an affordable price. Of the three Washington pitchers, Fister should have the lowest price tag. He is 30-years old, may test free agency and is coming off a 3.93 FIP–which is his highest FIP since he started ten games for the Mariners in 2009.

Stephen Strasburg, in my opinion, will bring the highest return. The acquiring club would have control of Strasburg for two seasons before he can test the open market. This year Strasburg will earn $7.4 million and has one more arbitration eligible year following 2015. Two years of Strasburg at $17-20 million is a great deal. The price tag to acquire Strasburg is the concern. Similar to Hamels, the price tag should be very high because of the skill set. In the past three seasons, five pitchers have accumulated at least 600 strikeouts with a FIP below 3.00—Strasburg is one of the five. In a nutshell, Strasburg is dominant and when he hits the open market in two seasons, he will command a big pay-day.

If I am Ruben Amaro Jr, I am worried about the options that Washington has created. They are a division rival and could force the Phillies to hold onto Hamels if they have a more reasonable price for one of their pitchers. While Hamels has proven to be worth the contract he signed, he isn’t getting any younger. Age regression may creep into the mind of a General Manager prior to dealing for Hamels. If a club isn’t willing to take on Hamels’ contract, the Phillies could eat some of the money—which is a pretty bad idea since he has proven his value.

Since Strasburg is in his arbitration years, he may be more affordable for some teams who are willing to risk him leaving after 2016. The other available arms, Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister will hit the open market next winter, commanding multi-year deals. Zimmermann will turn 30 during the first year of his next contract and will demand $20 million per season. The risk with Zimmermann is that players tend to decline after age 30, so he may not live up to contractual value. Not saying that is the case, but it is something to think about. The same goes for Doug Fister, who should earn $15 million per season if he tests free agency.

If I am a General Manager in need of pitching, I would give Nationals GM Mike Rizzo a call to test their price for Strasburg. Strasburg is younger and trending upward since his recovery from Tommy John surgery. I imagine the asking price would be similar to Hamels, but the acquiring club would get a younger pitcher who is cheaper for the next two years. If the price-tag for Strasburg is too high, Zimmermann and Fister are great one year options. Following this season, the acquiring club could negotiate their own terms with any of the three Washington pitchers instead of being locked into a deal like Hamels. I’m not sure how or if this will change Ruben Amaro Jr’s price, but it throws a wrench into the available pitching market and that should concern the Phillies if they are serious about moving Hamels.