Rumors have swirled about potential interest by the Cubs in Cole Hamels since the last summer. With the team looking to contend, thanks to a host of young hitters on the cusp and a system lacking in high end pitching prospects, it’s been no secret that the front office has been looking for a high-end pitcher to slot in the rotation. Obviously, Hamels more than meets the criteria and would come at a high cost. Let’s take a look at how much the Cubs might have to give up to acquire him.
At 31, Cole Hamels is far from a spring chicken as a pitcher, but has been one of the more durable and dominant starters over the past few seasons. Since 2010, Hamels has averaged 200 innings or more and currently sits among the league leaders in the category. In his 10-year career, Hamels has a record of 113-87, 3.26 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 13 complete games, six shutouts and 1791 strikeouts in 1882.2 innings. Hamels is no stranger to pitching in the playoffs either and owns a career 3.09 ERA in 13 starts. He pitched in two World Series, winning one and earning playoff MVP in that victory in 2008. A veteran with those numbers would slot nicely next to Jon Lester, who has similar abilities and experiences. Add in Jake Arrieta and Jason Hammel, the Cubs would suddenly have a very formidable top four.
In addition, to his career performances, aside from the cost it would take to acquire him trade wise, the real draw to Hamels is the cost control factor.
Going into this season, Hamels has four years and $96 million remaining on his current contract that would run out in 2018 ($22.5 million, 2015-18) in his age 35 season. For 2019, his contract has two possible options, a $20 million team option or a $24 million vesting option that triggers if he has 400 combined innings from 2017-18, including 200 innings in 2018 and does not spend any time on the disabled list during that final year with an elbow or shoulder injury. If the vesting option or the team option is not met, Hamels earns a $6 million buyout pushing the total owed to $96 million.
That $96 million is certainly a huge chunk of change, but may serve to be quite a bargain considering that impending free agents like LHP David Price, RHP Jordan Zimmerman and RHP Johnny Cueto will likely earn twice that amount in the upcoming off-season. That bargain comes with a grain of salt however, as many pitchers who have been durable their whole careers have a tendency to really break down near the end. Hamels’ former teammates RHP Roy Halladay and LHP Cliff Lee are great examples of that as well as reminders of the major risks that come with top flight starting pitching.
So keeping the cost savings and risks in mind, a trade for a pitcher like Cole Hamels is not unprecedented, but it’s a little harder to find trades that are similar due to the length of time remaining on his contract. For example, Jon Lester was traded last year, but had less than a year remaining on his contract with the Red Sox. There have been a few pitchers traded more recently with two years remaining on their contracts and we will look at some of those for comparison, but perhaps the best example of the past few years includes one that is still heavily debated among Cubs fans, the deal that acquired RHP Matt Garza, OF Fernando Perez and LHP Zac Rosscup from the Tampa Bay Rays for RHP Chris Archer, SS Hak-Ju Lee, C Robinson Chirinos, OF Sam Fuld and OF Brandon Guyer.
The reasoning for this example lies in the three years of control that the Cubs gained in that trade, which is the closest to the roughly three and a half years if they acquired Hamels. Obviously, Hamels is a better pitcher, but at the time of the deal, Garza was considered a low end No. 2 and if Hamels joined the Cubs, he’d likely be a high end No. 2 behind Lester. Also, Garza was 27 at the time of the trade and likely why the Cubs gave up as much as they did, which in baseball is the start of a player’s prime, while 31 is near the beginning of a decline. But with so many possible suitors for Hamels because of his talent and the cost savings from his contract, there could be enough teams to make a quality package necessary to close the deal, especially if the Phillies kick in some money in the deal as has been reported.
