David Murphy: Drumbeat about Hamels drowns out reality he probably will stay

Posted: July 20, 2012

IT HAS ALWAYS come down to this: Teams like the Phillies do not trade players like Cole Hamels. So when the daily anonymously sourced reports from the national media shifted in tenor on Thursday, it was less an indication of an altered reality than it was a revelation of what that reality has always been.

This is the dirty, little secret of reporting on baseball's non-waiver trade deadline: Everybody is being used by somebody. There is a thin line between gathering information and serving as an accessory to market manipulation, and most of what you read between April and mid-July falls into the first category. When it comes to contract negotiations, there are two types of people who whisper things that get repeated in print or on their airwaves. The first is agents, whose job it is to inflate the values of baseball players. The second is front-office executives, whose job it is to deflate them. A reporter's job is to sift through the resulting muck in an attempt to procure an approximation of reality.

Problem is, reality isn't nearly fluid enough to meet the demands of the modern media age's minute-to-minute news cycle. So instead of the Truth, we settle for a continuous stream of reports that are little more than regurgitations of posture from parties with a significant interest vested in the portrayal of reality not as it is, but as they hope it will be. When a reputable ESPN personality reports that some agents "presume that at some point this season, Hamels will be so close to free agency that he'll test the market, rather than sign," as Buster Olney did in late-April, it isn't a reflection of the player's intentions. It is a reflection of those agents' desired reality, which is a free-agent market that features a premier starting pitcher in the midst of his prime, creating a rising tide of contract offers that raises the value of all the lesser ships in the harbor.

In late May, CBSSports.com ran a story on the Hamels situation that concluded, "it's getting to the point where it would almost be an upset if the Phillies signed him." The report included predictions from various agents about the contract Hamels would receive on the open market. Around that same time, ESPN reported the assessment of an unnamed National League official, who concluded that Hamels would test the market, saying, "Unless the Phillies give him one of the top deals in history, why wouldn't he?"

When Major League Baseball attempted to dissuade its executives from engaging in such anonymous speculation a couple of offseasons ago, it did so with stories like these in mind, because the best interests of the owners as a whole are not served by the perception that one club needs to reward a player with a record contract. Records, after all, are made to be broken. Problem is, the NL official in question likely has a vested interest in driving up the price for the Phillies, because one franchise's opportunity cost is another franchise's opportunity. In other words, the agents will always have the upper hand in a high-stakes game of whisper-down-the-press-box, because their mission is singular: drive player salaries as high as possible. General managers, on the other hand, are fighting a battle on two fronts. One features a front line of agents who want to maximize the value of their clients, and another features a special-ops corps of GMs who would like nothing more than to see a successful big-market team such as the Phillies turn into the Chicago Cubs.

Both parties are smart enough to realize we live in a media age that emphasizes headlines over context. The manipulation of the system is so easy that it does not even require dishonesty. Take the notion that Hamels is destined to sign with the Dodgers, which early in the season turned into one of the dominant narratives of the Hamels reportage. Exhibit A is a CBSSports.com report from early June, which alleged to move the plot forward by quoting a "rival club official, who speaks regularly to Dodgers people."

"They love him," the official said, "and they're saying they'll do whatever it takes to get him."

Chances are, the "official" was telling the truth, provided you acknowledge the likelihood that he was using "whatever it takes" in a figurative sense, and would not actually consider crab-walking from Chavez Ravine to San Diego with the contract in his teeth if that were Hamels' preferred method of document transfer. In fact, the bigger story would be a team that would not do whatever it takes to sign a Cy Young-caliber 28-year-old lefty with three-plus pitches. But the quote fit the narrative, and the narrative fit the reality desired by a vested interest, and thus the narrative was relayed. Which wouldn't be a dereliction of journalistic duty if it were buffered by the statements that Hamels made in spring training in which he extolled the virtues of pitching in front of a passionate Northeast fan base, and that the suggestions he wants to return to his native Southern California are overblown, or the fact he is one of the few players on the roster who lives year-round in Philadelphia.

Over the past 3 months, we have heard that Hamels is likely to test the market, that the Phillies are hesitant to go beyond 4 or 5 years, that a blockbuster trade involving the star lefthander is increasingly likely. But as somebody who has written about this situation for 2 years, talking to various people on both sides in the process, I can only tell you that what is now being reported as reality is what the reality has been all along.

Hamels and his agent know what he is worth, and they think he deserves the respect of being paid close to that number. The Phillies have a pretty good idea about what that number is, and they've always known they likely would reach a point at which they would have to offer it. Two weeks before the trade deadline, we are close to that point. The next real news will come when the offer is accepted or rejected. Six years and in the neighborhood of $140 million sounds good to me. And my gut says that Hamels will feel the same.

Contact David Murphy at dmurphy@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @HighCheese. For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read his blog at www.philly.com/HighCheese.

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