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Extend Cole Hamels Now (If You Want To)

If you took MRIs of Cole Hamels’ arm right now, he would probably get a clean bill of health. So would most elite pitchers who were about to receive nine-figure contracts. But that does not mean that they are likely to maintain their health and their elite performance level. Pitchers often fall apart soon after changing teams. I have written about this many times before, most notably in this year’s Hardball Times Annual. In that article, I produced the following chart of millions-of-dollars-per-WAR spent by teams for re-signed players (RSP) and other people’s players (OPP) in all multi-year deals ending between 2007 and 2011.

Millions of Dollars per WAR N RSP OPP Diff.
All 196 3.7 5.1 39%
Hitters 104 3.5 4.1 17%
Starting Pitchers 44 4.1 7.9 93%
Relief Pitchers 46 3.4 8.1 139%

*Note that I have adjusted this for fWAR from rWAR

You’re not reading that wrong. Starting pitchers who sign multi-year deals with other teams cost twice as much per WAR as ones who stay on the same team. I went on to explain that this is primarily because pitchers who stay on the same team usually beat their projections; pitchers who change teams usually fall short of their projections.

It’s not hard to see why this happens. When you see a pitcher every day, you learn a lot more about him than you do from a single MRI. You learn about his recovery after starts; you learn about what types of minor soreness he has had in his past; you learn about his workout routine and his work ethic. There is just way more information available to a team that has worked with a player for years. The Phillies have had that luxury with Cole Hamels, and they are apparently willing to offer him about $130 million for six years. Contract talks have been heating up. It’s not hard to tell that the Phillies probably see Hamels as a pitcher likely to maintain his elite status if they are willing to let that $130 million offer sit out there.

Hamels could get more than $130 million. Chris Cwik summarized this earlier today. Looking at his list, it looks like a fair offer would be something like $135 million. Not only that, but if Hamels does hit the free-agent market, then unlike the other pitchers on that list, Hamels’ bidders would not have to worry about losing a draft pick upon signing him (assuming he is traded midseason before hitting the free-agent market). That should add another $5 million to his price tag, so he is likely to get something like six years, $140 million on the free-agent market. But unlike the pitchers who changed teams on Chris’ list — like Johan Santana, John Lackey and Barry Zito — the Phillies’ interest in Hamels suggests that he is unlikely to either be hurt or to stink suddenly after changing teams.

If the Phillies do not extend Hamels, they are unlikely to be able to reproduce that $140 million of value elsewhere on the market. The above graph shows how unlikely they are to get that sort of value by signing a pitcher from anywhere else. Not only that, their main deficiency at hitting will be in the outfield — another area where teams get notoriously poor value per dollar.

Do the Phillies need to get younger? It would be smart. Is the Phillies’ farm system weak? Yes. But does their farm system doom them to failure? Hardly.

The Phillies have had a terrible season, but up and down their roster, they have the makings of a team that is going to be competitive next year. They will have Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay atop their rotation, along with the consistently above-average Vance Worley. Chase Utley and Ryan Howard have lost a step — as long as a heel and two knees add up to one step — but they are still above-average players at their positions. Jimmy Rollins, Carlos Ruiz and Hunter Pence will all provide unambiguously above-average value at their positions. Add back an elite starting pitcher, and they have a good chance to win the division title.

Of course, the Phillies may not actually be engaging Hamels genuinely, and they may only be making a public-relations-driven effort. But chances are that if the Phillies are really disengaging with trade partners (as Jayson Stark suggests), they probably have concluded that Hamels is a safe bet to retain his value. If he does, then he is likely to prefer significantly more value for $140 million than whatever other pitchers the Phillies could replace him with. So, Ruben Amaro really should be signing Cole Hamels right now to whatever deal is necessary. That is, if he actually wants to.