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In an official announcement of an as-yet-unofficial transfer of power, Andy MacPhail joined the Phillies Monday. He’ll take over for team president Pat Gillick at the end of the season. (In the great American tradition, this presidential succession of a 78-year-old white man by a 62-year-old white man with ideas six percent more progressive is being celebrated as a seismic shift.) There are all kinds of questions in need of answers, like whether MacPhail will choose to retain GM Ruben Amaro (almost certainly not), and to what extent MacPhail is prepared to embrace the rebuilding effort the Phillies have been slowly getting off the ground the last year or two. By far the juiciest question, though, and the one you can cajole even very casual fans into discussing, is what MacPhail’s arrival means for Cole Hamels.

It’s remarkable to think about just how many times the Phillies have been expected to at least come close to dealing Hamels. In 2012, he was on the doorstep of free agency and the Phillies were 41–54 with 10 days to go before the trade deadline. On July 25th, though, Amaro signed Hamels for six more seasons and nearly $150 million. That shut down the trade rumors for about a year and a half, but by December 2013, Jon Heyman was reporting that Hamels was back on the trade market. At last year’s deadline, with the Phillies as far from relevance as ever, Hamels was all over the rumor mill again, though the Phillies’ astronomical asking price put a heavy damper on the market.

The winter passed with more rumors but nothing truly new. Amaro has never gotten far enough along with a team on a potential Hamels deal to give the national media a chance to catch a whiff. Now, the Phillies are 27–53, Hamels has expressed his desire to move on, and the overwhelming feeling is that Philadelphia must be about to (finally) trade the man. For the record, Hamels is due $22.5 million this season, and the same amount for each of the next three. He then gets a $6 million buyout or a $20 million salary in 2019, with the latter amount guaranteed if he remains healthy and durable through 2018. It took a while, but the team has let prospective buyers know they’ll entertain eating money in a trade to maximize their return.

All of these things happened (or didn’t) on Amaro’s watch, under Gillick’s tutelage. MacPhail said Monday that he intended to spend the remainder of the season learning about the organization, not overhauling it, but, presumably, he has some idea of the next steps he needs to take in order to turn the Phillies back into a winner. Indeed, if MacPhail doesn’t make developing a preferred course with regard to Hamels his top priority, he’ll be making the first mistake of his tenure.

This article is mostly about what happens once MacPhail does develop that preference and, specifically, it’s about what that preference ought to be. Should the Phillies trade Hamels, or have they eschewed doing so for so long that it’s no longer advisable, if it ever was?

Valuing the Commodity
I mentioned that Hamels still has three and a half years, with a vesting option for a fourth full one, left on that big contract. It’s not that big a contract, though, given where the market has moved since he signed it. Hamels certainly isn’t to be devalued because of it.

At 31, Hamels is one of the best pitchers in baseball. The surface-level numbers aren’t as pretty as they were last season, but he is missing more bats (on both a per-pitch and a per-swing basis) than ever. His 26 percent strikeout rate would be the highest of his career if it holds. Hamels is also allowing true fly balls on only 13-plus percent of opponents’ batted balls, the 10th-lowest figure in the league. Our new(ish) suite of advanced pitching metrics considers him one of the best hurlers in MLB.

Cole Hamels, 2015, Among 110 P w/ 70+ IP

FIP (Rank)

cFIP (Rank)

DRA (Rank)

DRA- (Rank)

DRA WARP (Rank)

3.48 (39th)

86 (23rd)

2.28 (7th)

55 (7th)

3.37 (7th)

For that level of performance, especially given Hamels’ consistency and relatively clean health record, an annual salary of $22.5 million is far from a burden. It’s right in line with Jon Lester‘s average annual value. It’s certainly less, given the precedents set by Lester and Max Scherzer, than David Price and Zack Greinke will get on the open market this coming winter. Even Johnny Cueto, with no higher an established talent level than Hamels’s and with much less demonstrated durability, might make more. Crucially, all three of those pitchers—plus, in all likelihood, Jordan Zimmermann of the Nationals—will get a deal considerably longer than three years, plus an option. More importantly still, of all those names, only Cueto is likely to be traded this month. If a team wants a top-flight arm to add to the front of its potential playoff rotation, Cueto and Hamels are the only two options, and Cueto will be but a two-month rental.

