What Is Fair Trade Value for Phillies Ace Cole Hamels?

December 31, 2014 by  
Filed under Fan News

Of the attractive trade chips in the Philadelphia Phillies‘ collection, Cole Hamels is the Action Comics No. 1 of the bunch. He’s the prized possession, and the one available for the highest price. 

Or so they think. But in reality, his trade value is…well, complicated.

Granted, we don’t actually know what Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. is demanding for Hamels. But some hints have appeared on the rumor mill, with two reports in particular standing out.

In early November, Jim Salisbury of CSNPhilly.com reported that the Phillies want “at least three top prospects” for their ace left-hander. More recently, Ryan Lawrence of the Philadelphia Daily News wrote that the team had discussed a deal with the San Diego Padres centered on 2013 American League Rookie of the Year Wil Myers.

Again, these are just rumors. But they do fit with the team’s new rebuilding direction, as well as with recent remarks from manager Ryne Sandberg.

“There’s no way that Ruben’s going to just give away a player,” he said at the winter meetings, via Alex Speier of WEEI.com. “I mean, we’d have to be wowed to give up a guy like Cole Hamels, which would be a wow that would help us with the process and go in the direction that we want to go.”

Getting three top prospects for Hamels? Yeah, that would qualify as a “wow” trade. So would acquiring a guy with Myers’ talent and controllability. (He’s a free agent after 2019.) 

But regarding what Hamels is actually worth, we have to start with the elephant in the room: his contract.

The six-year, $144 million extension Hamels signed in 2012 has four years remaining on it at $23.5 million per year, plus a $6 million buyout on a $20 million option for 2019. As such, he’s owed between $100 million over four years and $114 million over five years.

For the Phillies, the ideal scenario involves moving all of that money and getting the young pieces they desire. But because young players are probably more valuable now than ever before, the Phillies’ best hope of pulling that off lies in convincing buyers that Hamels’ remaining contract is a bargain.

To this end, there’s an obvious target Amaro can point at to sell teams on the idea: Jon Lester.

A couple weeks ago, Lester signed with the Chicago Cubs for six years and $155 million. Amaro can point to that as the going rate for ace left-handers on Lester’s level.

And you know who matches that description as well as anyone? Yup. Hamels.

That Hamels and Lester were born barely a week apart 30 years ago (Lester turns 31 on January 7) helps the comparison, but it goes further. Courtesy of BaseballReference.com and FanGraphs, check out how Hamels and Lester stack up throughout their careers and in more recent history:

If you don’t know ERA+, that’s a version of ERA that’s adjusted for ballparks and leagues and placed on a scale of 100. Anything over 100 is above average.

So, in a nutshell: Hamels has been a slightly better pitcher throughout his career and was more or less on par with Lester in 2014. Plain old ERA says he was exactly on par, in fact, as the two southpaws pitched to 2.46 ERAs in 2014.

If you’re Amaro, this is an excuse to point out that Hamels at $23-25 million per year over the next four or five years doesn’t look so bad compared to Lester at around $26 million over the next six years. The money on Hamels’ contract represents a slight discount, with the years representing less overall risk.

However, there’s a problem. While Lester’s contract may be there as an excuse for Amaro to push for what he wants, it’s not hard for prospective buyers to push back. 

Maybe you’ve already spotted one issue with the idea of Hamels’ remaining contract being a discount next to Lester’s deal. But even if it is a discount, it’s not a very big one.

Another way to frame the conversation would be to look at the surplus value Hamels should offer over what he’s due to be paid. FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan did that recently, concluding that he projects to offer $23.5 million at most in surplus value. More realistically, his surplus value is in the $10-20 million range.

That’s not a lot of surplus value. Certainly not enough for three top prospects. Maybe not enough for just Myers either. Remember, these are guys who, hypothetically, are going to be really good and really cheap for several years.

So that’s one way we can knock the Hamels-Lester comparison down a peg. We can take things even further by gazing into what the future may hold.

If the Phillies do trade Hamels, his future will more than likely contain different competition. That wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing.

We once again turn to Sullivan, who looped Hamels in with Lester, Max Scherzer and James Shields and found he’s faced by far the weakest hitting opposition since 2012:

On average, since 2012, Cole Hamels has faced a bunch of Everth Cabreras. James Shields has faced a bunch of Eric Hosmers. There’s little difference between the AL guys, but Hamels is far removed. You have to assume this has worked to Hamels’ benefit.

Knowing this, the money remaining on Hamels’ contract suddenly looks like less of a bargain.

Beyond that, there’s also the matter of how Hamels is going to age. That’s where Lester once again works as a helpful comparison point, though not in a flattering way.

Though Hamels has pitched more career innings than Lester, more innings mean more mileage. Also, Baseball Prospectus’ injury records can show that Hamels has more of a history of arm and shoulder trouble than Lester. Pitchers are largely known for being injury risks, but Hamels appears to be more of one than Lester.

As for Hamels’ stuff, the above MLB Network segment trumpets his recent velocity increase in recent years as a good sign going forward. But it’s really as much of a curse as it is a blessing.

We have plenty of history that says velocity becomes harder to muster as pitchers age. Hamels’ new-found velocity should follow the trend eventually. And though he’ll still have his all-world changeup, solid curveball and cutter, he’ll have to alter his pitching style to accommodate his lost velocity.

Lester has already done that.

Whereas Hamels enjoyed a superb season with career-best velocity in 2014, Lester enjoyed his own superb season with his worst velocity since 2007. Grantland’s Shane Ryan did a fine job of breaking down how Lester did that with sudden mastery of location, movement and sequencing. 

All these things are bearing in my mind if I’m a GM eyeing Hamels. While the best-case scenario for the Phillies involves selling him as something of a Lester clone, it’s too easy to debunk the idea.

Now, one thing that could lead prospective buyers to match the Phillies’ lofty demands is leverage.

Amaro seems to think he has a lot of that. He told Bob Nightengale of USA Today in November that he feels “no pressure” and “no necessity” to move Hamels, and he’s right to a certain extent. 

Hamels is under contract for several more years, and the Phillies have more than enough funds to afford his contract. If they can’t get what they want for him this winter, they can tell teams to try again over the summer or next winter.

And yet there is risk involved with the idea of holding on to Hamels.

Beyond the usual risk of his value being hurt by an injury and/or a poor performance in 2015, there’s the specter of how many options there are going to be outside of Hamels next winter. Jordan Zimmermann, Johnny Cueto, David Price, Doug Fister and assorted others are set to be free agents. 

In the meantime, clubs in need of an ace this winter have the option of spending money on Scherzer or Shields rather than giving the Phillies money and talent for Hamels. To boot, the list of teams with the money and young talent required to be in the mix for Hamels is pretty short.

To make a long story short: the idea of Hamels being worth a big haul of young talent on top of his remaining contract is a stretch, and the Phillies lack the leverage to make teams meet their price. If they mean to move his entire contract and get talent back, one top prospect is a more realistic price than three top prospects or an established youngster like Myers.

Mind you, this doesn’t mean the Phillies flat-out can’t get what they want for Hamels this winter.

Because the Phillies do indeed have a lot of money, they can make like the Los Angeles Dodgers did with Matt Kemp and eat a chunk of money to enhance their return for Hamels. If they were to cover, say, $30-40 million of his remaining contract, it’s not hard to imagine them getting what they want.

We’ll see if the Phillies are willing to do that. If they are, we’ll be talking about a fair deal all around.


Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.  

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