What Return Is Required For A Smart Cole Hamels Trade?


Jul 12, 2014; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher

Cole Hamels

(35) throws a pitch during the first inning against the Washington Nationals at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

In the last few days, several Philadelphia Phillies’ trade rumors have appeared and dissipated regarding the team’s veterans. Marlon Byrd both is and is not being pursued by the Seattle Mariners. Jonathan Papelbon both is and is not drawing interest from the Los Angeles Dodgers. Most recently, a possible Cole Hamels trade has both been proposed and seemingly shot down.

Officially, the Phillies have no interest in trading Hamels. The team’s preference is to move the higher salary, older, injured Cliff Lee (as is obvious enough), per Jon Heyman.

Additionally, Hamels’ preference is to stay in Philadelphia. He has a 20 team no-trade clause, with the Angels, Braves, Cardinals, Dodgers, Nationals, Padres, Rangers, Red Sox, and Yankees being the nine teams exempt.

The Braves and Nationals are likely included knowing the Phillies won’t trade him to division rivals, and the Padres (his hometown team) are unlikely to move for an ace of his expense at this time.

What remains is actually a list of some of the most pitching-desperate teams at this deadline. The Angels have need, the Dodgers would likely make room for an upgrade of his magnitude, and the Cardinals and Yankees expect to compete while beset with starting pitching injuries.

The Rangers and Red Sox are both well behind in their respective races, but a move for Hamels can be spun as both an immediate attempt at contention, and a move with the future in mind (given his contract). In fact, recent reports have called Hamels the Red Sox “backup plan” in the event they can not extend Jon Lester.

For those exact reasons, should the Phillies even consider moving Hamels? Even if (particularly if) the Phillies rebuild on July 31, Hamels contract extends through 2018, with a 2019 option. If you don’t expect to be competitive by the fifth year of a rebuild, you’re doing something wrong.

However, that reasoning assumes that the return received for Hamels, combined with extra financial flexibility afforded by not paying his contract, will not exceed that value.

How much value are does Hamels hold, in reality? Fangraphs hosts the Oliver Projection system, thoroughly researched forecasts that can be read about here. Five-year forecasts are given for every current player , including expected fWAR values (below are Hamels’ projections).

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The 2014 partial-year numbers are just an estimation, knowing that 95 games (58% of the season) have already been played. It pans out to be a very fair contract, in terms of current day dollar values.

These numbers obviously shouldn’t be taken for gospel, as projection systems like this tend to run conservative, but are overall relatively accurate.

I assume people will call the numbers too low, but it’s beside the point. The purpose of this piece is to roughly calculate the barrier over which a Cole Hamels trade makes sense – resize that barrier with whatever numbers you find most reasonable.

However, the Oliver numbers don’t look very far off. Hamels’ pre-season projection was 3.9 fWAR. He’s currently sitting on 1.8 fWAR, through 16 starts. Over the pre-season assumed 32 starts, that’s a 3.6 fWAR pace, actually a little lower than forecasted.

In 2013 there were only 5 starting pitchers in baseball, aged 33 or older, who matched what Hamels is projected to produce at ages 33 and 34. That number shrinks to 4 in 2012. 3.2 fWAR each season would be a success.

And, with the ballooning cost of wins on the free agent market, it’s actually possible that Hamels becomes more of a bargain overtime, despite lessening dollars/WAR efficiency.

However, there are a couple of factors that swing the pendulum, lessening his value to the Phillies.

First, those projections presume no injury time. Research by Fangraphs’ Jeff Zimmerman has shown that 39.1% of all pitchers will spend time on the disabled list the season after being a starter. It’s incredibly likely that, as he ages, Cole Hamels will spend significant time on the DL (as he did at the beginning of this season).

Second, the marginal value of the wins he provides to the Phillies are much lower than the marginal value of those wins to a competitor. That’s because those 3.7 wins in 2015 are being added to the Phillies, who might otherwise only win 70 games. It’s irrelevant in terms of playoff contention.

To a team like the Cardinals or Dodgers, who expect to compete this season, even the 1.6 projected wins in 2014 has incredible value. St. Louis is currently one game behind the division leading Brewers; the Dodgers are only one game ahead of the Giants.

When do Hamels’ WAR prove meaningful again? Given GM Ruben Amaro‘s recent comments: “…if we have to go a step backward for a year or two to move forward, then that’s what we’ll try to do,” it’s likely that the remainder of this season and the following two (2015 and 2016) are irrelevant.