In that light, yes, Cole Hamels has enormous trade value. Theoretically. And here’s where we run into a thorny issue: There’s really only theory to go on. The more I looked for a comparable trade in the recent annals of baseball, the more I didn’t find one. It’s not prohibitively hard to find great pitchers who were traded at the deadline, and it’s not even cripplingly hard to find ones dealt with a significant amount of team control left in front of them. Ask for both, though, and begin to consider where Hamels is on the aging and earning curves, and the precedents dry up.

The best comps I’ve found so far, in order of their appeal as real guideposts for a Hamels valuation, are:

  • Jake Peavy to the White Sox: Peavy was well-established and had multiple years remaining on an essentially market-level deal when he was dealt at the deadline in 2009. He was also hurt at the time, though, and he hadn’t been his former, Cy Young–caliber self even before being sidelined. He commanded only one prospect who ever had or would appear on a Top 100 list, pitcher Aaron Poreda, although the Padres also got MLB-ready back-end starter Clayton Richard, plus two other, less interesting pitching prospects.

  • Dan Haren to the Angels: Haren had two and a half years (plus an option with a non-negligible buyout, similar to Hamels’) left on a deal a bit less gaudy than Hamels’ in July 2010. The Diamondbacks were roundly criticized for getting only Tyler Skaggs, Patrick Corbin, Joe Saunders, and Rafael Rodriguez for him. Of course, Skaggs was a Top 100 prospect, albeit a back-end one, but Corbin was a mid-tier prospect, Saunders was a value-by-volume back-end arm, and Rodriguez was an org guy. We know that this deal turned out exceptionally well for Arizona, though, or at least that it looked like it would a year after it happened. It’s probably fair to say that Skaggs and Corbin were worth more than the industry believed them to be even at the time of the deal.

  • Ubaldo Jimenez to the Indians: Jimenez was considerably younger than Hamels when the Rockies elected to deal him, and the contract extension that entitled the Indians to up to two and a half years of his services was much less pricey than Hamels’ current deal. On the other hand, Jimenez was never quite the pitcher Hamels is; he had that funky delivery that made everyone a bit uneasy; and he had only three-plus years of documented excellence on his side when he was dealt. (Hamels is going on eight years of greatness.) Jimenez was enough to pry loose each of the Indians’ previous two first-round picks (pitchers Alex White and Drew Pomeranz), plus a pair of low-ceiling, organizational position prospects.

That’s it. Beyond these, there are deals for pitchers with three or more years of team control remaining, but no money committed to them over those terms, like the trades of Mat Latos and Josh Beckett. Those tend to happen in the winter, though, and the arms involved tend to have many, many fewer miles on them. (Hamels is likely to reach 2,000 career innings pitched before the season is over.) There are tons of deals for guys with a year and a half of control remaining, even some from last year’s deadline, guys like Jeff Samardzija and David Price. Then, of course, there’s the James Shields trade, a good fit in terms of the reputation of the player being dealt and their career arcs to that point, but a poor one in terms of the time the trading team had to capitalize on its new asset, and in financial terms.

This just underscores, I think, what an odd decision the Phillies made by extending Hamels when they did. In most cases, if a contract extension doesn’t happen long before that 2012 deal did, it doesn’t happen, and if it does happen, it’s because the team agreeing to it has the intention and the wherewithal to be competitive in the short term, making keeping the player at a market rate worthwhile. The Phillies bucked convention mostly by managing to sign Hamels, but not being able to build a winner around him thereafter. The weird, unreadable, unpredictable trade market for him in 2015 is just a ripple effect of the strange arc the franchise has traced since their dynasty collapsed.

The Phillies have a choice, over the next four weeks, between selling Hamels and truly digging in for a rebuild, or trying once more to build a contender by the end of his deal in 2018. It’s very unlikely that Hamels will pitch well beyond that season, anyway, so in essence, it comes down to whether MacPhail (and Amaro; the tricky part is that the new president might end up having to make this critical decision in concert with a man he intends to fire) believes the team can be reconstructed on the fly, or whether he prefers the ground-up rebuilding blueprint laid out by two equally large-market teams over the last half-decade.

