Saturday, October 25, 2014
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Phillies trade deadline preview: Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and the starting pitching market

David Price to the Blue Jays. Jon Lester to the Dodgers. Cole Hamels to the Cardinals?

Phillies trade deadline preview: Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and the starting pitching market

Phillies starting pitcher Cole Hamels (left) and Cliff Lee (right). (Getty Images)
Phillies starting pitcher Cole Hamels (left) and Cliff Lee (right). (Getty Images)

UPDATE, Wednesday, 8:40 a.m.: Some important information to add to our knowledge: Cole Hamels would accept trades to, among other teams, the Cardinals and the Dodgers, per FoxSports.com. Continue reading for why that is interesting. 

On the midsummer trade market, desperation is the ultimate demand shifter, and if you think Jeff Samardzija/Jason Hammel/Addison Russell made for a rollicking good time, just wait, because the next three weeks have the potential to become the most ridiculous swap meet we’ve ever seen. So ridiculous, in fact, that the Phillies might not have a choice but to seriously consider trading Cole Hamels.

I know what you are thinking: That’s pretty ridiculous. Cole Hamels is owed roughly $100 million through the 2018 season. He is in the midst of what could be the best season of his career, certainly the best since 2011, when he finished fifth in Cy Young voting. He has a 2.87 ERA (2011: 2.79) and is averaging 9.1 K/9 (2011: 8.1 K/9). He is one of the few players on the Phillies’ roster who is in his prime. In fact, he might be the only one.

But that’s the thing: Hamels is only one player on a 25-man roster, and if trading him can land the Phillies two players who have the potential to contribute at a high level in the very near future, well, two is greater than one. And it is going to take more than one to get the Phillies back on the right track. And the prices for starting pitching have a chance to reach such absurd levels that Ruben Amaro Jr. can’t afford not to make such a move.

The Buyers (in order of motivation/ability to deal):

1. Blue Jays
2. Orioles
3. Cardinals
4. Brewers
5. Braves
6. Angels
7. Dodgers
8. Pirates 

The Pieces (in order of ability/health):

1. LHP David Price, SP1, Rays
2. LHP Cole Hamels, SP1, Phillies
3. LHP Jon Lester, SP1, Red Sox
4. RHP Ian Kennedy, SP3, Padres
5. LHP Cliff Lee, SP1, Phillies
6. RHP A.J. Burnett, SP3, Phillies
7. RHP Scott Feldman, SP4, Astros
8. RHP Jake Peavy, SP 5, Red Sox
9. LHP Jorge De La Rosa, SP5, Rockies
10. LHP Erik Bedard, SP5, Rays

The Circumstances: 

The eye of our storm in the American League East, where Orioles general manager Dan Duquette and Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos certainly understand that they have a rare opportunity this season with the Rays, Red Sox and Yankees all looking like they will miss the playoffs (sure, the Yankees are two games above .500 and a half game behind the Blue Jays, but they’ve been outscored by 30 runs, and C.C. Sabathia is done for the season, and while their ability to outperform their personnel over the last couple of seasons raises the distinct possibility that Joe Girardi is a magical wizard, I do not believe that he is). The Orioles and the Blue Jays have spent most of the last decade as victims of the American League East’s excess. There might not be another season in the next decade where the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays are all this feeble. Just like Billy Beane realized in Oakland, albeit for different reasons, this could be now-or-never time. The Blue Jays have not won a World Series since 1993, when they beat, well, you know, and the Orioles have not won a World Series since 1983, since they beat, well, you know. Anthopoulos in particular is in a position where his next move is to move all-in. Few general manager have been more active since he took the helm of the Blue Jays after the 2009 season, yet all he has to show for it is a string of fourth and fifth-place finishes. Duquette is only in his third year of rebuilding the Orioles, but his quest to advance to the World Series out of the American League East stretches back to the mid-1990’s during his tenure with the Red Sox.

But while the Blue Jays and Orioles are the leading candidates to advance to the postseason out of the AL East, both surely realize that they will be heavy underdogs in the postseason if they fail to add a legitimate Game 1 starter. The Blue Jays have several pitchers who’d look good in Game 3 or Game 4 (maybe Game 2, if you squint): R.A. Dickey (101 ERA+), Mark Buehrle (160 ERA+), Drew Hutchison (108 ERA+), Marcus Stroman (121 ERA+). The Orioles have a bunch of guys you’d feel OK with in Game 4. None of them can match with with the A’s or the Tigers or even the Angels.