Chris Archer was considered to be the Cubs number one prospect at the time and it’s easy to see why as he’s becoming one of the more exciting young pitchers in baseball. Lee was next in line as a top five prospect, as a solid defensive shortstop with some above average speed. However, injuries and poor hitting have derailed those hopes. Guyer was a top 10 prospect, who was a decent hitter and defender at all three outfield positions, but not good enough to be a starter in center and didn’t have enough power to be full time in the corners. Lately, he has been a good bat off the bench. Chirinos was a top 15 prospect who was considered a good hitting catcher, but as a recent convert to the position, his defense was a little suspect. Sam Fuld was likely a throw in as a fifth outfielder with some speed. Overall, the Rays got some potential building blocks in Archer and Lee, prospects with room to grow in Guyer and Chirinos and a useful Major Leaguer in Fuld, exactly the kind of return you’d want for an exciting pitcher with three years of control remaining.
Two other trades to consider would be recent deadline deals that included LHP David Price and RHP James Shields. Both pitchers had two years of control remaining at the time of their deals and compare talent wise the best to Hamels as top 20 pitchers. Price was the most recent of the two and was acquired by the Detroit Tigers last season in a three team deal.
The Tigers sent OF Austin Jackson to the Seattle Mariners who flipped SS Nick Franklin to the Rays. The Tigers sent SS Willy Adames and LHP Drew Smyly to the Rays. Smyly was the headline of the deal as an exciting above average pitcher with strikeout stuff and four years control remaining. Adames, wasn’t a ranked prospect with the Tigers, but is considered top five with the Rays now. The young shortstop is only 19 years old and quite far away from the majors, but can hit, has the potential to hit for power and will likely be a good defender. Essentially, the Tigers sent their center fielder, Austin Jackson, to the Mariners to sweeten the deal for the Rays for a useful Major Leaguer in Nick Franklin, who is a middle infielder with pop to complete the trade.
On the surface, the Price deal doesn’t seem like quite the haul the Garza one was especially with the injury to Smyly and the slow start for Franklin, but in it, the Rays received an exciting young prospect, and two useful Major Leaguers with the potential to be above average regulars for two years of one of the top pitchers in the game.
James Shields was traded in the 2013 off-season, also by the Rays (that’s three in a row!) to the Kansas City Royals along with RHP Wade Davis and INF Elliot Johnson for corner infielder Patrick Leonard, RHP Mike Montgomery, RHP Jake Odorizzi and OF Wil Myers. Shields helped the Royals to the World Series last year and gave their rotation a solid veteran arm to pair with their young pitching. Davis ended up being one of many dominant relievers and Johnson played one season for the team as utility infielder.
It turned out the Royals didn’t necessarily need the players they traded, but they still gave up some quality assets in the trade. Myers was the Royals top prospect, an outfielder who could play all three positions, hit for average and hit for power. Odorizzi and Montgomery were both top five prospects, although Odorizzi was a little closer to the majors as a near finished product with quality stuff and the ability to miss bats. Montgomery was a pitcher with above average control, but a forearm injury had him struggling some to re-ignite his former glory at the lower levels. Leonard was a throw in to the deal as a corner infielder/platoon player with some 10-15 home run power and the ability to play multiple positions. So for two years of Shields, the Royals gave up their best prospect, two of their better pitching prospects and a minor league depth player.
As you can see in all three trades, a lot was given up to acquire pitchers of their caliber for two years of control. The Phillies are likely going to be looking for a similar return for Cole Hamels, especially when he has four years (counting this season) left of control and they are willing to throw in some money to offset the cost. If the Cubs decide to pull the trigger, Javier Baez or Kyle Schwarber would likely have to headline the deal as their top prospect. Since the Cubs don’t have much pitching depth, Kyle Hendricks might be considered or some combination of two of Carl Edwards Jr., Duane Underwood Jr. and Pierce Johnson. Dan Vogelbach, Gleyber Torres and Billy McKinney could also be possibilities. Also, because we profiled Jonathan Papelbon earlier, the Cubs might choose to acquire both Hamels and Papelbon at the same time in a blockbuster, but that might only be the case if the Cubs are serious about winning the World Series this season.
Summing it up, you have to pay to play to get a caliber of player like Cole Hamels. With a depth of promising young hitters and not a lot of spots, the Cubs certainly have the prospect depth to pull off a deal. However, it will ultimately come down to how much of Hamels’ best years the front office determines he has left and what they are willing to pay for it.
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