A Hypothetical Nationals Trade For Cole Hamels

After a lot of banter about what Cole Hamels might fetch in trade, it was reported earlier today that the Phillies are preparing a “major offer” in an attempt to retain him past this season. It was also reported that the Nationals might be relatively quiet at the trade deadline, given that they have few holes to fill. And that’s true, if Stephen Strasburg doesn’t get shut down. But, if he does get shut down, there is one person who could instantly fill his shoes and keep the Nationals in pursuit of a World Series crown — Cole Hamels.

Well, okay, there are two great options, with the other of course being Zack Greinke, but the notoriously awesome Eric Seidman already tackled that in his post earlier today, where he also ruminated on Strasburg’s workload in the second half. Even if they shut down Strasburg, as planned, they don’t need to go get an arm. Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Edwin Jackson are capable of winning a playoff series or two. The question is, are they capable of winning three? That’s perhaps a little dicier. No matter which side of that answer you fall on though, one thing is clear — the pressure to keep Strasburg in the rotation will mount unless a top-flite replacement is found. And while Matt Garza is a good pitcher, fans would be forgiven for feeling a bit dyspeptic if Garza and his 4.37 FIP slides into a rotation spot filled by Strasburg and his 2.50 FIP. No, the only potential replacement capable of keeping the natives — both inside and outside the clubhouse — restful would be Greinke or Hamels.

And, as it turns out, Washington could offer the Phillies a package that would strongly benefit the Phillies without crippling themselves in the process. As Carson Cistulli noted earlier this week, any premium pitcher being traded — even a rental — is likely to fetch four players. And while the new compensation rules might dampen the return for marquee players, the market, which is likely to have fewer sellers than years past thanks to the second wild card, may cancel that out. As such, let’s take a look at what a four-player package from the Nats to the Phillies might look like.

The first player, and the marquee name, would be Anthony Rendon. The third-base prospect has had an injury-marred professional career to this point, but his injuries have not yet put a stop to the hype train — Keith Law ranked him 44th in his recently-released prospects update, and as Marc Hulet noted in his prospect update this afternoon, the injuries are not necessarily a career killer. And Rendon was the sixth player selected in last year’s draft for a reason. With the Phils having a long-term hole at third base, he could slot in nicely.

Of course, third base for the Phillies also has a current hole, what with the 36-year old Placido Polanco playing like he’s 76, and Mike Fontenot and Ty Wigginton playing like Mike Fontenot and Ty Wigginton. Enter Danny Espinosa. Espinosa hasn’t quite matched the pace from his rookie season, but he would represent a step up over what the Phillies are running out at third base. And when Chase Utley’s contract mercifully concludes following the 2013 season, the Phils could slide Espinosa back over to his more natural second-base position, for what will be his age-27 season in 2014. Having a replacement already in house will lessen the sentimental desire to give Utley one last shot. In addition, having Espinosa would allow Freddy Galvis to slot back into the utility role for which he is best suited. And Washington can part with Espinosa safely, as Steve Lombardozzi is perfectly capable of manning the keystone for Washington.

The third player in the deal would be hot pitching prospect Alex Meyer. Meyer was a hit at the Futures Game in his brief appearance, and has pitched very well in his initial pro campaign, though he is a bit old for his league. Still, his value is up from the start of the season, and he began the season as a top-100 prospect. Every team needs pitching prospects, including the Phillies.

Rounding out the deal we have catcher Sandy Leon. A defensive whiz who has improved steadily with the bat. The Phillies have a nominal catcher of the future already in Sebastian Valle, but he has posted a .299 wOBA in his first go-round at Double-A. In other words, having a second potential catcher of the future wouldn’t hurt, especially one that is major-league ready now like Leon is. He could work his way into the mix with Carlos Ruiz immediately, and be ready to step in for him when he departs after 2013, or ever sooner if Philadelphia tries to capitalize on Ruiz’s career year and find him a new home.

A four player package — two major leaguers, a top-50 prospect (conservatively) and a top-100 prospect. That’d be a pretty great haul for a two-month rental. Now, the Phillies might not want to deal Hamels to an increasingly bitter intra-division rival, but if they can’t sign Hamels to an extension, it’s going to be something they have to consider. The other side of the coin is would the Nats even want Hamels. You’d be correct to be skeptical of such a proposition, since it was barely two months ago when Washington general manager Mike Rizzo used “fake tough” and other unflattering words to describe Hamels. But the pursuit of winning is what should win the day. And while Hamels and Rizzo might not be on the best of terms, Hamels would probably bean Bryce Harper less if they were teammates — especially since Hamels’ agent is likely to remind him that Nationals owner Ted Lerner is one of the richest men in the country. And if Tony D’Amato and Willie Beamen can learn to see eye to eye, and if Jay-Z and Nas can squash their beef, then surely Hamels and Rizzo can come to an accord.

The Nationals have a four-game cushion on the Braves, and have Drew Storen and Jayson Werth on their way back. If Stephen Strasburg doesn’t get shut down, they are a legitimate World Series contender right now. But if Strasburg does get shut down, the team has a choice to make — do the best they can without him and wait to pounce in 2013, or get help now. The Nats will certainly be set up well in ’13 — outside of Edwin Jackson and maybe Adam LaRoche, the team will return intact. But you never know what next year will bring. The Nats are contenders now, and should take the steps to remain that way. A package of Rendon, Espinosa, Meyer and Leon for Hamels would give the Nationals a lethal starting rotation, and would give the team the luxury of being World Series contenders without Strasburg (and who knows, maybe Strasburg could work into games out of the bullpen, where his workload would be lessened). Perhaps Philadelphia and Washington being division rivals would gum up the works, and perhaps Rizzo wouldn’t be willing to gamble a chunk of his team’s future on a player with whom he supposedly has bad blood, but if I can change, and you can change, then certainly Rizzo and Hamels can change…especially if it’s in pursuit of a flag, as flags fly forever.

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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com. He has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

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