Now, for the real zaniness: The only two healthy No. 1 starters who figure to be available are David Price and Jon Lester, both of whom pitch for the aforementioned AL East behemoths. So not only are the Blue Jays and Orioles chock full of desperation and necessity, and not only are they competing against each other to take advantage of a rare opportunity in the AL East, but in order to quench their desperation and necessity, they could have to convince their division rivals to make a trade that concedes the division. Imagine Lester taking the mound on Sept. 21 for the Orioles with a chance to clinch a playoff berth against the Red Sox. Imagine the Rays having to face Price four times next season.

So how do we even begin to get a handle on the situation? Let’s start with Price, because he is by far the most attractive trade candidate, both because of his performance over the last five seasons, and because he will be under club control through next season (Lester will be a free agent after this year). While the Rays would presumably prefer to move Price to a division where they will not have to face him on a regular basis, their business model demands that they take the best offer. And, barring a July collapse by the Orioles and/or Blue Jays, you can certainly envision a bidding war breaking out between them. The clincher is that both teams could use help at second base, and the Rays have the ability to dangle Ben Zobrist, who is putting up his usual .268/.350/.411 line with the ability to play just about any position. We are living in a time where blue-chip prospects are worth more than ever, which makes me think we are living in a time where package deals of big league regulars like the one that the A’s received will become the cost of doing business, particularly when a premium position prospect is involved.

While the Orioles might be hesitant to offer Kevin Gausman and Hunter Harvey for a year-and-a-half of price, the inclusion of a second important piece could give them the justification they need to act. Same goes for the Blue Jays, who would have the same hesitancy about offering Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman.

In the end, it is difficult to envision Baltimore staying in the bidding. The Blue Jays are very much built to win now. The Orioles have always been building toward 2015-18. It probably doesn’t make sense to sacrifice two key contributors for that window in exchange for a pitcher who might not be able to salvage a rotation that would still lack a clear Game 2 starter, and an offense where Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop are both struggling and Matt Wieters is out for the season.

And that brings us to our third Price contender, a team that has a need at the top of the rotation, a need at second base, and the financial wherewithal to accommodate Price’s potential $20+ million salary next season. That team would be the Cardinals, who possess what the Blue Jays do not in near-MLB-ready position players. Oscar Taveras is a consensus Top 10 prospect, and Stephen Piscotty is a Top 100 prospect playing well at Triple-A. The Cardinals also have a huge need for a right-handed bat, something that Zobrist would provide. If the Cardinals remove Taveras from consideration, a package of Carlos Martinez, Piscotty, and a younger pitching prospect would be tough for the Blue Jays to beat. Acquiring Piscotty could then enable the Rays to move Matt Joyce, who is entering his final year of arbitration. Keep in mind, any team that acquires Price could set themselves up for a 2016 first round pick from whatever team ends up signing him. I suspect that would provide the Blue Jays with more justification to go all out. They could need to involve another team to get the Rays the near-MLB-ready position player they are probably hoping for. It could come down to whether the Cardinals are motivated to put the pedal to the metal for two more World Series. John Mozeliak does not bring the desperation to the table that Anthropoulus does.

Even if neither the Blue Jays nor the Orioles, nor the Dodgers land Price, their participation in the bidding will only raise the asking price for the other contenders who have a need for an elite starter.

This is where Hamels comes in.

In all likelihood, the Blue Jays are not a realistic option. FoxSports.com has already reported that the Blue Jays are one of 21 teams to whom Hamels can block a deal. And the Orioles don’t seem like the kind of team Hamels would choose if he had full control, which he could very well have if he picked the right 21 teams to block. After all, the Orioles could easily go back to being also rans, which they were last season.

But what if the Cardinals and Dodgers were interested in a top-of-the-rotation starter but prefer Hamels to Price? The Cardinals, because they have a clear need for somebody to slot behind Adam Wainwright. The Dodgers, because they are the Dodgers, and Ned Colletti is a member of our 2014 Trade Deadline All-Desperation Team.

