When outlining the possibilities for handling the Cole Hamels situation a while back one of the options was, “spend now, figure out the rest later.” In some ways, that has been the mantra of Ruben Amaro’s entire run as Phillies’ GM. The 24-million dollar annual value gives the Phillies four 20-million dollar men. It means that they’ll spend about 130 million on six players next season as currently constructed. Either the Phillies are going to take a one-year vacation from worrying about the luxury tax, or this signing will be accompanied by some cost-cutting maneuvers. How is Amaro going to build a team around his aces?
If you’re going to analyze the signing, you have to look at the contract itself, and then what it means for the rest of the team. First, how does giving Cole Hamels 6yrs/144 look?
Hamels isn’t worth this much money. Not objectively. That he’s left-handed, that the market is thin, that he’s won a World Series MVP–those factors allow Hamels to break the bank when he doesn’t have the statistical track record of some pitchers who have signed this type of mega-deal. 2012 has been one of Cole’s best years, but he still sports a 3.23 ERA. Moments of dominance have been mixed with more pedestrian outings than you’d like to see from a true ace.
You could make the argument that aside from his 1-month stretch in the 2008 post-season, Hamels has never been among the top-5 pitchers in the game, and has rarely even been in the top-10. This year, you’d probably rather have Gonzalez, Kershaw, Strasburg, Cain, Price, Verlander and Weaver? The difference is, none of those pitchers got this close to free agency. Very rarely in baseball are the best players on the free agent market. That’s just how it ends up working out, the dominant players are usually too young to be free agents, or have already been signed long-term. So, since the beginning of time, free agents have been getting overpaid, partially because GMs are chasing the idea of a player they can’t acquire.
The other issue with signing this long deal is that history has almost no contracts like this one that have worked out well for the team. Hamels is unusually young for a free agent and he’s been quite durable. Those things make this deal more palatable, but coming into this season the 5 richest contracts ever given to pitchers were handed out to C.C. Sabathia, Kevin Brown, Barry Zito, Johan Santana and Mike Hampton. Sabathia is the only pitcher who even remotely earned his money, and he’s the closest comparison for Hamels–a 28-year old, durable lefty. But, the Yankees got a durable workhorse, not the most dominant pitcher in baseball. That has always been the ceiling for this type of deal, and if I was guessing, I think the Phillies will get that for majority of this contract.
The strange thing is, the Phillies were partially forced into this deal because their two other big money pitchers are having a forgettable 2012 season. Roy Halladay’s contract looked like a steal after last season, but he’s been average at best this season and 2013 is now a 20-million dollar question mark. Cliff Lee has at least three years left and this year has featured another DL trip and far fewer appearances where the lefty looks dominant. If Halladay and Lee had been lights out this season, would the Phillies have made this move? To me, it feels like they handed out a huge contract as insurance for their other huge contracts.
The team around Hamels is what is important, though. As I said, I don’t see any reason to think Cole will be a bust. He may not exactly live up to the contract, but you are still talking about a very good pitcher, a top-20 pitcher in his prime. The question is, will the Phillies be able to put a competitive team around Hamels? Some type of restructuring appears to be in order. When and how does that start? Unless the Phillies are prepared to have a 200 million dollar payroll next year, there will have to be accompanying moves. Possibilities…
1. Trade Cliff Lee. This is the easiest way out of this mess. With Lee’s money off the books, and with Victorino, Blanton and Polanco becoming free agents the Phillies would have some wiggle room for 2013. Saving Lee’s money would allow the Phillies to perhaps pursue a LF option that wasn’t a Mayberry/Nix platoon. The market for starters is drying up, so it’s possible a team like Texas could want Lee in a deal. Even if the Phils paid a chunk of his salary, freeing up 15/20 million for the next few years will make a big difference.
2. Going cheap. This is the 2nd easiest way to handle the issue. The Phillies simply move ahead with their three aces and hope for some better luck. They hope to get bounce back year out of Halladay and Lee. They hope Utley and Howard can have productive full seasons. They hope a young bullpen can develop. They play a Mayberry/Nix platoon in the outfield and possibly give Dom Brown a shot. It’s hard to imagine the Phils would surround an expensive starting rotation with this many question marks.
3. Actual creativity. This appears to be Ruben’s weakness as a GM. As I’ve said before, handing out record-breaking deals is something any GM could do. The Phillies need to at least have the look of a contender for 2013, or else their revenue streams that support a 170 million dollar payroll will dry up. So, if Ruben really is looking past the next week, or month, perhaps he looks at Hamels as the cornerstone of a new NL East dynasty. This would mean, getting younger, but sticking with premium talent. How do you do that? It probably involves selling in the next week. Pence, Victorino, Rollins–anyone that can return value. If these guys could bring bullpen help, a future OF, a young third baseman–the Phils need to get some value from the guys they aren’t going to re-sign. The Phillies are in line to get some payroll relief in 2014, especially if Halladay doesn’t vest his option, but for next year, Ruben has his hands full no matter which path he chooses.
Lost in the Hamels hubbub is the Phils’ three-game comeback streak. The last two games against Milwaukee were the two most improbable wins of the year, and it’s great to see the Phillies showing some life. Nothing makes a team look like they’ve quit more than losing, and it’s obvious now that the Phillies have not quit–they’re just buried in a massive hole. Even with the modest win streak, the problems are still evident. Halladay and Lee got shelled in back-to-back appearances. The bullpen is still a huge question mark. Even with the offense looking a bit more dangerous, does this team have the pitching to sustain a long winning streak? Today’s afternoon game against Milwaukee is big, with Atlanta and Washington on-deck a sweep would be great for some momentum. This is the last gasp, the mathematicians have already written the Phils off, so another bad run of divisional games will surely seal their fate.
Mailbag coming tomorrow. Send in your last-minute questions and pictures.