Option 1: Trade him.
Let’s treat the sexier of the two possibilities first. If MacPhail makes up his mind to trade Hamels, I genuinely believe the deal should happen this month, regardless of the man in the GM’s chair. Right now, as I illustrated above, Hamels is something the modern trade market has never seen. He’s a long-term investment, as well as a short-term boost for a team hungry for a pennant, and the terms of that investment beyond this season only increase his surplus value. That might not be the case for long. By this time next year, Hamels will no longer offer the opportunity for an unprecedented trade haul. He’ll be an average, everyday elite trade chip. That’s still nice to have, but the Phillies have this tantalizing chance to do more.

There are, in my estimation, four wholly legitimate potential landing spots for Hamels in this trade market: the Cubs, the Dodgers, the Yankees, and the Rangers. Two additional teams could be serious threats, but the Red Sox aren’t in any better position to leverage Hamels’ value over the next three months than the Phillies are, and the Cardinals, as it turns out, probably don’t need him badly enough to make a deal worthwhile. It’s worth examining what the Phillies might reasonably expect (not what the rumor mill says they’ve asked for; everyone asks for everything at some point, and too much is made of the Phillies’ initial, sky-high asks when they’re leaked to the masses) to get from each team.

  • Chicago: There’s no shortage of depth pieces to build out the back end of a Cubs-Phillies deal. The question is at the front end. Kris Bryant and Addison Russell are too valuable to trade for Hamels. He simply isn’t worth what they are, now that each of them have proven that they can handle the transition to the majors, but still have six full seasons of team and cost control in front of them. Javier Baez and Starlin Castro are damaged goods, in different ways, and the two sides would probably have too much trouble agreeing on their value to make them the center of a trade.

    The two candidates to front a Hamels deal in the Cubs organization, then, are Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler. Since Soler has shown some warts and is the Cubs’ current right fielder, I’ll hazard that the same obstacles preventing Castro from being a part of the deal would block him, too. That makes Schwarber, perhaps the best left-handed bat in the minor leagues right now, the likely lead name in a trade. Tack on either of Carl Edwards Jr. or Duane Underwood Jr., then a high-ceiling player further from the big leagues (read: Gleyber Torres), and a fair trade can be hammered out pretty easily. Chicago would probably have to kick in even more than that, but it would be someone like Kyle Hendricks or Justin Grimm, a player who would stand to lose their job on the Cubs anyway but offers the Phillies a modicum of potential.

    That’s if the Phillies at least believe in Schwarber’s bat, of course, and it works best if they share the Cubs’ tentative optimism that he can stick behind the plate. If they don’t think he can, and if the Cubs are even willing to continue a negotiation in which Schwarber’s value is discounted accordingly, the secondary pieces get sexier and more important. Billy McKinney might have to replace the would-be high-risk guy at the edge of the deal.

  • Los Angeles: Like Bryant and Russell, Joc Pederson is unequivocally untouchable. Corey Seager is on the only tier clearly above Schwarber’s, in terms of positional talent still in the minor leagues, so it would be hard to pry him loose at all, let alone to get enough else to make the trade palatable to the Phillies.

    Julio Urias is a different story. Andrew Friedman is a smart guy, and one of the surefire marks of smart guys is that they don’t attach themselves inextricably to pitching prospects. Last summer, the Phillies wanted all three of Pederson, Seager, and Urias for Hamels. That was silly, but the Phillies also weren’t serious, and after all, it was one more year of Hamels they were selling at the time.

    This year, if Urias can front a package that grows to include Jose De Leon, Chris Anderson, and a spare part or two, that’s a deal the Dodgers have to do. The Phillies might even be able to work another useful pitching prospect into the deal, if they’re aggressive enough. Friedman, if he’s thinking straight, has to be thinking that Hamels can slide right into Greinke’s current rotation spot in 2016 and beyond, and if he does think that way, he’s trading not only for Hamels, but for the draft pick the Dodgers can get by offering Greinke a qualifying offer and letting him walk away. We’ve already seen Los Angeles assign a significant value to extra picks, with good reason.

  • New York: The Yankees don’t have the deep well of young talent from which the Cubs and Dodgers can draw to deal for Hamels. It will hurt New York much more to get a deal done, because it will cost them their top two prospects—Luis Severino and Aaron Judge—and then some. That’s heavy, but then, these are the Yankees. For all the talk about slow change coming to the organization, they’re still an old team with a lot of long-term commitments at high prices. They’re a winning team this year. Hamels fills their greatest need to a tee. Unless the front office truly doesn’t believe the aging positional core can stay healthy long enough to win the AL East this fall, the Yankees have to seriously consider giving up a huge haul for Hamels.

