Did Cole Hamels Save His Best Phillies Start for Last?

Posted: 07/26/2015 by levcohen in Baseball
Tags: , , , , ,

Cole Hamels threw a no-hitter today, the third in baseball this season. His game score was 98, tied for the second best pitching performance in baseball this year behind only Max Scherzer’s one-hit, one-walk, 16-strikeout masterpiece. Hamels walked two and struck out 13, washing away the bitter taste of his two previous starts, in which he had allowed 20 hits and 14 runs in 6.1 innings. The game also came against the Cubs, who were no-hit for the first time since 1965. All of that is impressive and interesting by itself. You know what makes it even more intriguing? The fact that Hamels threw this no-hitter, the second one he’s been a part of (he started a combined no-no last year) in what might end up being his last start in a long, storied Phillies career.

It’s hard to believe, but it’s nearly been seven years since the now-bearded Cole Hamels, then the team’s 24-year old ace, won World Series MVP. The road for Hamels has been long and windy, but he’s surely locked in his place among the all-time great Phillies. Easy to forget is the fact that, as a young pitcher, Hamels was fiery and whiny, to the point that, in the middle of the 2009 World Series, he said he was drained and “couldn’t wait for it to end.” Hamels, the classic Southern Californian Surfer Dude-looking guy, was far from a team favorite, and that remained the case even after the 2008 WS MVP. Here’s an example of the way some fans thought about Hamels, albeit a poorly-written and curse-laden one. But after his down 2009 season, Hamels started to change. Whether it was natural progression or some effect the team’s new, more experienced aces Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee had on him, Hamels became calmer on the mound and also more effective. His career ERA through 2009 was 3.67; since, it’s 3.07. He’s never been one of the very best pitchers in baseball, as he has four top-eight Cy Young finishes but none in the top-five. But the 31-year old is on pace to start at least 30 games for the eighth consecutive season, and in that time he’s seventh among pitchers in WAR, seventh in starts, fourth in innings, and even 20th in wins despite rarely getting any run support. And the most impressive thing? Besides Clayton Kershaw’s fastball and Cliff Lee’s fastball, Hamels’s changeup has added more value than any other pitch in baseball since the start of the 2008 season.

There are also few signs of decline when it comes to Hamels besides his artificially high ERA (3.65) this season. He’s throwing his fastball as fast as he ever has, and he has three plus pitches to go along with his elite changeup. Once a fly-ball pitcher, he’s forcing more grounders than ever before, and his FIP has hovered in the low 3s for five straight years. This is still a consistently-great pitcher, and one who, more than Ryan Howard or Chase Utley or Jimmy Rollins, should be remembered as the foundational piece on the successful 2007-2011 Phillies teams, although Utley has a strong case since he had the best peak of the quartet.

Ok, so we know that Hamels is a great pitcher and a Phillies legend. Now let’s talk about the trade aspect. It can be argued that the Phillies should have traded Hamels last year or even the year before, but, without the benefit of seeing the offers they received, I’m not going to make that argument. I am going to assert that they have to trade him now, because the market will be saturated with top arms come free agency and Hamels will be less valuable next July. Right now, plenty of teams should want Hamels. The Cubs, unsurprisingly after what happened today, are interested in Hamels, as well as the Dodgers, Rangers, and Astros. Those seem to be the four most likely destinations for the ace, but other teams are surely calling the Phillies and making improved offers.

What can the Phillies get in return? Well, when Hamels signed his six-year, $144 million extension, he looked overpriced, but that’s not the case anymore. Assuming the Phillies take no money on, the team that trades for Hamels will owe him at least $76.5 million, but only at a three or four year commitment. Considering that he’s just 31, that’s not too bad, especially considering the long-term deals contemporaries like Zack Greinke have recently signed (yes, Greinke is probably better, but not by enough that they aren’t comparable). Considering that WAR is valued around $8-9 million in today’s market and that Hamels added between 4.6-6.6 Baseball-Reference WAR from 2010-2014, his deal seems like enough of a bargain that a team would be willing to give up a blue-chip prospect even if the Phillies refuse to take any money on.

But what if the Phils take on, say, $15 million, making Hamels a $18 million a year investment? Then they can really start to ask for something that will jump-start the long rebuild they have in front of them. The leaders in the Hamels sweepstakes seem to be the Dodgers and Cubs. From LA, the Phillies have been asking for Corey Seager and Julio Urias, but they won’t be able to get those future studs. Instead, they should focus on getting more depth. Could a couple of young MLB-ready players (like Alex Guerrero) and a few decent prospects do the job? I think any deal not featuring a top prospect probably has to have between three and five very solid pieces in it, and the Dodgers have the depth to get that kind of a deal done.

And the Cubs are probably very willing to pay up for King Cole following his masterpiece today. Could the Phillies pry both Starlin Castro and Javier Baez, young, established players without a big role in Chicago, from the Cubs? I think they could, and it would be a heck of a coup. Castro has been one of the worst players in baseball this year, but he’s a cheap 25-year old shortstop who’s under team control for five more years and is probably a 2-4 WAR player. Buying him would be the kind of smart, buy-low deal that the Phillies wouldn’t normally consider. Meanwhile, Baez has put up huge numbers at every minor league stop but struggled mightily in his first taste of Major League Baseball last season. Now 22, the outfielder has 30+ homer power and is hitting .314/.386/.536 in AAA this year. He strikes out a ton, but he’s the type of middle-of-the-order power bat that few teams have and that the Phillies have lacked since before Ryan Howard tore his Achilles’. I really like the Baez+Castro trade package for the Phillies, especially if they can also get a third decent piece.

How special would it be if Cole Hamels were to end his Phillies career with a no-hitter? I haven’t done the research, but I’m pretty sure he’ll be the only one in baseball history to be traded immediately after a no-no, especially since only two pitchers have been traded in the same season as the one in which they threw a no-hitter. The eventual trade of Hamels will be sad for Phillies fans, but it’s something that has to happen and a decision that will pay off in the long run as long as Ruben Amaro Jr. makes the right decision. I’m not holding my breath.

  1. dpcathena says:

    The very definition of bittersweet.

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