“Let's trade Cole Hamels.”
As Buster Olney reported on Monday, that just might be a decision the Phillies’ front office makes this winter. He'll be a free agent following the 2012 season, and executives throughout baseball are skeptical about Philadelphia’s ability to keep the ace lefty. Let's be clear about this: Hamels is most definitely an ace, he's coming off of his best season statistically, and is in his prime. The Phillies should keep him; despite what it might seem like considering their rotation, aces don't exactly grow on trees. They're also expensive, and if the Phillies decide to trade him prior to the 2012 season, they'll certainly find their phones burning up with prospective suitors.
Should the Phillies look to trade Hamels, here's what they should be looking for:
1. A replacement in the rotation. Trading Hamels right now is not the best timing. Roy Oswalt is leaving via free agency, which gives the Phillies two aces in Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay, and then some mortality in Vance Worley and Joe Blanton, with Kyle Kendrick the most likely candidate from within. Ignore Kendrick's 2011 ERA; pitchers who don't miss bats cannot sustain these kinds of numbers, and while teams are highly reticent to trade pitching prospects, they are less so when a pitcher like Cole Hamels is on the table.
2. Bullpen help. Jonathan Papelbon is simply a Ryan Madson replacement/upgrade, Jose Contreras is old as Methusala, and most inside the game expect regression from Antonio Bastardo. Relievers are the most unpredictable commodity in the game, and depth there is always a good thing.
3. Middle-infield insurance. Jimmy Rollins is a free agent, and Chase Utley is coming off his two worst seasons since his 2004 rookie campaign. He has missed a combined 106 games during that time. Enough said.
4. Athletes with upside. Because when it comes to players, that's what the Phillies always look for. That's their draft mantra, and likely will be in trades as well.
So while advising against the idea of it, let's play along and trade Cole Hamels to some likely interested parties, with the help of a big-league executive who quipped, “Hey, I love trading other people's players.”
New York Yankees: Manny Banuelos, LHP; Hector Noesi, RHP; Austin Romine, C; Mason Williams, OF
Banuelos is one of the best left-handed prospects in the game, and like Hamels, his best pitch is a changeup, but he has plenty of other offerings. He should be ready at some point in 2012, while Noesi can start or relieve right now. Williams is exactly the kind of young, athletic outfielder the Yankees cover, and Romine could develop into a replacement for Carlos Ruiz. “The Phillies need a long-term catcher, and their top catching prospect, Sebastian Valle, is not a sure thing,” said the executive.
Boston Red Sox: Will Middlebrooks, 3B; Jed Lowrie, INF; Brandon Jacobs, OF; Felix Doubront, LHP
While Placido Polanco was a Gold Glove winner and somehow an All-Star, he's still well below average offensively for the position. Middlebrooks would be a perfect fit as a hot-corner player with above-average offensive and defensive potential, and he should be ready by 2013 at the latest. Lowrie is a perfect fit for infield depth, while Jacobs is toolsy and coming off a big year in Low-A. The biggest problem for Boston is that they just don't have the arms to compete with other teams. “Doubront is out of options, and the Phillies need left-handed depth,” said the exec.
Chicago Cubs: Brett Jackson, OF; Andrew Cashner, RHP; Junior Lake, INF
“People forget that Victorino is a free agent after next year, so a young center fielder could make a lot of sense here,” said the executive. Jackson's strikeout issues will keep him from hitting for a high average, but his power and patience will more than make up for it. Cashner is healthy and throwing bullets, and he could give the Phillies a dominating late-inning combination when paired with Papelbon. Lake has tools and size, and some chance at becoming the answer at third base in a couple of years.
Texas Rangers: Martin Perez, LHP; Mike Olt, 3B; Jorge Alfaro, C; Roman Mendez, RHP
Perez has started to stagnate a bit in the Rangers system due to issues with inconsistency, but he remains a left-handed starting prospect with upside who could pitch in the big leagues this year. Olt is a perfect trade chip as a plus defender at third base who put on a show with the bat in the Arizona Fall League, but is interminably blocked in Texas by Adrian Beltre. Alfaro and Mendez are the upside plays, with Alfaro most noted for his power and arm, while Mendez brings upper-90s heat.
Detroit Tigers: Jacob Turner, RHP; Casey Crosby; LHP; Danry Vasquez, OF; Gustavo Nunez, SS
While Hamels to Detroit makes sense, it's a difficult deal to make due to an extremely shallow Tigers system. “They just can't get the deal done without including Turner,” said the executive, referring to the team's top prospect by a wide margin, who is also close to being ready for a major-league rotation. Crosby has a terrifying injury history, but still has two well above-average pitches in his fastball and curveball, and could be a weapon out of the bullpen. Vasquez was a big-budget signing out of Venezuela in 2010 who offers plenty to dream on, while Nunez is an extra infielder.
Colorado Rockies: Drew Pomeranz, LHP; Chad Bettis, RHP; Charlie Blackmon, OF
Pomeranz was the big prize from Cleveland in the Ubaldo Jimenez deal, and while he's an excellent prospect, Colorado should be happy to flip him in a deal for Hamels. Bettis, a second-round pick in 2010, had a breakout performance in the California League, sitting at 92-96 mph and leading the league in strikeouts. “This is another chance for them to pick up a center fielder, but it's too bad that Colorado is in love with [Dexter] Fowler again,” added the executive. That leaves Blackmon, who is solid across the board, but lacks star potential.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Dee Gordon, SS; Allen Webster, RHP; James Baldwin, OF
There are plenty of whispers that the Dodgers could be players this offseason, with a focus on increasing team value now that the McCourt nightmare is in their rearview mirror. But they just don't have the prospects to play ball with the big boys. “The problem is that their system is all pitching, and there just isn't someone who can headline the deal,” explained the executive. This is why Gordon would be included; he would become an immediate Rollins replacement and provide the Phillies with some financial flexibility. Webster is a mid-rotation prospect with a 2013 timetable, while Baldwin is the perfect Phillie as a 20-year-old with some of the best tools around, but he's still learning how to play baseball.
Washington Nationals: Brad Peacock, RHP; Derek Norris, C; Michael Taylor, OF; Stephen Lombardozzi, INF
“I'm surprised you don't have the Nationals on your list,” said the executive as we ran through scenarios. The team is certainly expected to be busy on the free-agent market, so it makes sense that they'd be interested in Hamels. While Peacock lacks the upside of Hamels, he can walk right into the Philadelphia rotation and produce. Norris is a catcher who has tons of power and draws truckloads of walks, so even when he hits .210, he's actually good. He hit .210/.367/.446 in 2011 at Double-A Harrisburg. Taylor is the youthful, athletic outfielder, and Lombardozzi is the perfect fit as an advanced prospect who can play both up-the-middle positions.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .