If the Phillies want to rebuild, trading Hamels is the quickest route

Posted: June 23, 2014

When it's time to sell, the most valuable player is the one who can bring the most in return. They are the guys whom contending teams want regardless of the salary. They are the players who can single-handedly restock a farm system while possibly bringing some young major-league-ready talent, too.

Examine the Phillies' roster, and they have exactly one player with that kind of appeal.

Cole Hamels.

Would you trade him?

Shortly before the Phillies embarked on their surprisingly successful road trip through Atlanta and St. Louis, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. was asked whether he had any untouchables on his roster. He gave an answer that he has given before.

"I can't say there are any untouchables," he said. "We talked about this before. Some guys are less touchable than others, so to speak."

You'd have to think that Hamels is the most untouchable of all, but one baseball executive suggested it would be the fastest way for the Phillies to restructure their roster with younger players should Amaro decide to be a seller at the trade deadline.

"If I were in their boat, I'd really hate to move him," the executive said. "But if you go back to question about which player is going to bring you the most value, you're going to get the most for that guy. You have to get the most you can for a guy like that. If you don't, you keep him. But you're only going to get 11/2 pieces for someone else when you could get a lot more than that for him. It's a tough boat to be in."

It's the Titanic if you keep Hamels and the Phillies duplicate the previous two seasons for the next two or three years, which is the path they appeared to be on before the current road trip. The Phillies have other veteran players who could bring some decent return, but they all have caveats.

The recently rejuvenated Ryan Howard, for example, might bring back a prospect or two from an American League team looking for a designated hitter, but the Phillies would have to eat a huge portion of the roughly $73 million they still owe him. Chase Utley's caution sign is his knees and age. With Jimmy Rollins, it is age and the fact that he is a player in decline. Cliff Lee's caution sign is his health and age.

You could package Hamels and try to make a megadeal the way Boston did with the Los Angeles Dodgers during the 2012 season or the way Miami did with Toronto after the 2012 season, but those kinds of trades are difficult to complete.

A case can be made that this is the perfect time to deal Hamels for four or five prospects because of the unpredictable life span of pitchers once they reach the age of 30. If you're going to rebuild, the best-case scenario would have the Phillies in contention again in 2016. More likely, it would be 2017 or 2018 before they would contend for a postseason berth.

By then, Hamels will be approaching his mid-30s, and, if healthy, he will have surpassed 2,000 career innings. Roy Halladay's last good season came at the age of 34. In Detroit, Justin Verlander is showing signs of serious decline at 31, so there's obvious risk in keeping a pitcher who has been the workhorse of a staff for a long time.

The greater risk, however, is trying to get the right prospects in return for your star pitcher. Lee has been a super-attractive trade piece three different times in his career: with Cleveland, the Phillies, and Seattle.

Six pitchers were acquired for Lee in those deals, and not one of them has made a significant impact in the big leagues. The combined record of the seven is 32-53 with a 5.11 ERA. It wasn't just Amaro and the Phillies screwing up those deals, either. In fact, the Phillies essentially gave away nothing of any value to acquire Lee in 2009.

Likewise, not a single player among the three hot prospects Amaro sent to Toronto in 2009 for Halladay has come back to haunt the Phillies. None of them is currently even in the big leagues.

Yes, teams have had success in trading an elite pitcher for prospects. The Indians, for example, struck gold when they acquired Lee, Brandon Phillips, and Grady Sizemore from Montreal for Bartolo Colon and Tim Drew in 2002.

For the Phillies, however, the best bet regarding Hamels is to keep him and build around him, because he's a lot more of a sure thing than any prospect they could get for him.


bbrookover@phillynews.com

@brookob

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