If the Dodgers were to offer blue chip outfield prospect Joc Pederson, Triple-A pitching prospect Zach Lee, and 17-year-old pitching prospect Julio Urias, that would be awfully tough to turn down. The Phillies would get two players with the potential to be key contributors in 2015 along with a young blue chip pitching prospect. Of course, the Dodgers would have to be willing to part with three of their best prospects, and Hamels would have to be willing to finish the last four years of his contract on the West Coast (assuming the Dodgers are one of the 21 teams to whom he can block a trade). That kind of package might not be worth it for a year-and-a-half of Price. But for four-and-a-half years of Kershaw-Hamels-Greinke-Ryu?

Chances are, the Dodgers refuse to trade Pederson for anybody. Given the strength of their top three starters, and the weakness of Carl Crawford, it probably wouldn’t make sense. Same goes for shortstop prospect Corey Seager. But Colletti has made some curious moves in his time. And the point is, that could be the price of doing business. If Pederson/Seager are off the table, the Dodgers would be hard-pressed to match the package of near-major-league-ready starting pitchers that the Orioles or Blue Jays could put together for Price. Which, if they are not willing to knock off the Phillies’ socks for Hamels, would leave them choosing between a rental in Lester, or a No. 3/4 starter like Ian Kennedy, or an injury risk in Cliff Lee. Which, again, is probably the smart move. But what about the Cardinals? Hamels has family in Missouri, although that’s no guarantee that he wants to pitch there.

The Phillies' Outlook:

The whole situation would look a lot more promising for the Phillies if Cliff Lee did not have such a red flag in the middle of his left arm. The only way a GM makes a move before July 31 is if Lee comes at a discount, which would defeat the purpose of trading Lee. Or, at least, it would increase the attractiveness of waiting until the offseason to try to deal him.

One possibility I have not given much thought is a Lee trade whose final terms are dependent on how healthy he stays. For example, a team could offer a top prospect for Lee and a player to be named later that is contingent on him finishing the season healthy. The Phillies could then agree to eat any salary for next season that is lost due to a recurrence of Lee’s elbow injury.

Regardless, I still think most GMs would rather trade a top prospect for Lester or Price than the same prospect for Lee given the concerns about his elbow. Maybe there are more than three teams willing to make such a deal this summer — the A’s were the first — and maybe the one of the teams that misses out on Lester and Price is a team that isn’t blocked by Lee. But again, that is an awful lot of maybes.

A.J. Burnett talked a lot about staying near his home this offseason, and he has some control via no-trade protection and the ability to retire instead of moving somewhere he does not want to go (albeit only for a couple of months). The Pirates and the Orioles are the most logical fits, although it remains to be seen how motivated either team would be to add a pitcher who is not a clear Game 1 or Game 2 starter. The addition of Jonathan Papelbon into any deal could dramatically change the dynamic, particularly in Baltimore, which could use bullpen help. 

The Predictions: 

1. The Blue Jays go all in and land Price and Zobrist for RHP Aaron Sanchez, RHP Drew Hutchison and RHP Roberto Osuna/LHP Daniel Norris.

2. The Cardinals pass on Price in favor of an Ian Kennedy/Chase Headley combo from the Padres, enabling them to put Headley at third and move Matt Carpenter to second. They give up RHP Shelby Miller and OF Stephen Piscotty.

3. Jon Lester to the Dodgers or Braves for one of their pitching prospects. This one is far from certain, as the Red Sox could decide that their potential draft pick compensation should Lester leave as a free agent trumps any offer they receive. 

4. A.J. Burnett to the Orioles. 

5. RHP Scott Feldman to the Braves.

I wouldn't rule out the Braves as a dark horse for Price and/or Zobrist, although it would not fit with their usual behavior, and, like the Brewers, they might not have the ability/willingness to offer a significant position prospect along with a couple of young pitchers.

Now, let's sit back and watch this entire blog post get blown to smithereens. 

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Which lefty would be the best trade pickup?
Cole Hamels
 
  324 (49.3%)
Cliff Lee
 
  70 (10.7%)
Jon Lester
 
  26 (4.0%)
David Price
 
  237 (36.1%)
Total votes = 657
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