That means the barrier for trading Hamels is likely the value he provides the team in the seasons they expect to contend for a division, and further.

In these estimates, that means adding over 6.4 WAR to the roster (than it would otherwise have without Hamels). Additionally, it should be done more efficiently than with Hamels, so costing less than $7,425,987 per WAR (which splits the minimally required $6 million buyout per WAR).

Again, recalculate those numbers with whatever production seems most reasonable, but those are the two metrics by which a potential Cole Hamels trade could be minimally judged as a net benefit.

It’s also not quite as simple as plugging in two new prospects into your rotation and lineup, and adding their WAR. Their value has to be judged over the value of the player that would otherwise be in that position.

For instance, pretend the haul is a future number two starting pitcher and an everyday regular center-fielder. The pitcher is filling Hamels’ former spot, so his value can be taken as-is.

The outfielder’s value in 2017 could be judged against what Ben Revere would have otherwise produced, and then adding whatever ripple affect ensues from moving Revere to the bench over another player.

Another factor is the financial flexibility afforded by not having to pay Hamels’ large contract. In addition to receiving a haul, the Phillies would also be trading for their $105,305,556 back (or however much ownership doesn’t eat of that contract), with which they can do whatever they so choose.

If the team uses half that money to sign a 2 WAR/season free agent pitcher (like Matt Garza‘s latest deal), adding whatever league minimum money the prospects make creates a more easily reached, more efficient, yet as productive arrangement.

…there’s a massive inefficiency between what he is worth to the Phillies on their team and what he is worth to the Phillies on another team.

This all illustrates that Hamels ON the Phillies really carries surprisingly little value (although his personal performance may be spectacular). A scenario achieving 6.4 WAR for anything less than $7,425,987 per WAR is the bare minimum that the Phillies see a net benefit to trading Cole Hamels.

That’s likely the spot another team tries to negotiate the Phillies into; the bare minimum.

That’s very different from what the team should look for in a deal. If he’s worth 15.2 “high leverage” WAR to a contender over the next four and a half seasons, then the Phillies should be looking to be compensated at that level.

It’s unlikely the team receives prospects resulting in 15.2 WAR between 2017-2018, but adding in that financial flexibility, it’s possible to reach that figure. The Phillies would also want to maximize the amount of team control they have over these prospects while the team is competitive.

That just means that they’ll want the players to be promoted and become productive as close to when the team becomes productive as possible. They have six years with a player, they shouldn’t want to waste half of them before trying to win anything.

You might be looking at guys with an ETA of late 2015 or 2016 – giving them time for the awkward growing pains of a rookie season, before expecting to win games in 2017. Where are those guys right now? Likely, in the minors at the high-A or double-A levels. This way, the team still receives at least four years of control with these players before worrying about free agency.

Let’s look again at teams not included on Hamels’ no-trade clause: the Angels, Braves, Cardinals, Dodgers, Nationals, Padres, Rangers, Red Sox, and Yankees. We’ve already ruled out the Braves, Nationals, and Padres.

The Angels just depleted a farm system that many didn’t believe could be depleted further on Huston Street, they’re out of the running.

As much as the Dodgers and Yankees do spend on things, and have enough pieces to make a deal happen, both are spread thin financially. The Dodgers have bigger holes to fill in other areas, and the Yankees need more than one pitcher to fix this season.

This leaves the three teams I believe most likely to make a deal for Cole Hamels; the Cardinals, the Rangers, and the Red Sox. All three are expected to compete each year, and despite various struggles each would still expect to win their respective divisions in 2015. All three also have deep farm systems and youth to make a deal happen.

For the Rangers and Red Sox, a move for Hamels placates a fan base by appearing competitive now while actually shoring up questionable rotations for the next few seasons.

For the Cardinals, a move for Hamels shores up their rotation immediately for the stretch run, after suffering several injuries to pitchers like Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha. Imagine a playoff rotation headlined by Adam Wainwright and Cole Hamels. Yeesh.

The Phillies say they aren’t interested in moving Cole Hamels. Hopefully, this is just posturing to drive up his cost – there’s a massive inefficiency between what he is worth to the Phillies on their team and what he is worth to the Phillies on another team. They’d be silly to not take advantage of it.