  • Texas: Like the Cubs, the Rangers are a team focused on sustainability. They have tremendous depth on the farm, but the big-league team appeared to be deficient, coming into this season. Then, as if by magic, Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo rediscovered themselves; the pitching staff slightly outperformed its expectations (and talent); and Josh Hamilton came home to Texas, almost for free.

    What could the Rangers give up to get Hamels? The list is a mile long. Joey Gallo, unlike Bryant, Russell, and Seager, isn’t necessarily untouchable. He could headline a deal, but the Rangers could even press a trade centered more around quantity than quality, because even their quantity pieces are high-upside talents. Nick Williams, Nomar Mazara, and Jorge Alfaro have tools for days, especially offensively. Luke Jackson and Jake Thompson have deceivingly ordinary names; they’re good pitching prospects. Even last year’s top pick, Luis Ortiz, might be available, since this year’s, Dillon Tate, represents a reinforcement of the Rangers’ farm-system pitching depth.

    I’ll guess that Philadelphia will stand firm and demand Gallo, if a deal is to be had. Again, though, that isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker. It just thins out the back half of the haul slightly. Given the respect the Rangers garner for their work in Latin America, the pipeline is always being refilled with guys who offer something to like. Start with Gallo and Jackson, and the Phillies should be able to find the filler they need to be satisfied.

I think I erred on the side of generosity to the Phillies. I think the proposed packages of talent fit the asset the proposed traders would be getting, but perhaps Philadelphia doesn’t have the negotiating leverage to get them, and (more importantly, and more likely) perhaps I’m overstating the value of Hamels on his current deal. Notably, though, all four of these teams could absorb Hamels’s salary without breaking a sweat, so the money shouldn’t be the stumbling block in any of these possible trades.

Let’s say none of these packages really satisfy MacPhail and Amaro, though. What would the decision to really hold onto Hamels look like?

Option 2: Keep him.
First and foremost, this strategy would mean clearing out absolutely all of the driftwood around Hamels. Chase Utley would need to be talked into a trade. Carlos Ruiz, if he still has any value, would need to be moved. Jonathan Papelbon should be made free to any acquiring team, financially, so as to utterly maximize the talent they get in return for him.

Building around Hamels doesn’t mean building to win in 2016. That’s still, in all likelihood, an unattainable goal. The team should focus on accumulating talent, just the way they would if they dealt Hamels, at least through the coming winter. The idea should be to leverage the top pick in next year’s draft by adding an extra pick, via trade with a recipient of a competitive-balance pick, and to draft someone who will be able to help the parent club fairly quickly. J.P. Crawford isn’t all that far from taking the reins at shortstop. Maikel Franco looks like a long-term piece, and probably a legitimate third baseman. Aaron Nola is exceedingly close to the majors. Those three players and Hamels make a competent left side of the infield and a strong front of the rotation, which is a decent place to start on a short-term rebuild.

Amaro has proven a more adroit seller than most people expected, when he’s done it. He acquired Zach Eflin, Tom Windle, and Ben Lively in trades this winter, giving the system some pitching depth close to the majors. It’s not totally crazy to imagine the Phillies competing in 2017. The odds aren’t in their favor there, but it’s not impossible, by any stretch. Keeping Hamels would make for a more stable ascent toward that objective.

***

Obviously, without access to the details of actual negotiations, it’s impossible to say whether the Phillies actually should trade Hamels or not. I suspect that they should. I suspect that the only good chance they will get to press down on the gas pedal and give their rebuilding endeavor real traction will come in the form of a Hamels offer they get sometime in the next 30 days. As I mentioned in the valuation section, though, it’s fair to wonder if the strangeness of this circumstance—a great, but expensive, starter being offered up with years left on a deal because the team that signed him miscalculated its competitive position—will stop or slow the flow of real offers, things worth considering. If the Phillies were in a good position, Andy MacPhail probably wouldn’t have gotten his call. They’re in a fragile place, a dangerous place, and it will be interesting to see whether they get a good opportunity to escape it, or whether Ruben Amaro’s sins are going to be visited upon his successor.