As Jeff noted the other day, there stands to be a very good chance that Jeff Samardzija is the only real impact pitcher traded this month. The Rays keep winning, which reduces their incentive to move David Price. The Red Sox still say they want to re-sign Jon Lester, so trading him mid-season would be counterproductive to that goal. The Royals still think they’re contenders, so they aren’t going to move James Shields. The Padres want to keep Ian Kennedy. Right now, the best pitcher who is actually available is probably Bartolo Colon, who remains an average pitcher by FIP and xFIP but has apparently lost his runner-stranding fairy dust, and so he’s running a 114 ERA- at age-41 and is under contract for another $11 million next year, when he’ll be 42.
If ever there was a time to sell high on a starting pitcher, this would be it. This is maybe the most obvious seller’s market for arms we’ve seen in some time. And yet, in the middle of a golden opportunity, the Phillies have apparently taken this stance:
To date, Phillies telling other teams Cole Hamels is not available.
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) July 22, 2014
I get that the Phillies have their own way of doing things, and they see themselves as a franchise that should reload and not rebuild, but at some point, they have to accept reality.
By winning percentage to date, the Phillies .431 mark ranks 26th in baseball. Their pythag expected record of .434 ranks 27th. Their BaseRuns expected record of .432 ranks 28th. Their projected rest of season winning percentage of .451 ranks 29th, one one-thousandth of a point ahead of the Astros. No matter how you evaluate performance, this team is terrible, and they have no real chance to be not terrible any time soon. The Phillies are currently in the same position as the Astros, White Sox, and Cubs, only without the whole stockpiling young talent and planning for the future part.
No team in recent history has been more in need of a total fire sale than the 2014 Phillies. This roster cost $180 million to build, but is no better than an Astros roster that cost 25 percent of that total and is openly not trying to win. And yet, when staring a gift horse of a huge seller’s market in the face, the Phillies are apparently going to hold on to their most valuable trade chip; a high quality starting pitcher, and one of the few players on their team that isn’t ridiculously overpaid.
Of course, rebuilding teams have to keep some players around, and it makes sense to keep guys who have real long-term value in the fold. But Cole Hamels isn’t really young and he should only be expected to decline in value as the days tick by. Is there really any scenario in which Hamels is going to have more value to the Phillies in the future than he does as a trade chip right now?
After all, his contract isn’t that cheap. Over the next four seasons, he’s due $22.5 million per year in salary, and there’s a $6 million buyout on a fifth year, which means that any team acquiring Hamels would be signing up for either 4/$96M or 5/$109M in future commitments. Is Hamels really worth significantly more than that? For his career, he’s been worth roughly +4 WAR per 200 innings pitched, with his recent performances all in that same range.
Even if we don’t age him forward much for 2015 and assume he’ll begin next year as a +4 WAR pitcher, that means he’d project for about +15 WAR over the next five seasons. Even if we assume that wins will cost about $7 million apiece this winter and account for future inflation, a fair market estimate of Hamels’ value is about $114 million over five years, or $97 million over four if the buyout is exercised. Basically, Hamels is being paid almost exactly the expected market rate for wins. Why on earth should one of the five worst teams in baseball be unwilling to move a market rate contract for a pitcher headed for his decline years? Especially when the trade market would make Hamels far more valuable now than he will be this winter, or likely even next year?
Apparently, the Phillies learned nothing from their actions with Cliff Lee. By not trading Lee last summer, when there was real interest in his services, the Phillies are now in a position where they are going to have to either pay him to pitch for another team or accept very little talent in return, and if he doesn’t pitch well the next few weeks, maybe even both. A year ago, the Phillies had a very attractive trade chip in an excellent but expensive starting pitcher, and now they have something very close to a negative value asset who can’t help them win and won’t bring back any significant players to rebuild around.
There’s no reason to make the same mistake with Hamels. The 2015 Phillies are going to be terrible with or without him, and the 2016-2019 Phillies are almost certainly going to be better if the Phillies move him for some young talent and reallocate that $22 million per year in salary to other, younger players. Hamels is a depreciating asset, with the entirety of his $5 million in total contract surplus value tied to his 2015 performance. Hamels has about 18 months left of trade value, and then the decline in skills should erode most of the interest in other teams’ desires to take that contract off the Phillies hands.
There is almost no foreseeable scenario under which the Phillies should not trade Hamels at some point in the next 18 months. The only question is when they should trade him to maximize their return. And it’s very difficult to imagine any market setting up better to sell a pitcher like Hamels than one in which a bunch of teams had talked themselves into trading the farm for David Price, only to find out that David Price is no longer available. The Phillies could easily market Hamels as Price-with-more-future-control, as they’ve been very similar pitchers over the last three years. They probably wouldn’t get as much in return for Hamels as the Rays would for Price — teams would likely rather not have the extra guaranteed years, which tells you something about the future value of those years — but they’d be able to command a pretty decent haul, and free up all of the remaining money owed for reallocation.
There’s a lot of should-be sellers who are refusing to enter the market, but the Phillies aren’t even being indignant about their place in the standings. They’re going to make a bunch of trades over the next week, as they acknowledge that their current roster is just not good enough to keep together. But during a time when they’re going to be selling off multiple players and admitting that it might finally be time to start to rebuild, they’re going to keep their most valuable trade chip at a time when the demand for his services will never be higher?
It’s fine to be committed to winning. Part of that commitment is understanding what to do when Plan A didn’t work, however. Going stubbornly in the direction of a brick wall isn’t being committed to winning. It’s setting yourself up for a disaster.
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