Cole Hamels' ever-increasing price tag: start at six years, $138 million

In his free-agent season, Cole Hamels is 7-1 with a 2.17 ERA for the Phillies. (David Maialetti/Staff file photo)

Few cliches inspire eye-rolls like the professional athlete sitting in front of the public and stating that his new bazillion dollar contract "isn't about the money." Of course it is about the money. In professional sports, it is almost always about the money, whether we are talking about player or management or television. But that doesn't mean that a player who contends otherwise is a liar. After a decade-plus of intereacting with professional athletes, I have come to believe that when they say, "It isn't about the money," what they mean is, "It isn't about building my personal wealth and increasing my spending power." Instead, it is about respect and affirmation and ego, which are three entities that help fan the incredible fire that burns inside of these guys. And the measure of a baseball organization's respect for a player is the size of the contract that it offers him. If Cole Hamels reaches free agency and the Dodgers or the Cubs or the Red Sox offer him $175 million over seven years while the Phillies offer him $125 million over five years, the implication is that the Dodgers or Cubs or Red Sox value Hamels more than the Phillies do. And if Hamels accepts, his rationale could be, "Team X wants me more than the Phillies do," instead of "I can buy an extra $50 million worth of stuff if I sign with Team X."

I'm sure that isn't always the case. Sometimes, it comes down to pure material want. But I also think about it from my perspective. I love Philadelphia. I consider it my home. My goal was always to write sports in this city, and now I make a good living doing it. I could live on a lot less money. But if a media outlet in New York or Boston or Chicago or Los Angeles offered me a 50 percent pay raise, and my current employer said, "We'll give you 10 percent," I'd be apartment hunting the next day. 

The analogy is difficult to swallow because of the amount of money that an athlete like Hamels already makes. In my situation, a 50 percent pay raise would significantly alter my lifestyle and ability to save money. It is easy for me to think, "Well, Hamels is already rich, how much money does he need?"

But all material life is relative. Think about how my decision would look to a teacher making $40,000? And think about how that teacher's decision would look to somebody who is making $20,000? And think about how all of it would look to somebody trying to raise a kid by working two minimum-wage jobs. The relative nature of personal wealth within a society is one of the reasons why the economic stratification of our society is of such concern to many people who study it. Sure, America's poor are richer than the middle classes in a lot of other societies. Problem is, they don't live in those societies. 

But before I derail my 2020 presidential bid with writings that can be used as evidence of socialist beliefs, let's focus on the point: Unless Hamels is one of those rare players who likes being a Phillie so much that he will check his ego at the door, the organization is going to have to pay him close to what he is worth if it wants him to remain. 

So what is he worth?

It's a question we've examined several times over the past couple of seasons, and each time we've concluded that, barring injury, his value is only going to increase the longer the Phillies wait to re-sign him. This time, free agency is in plain sight, with an estimated 22 starts remaining before Hamels is no longer under contract to the club. Two months into his walk year, he is averging 7 innings per start with a 2.43 ERA while averaging 9.2 strikeouts, 1.8 walks, and 0.9 home runs per ning innings. He is second in the NL in innings per start, eighth in ERA, seventh in walks/hits allowed per inning (WHIP), fifth in strikeouts-per-nine (K/9), and second in strikeout-to-walk ratio. 

My best projection is that Hamels, who will be 29 years old in the first year of his new deal, would be in position to expect at least a six-year, $138 million contract based on his performance and the recent history of the open market.

How do we arrive at that conclusion?

Below are the richest contracts signed by pitchers over the last five years:


  1. C.C. Sabathia, 7 years/$161 million covering ages 28-34 starting in 2009
  2. Johan Santana, 6 years/$137.5 million covering ages 29-34 starting in 2009
  3. Matt Cain, 6 years/$127.5 million covering ages 27-32 starting in 2012
  4. Cliff Lee, 5 years/$125.0 million covering ages 32-36 starting in 2011
  5. C.C. Sabathia, 5 years/$122.0 million covering ages 31-35 starting in 2012


Hamels' career numbers compare favorably to those posted by the aforementioned four pitchers at the times they signed their deals. We'll consider only Sabathia's first deal (his second one was signed after he exercised an opt-out clause this offseason). 

Below are those numbers:

Player ERA K/9 BB/9 HR/9 WHIP IP G/GS
Hamels 3.34 8.5 2.2 1.1 1.133 1231.2 191/190
Sabathia 3.66 7.6 2.8 0.8 1.244 1659.1 254/254
Santana 3.22 9.5 2.5 1.0 1.094 1308.2 251/175
Cain 3.35 7.4 3.2 0.7 1.196 1317.1 204/203
Lee 3.85 6.9 2.2 1.0 1.256 1409 222/218

So Hamels' numbers are better across the board than Sabathia's were at the time he signed his contract, with the exception of innings and starts. If you were to make the argument that Hamels is not in Sabathia's class, this is where you would focus. If Hamels makes all of his starts for the rest of the season, he would have 212 starts and 1381 2/3 innings for his career, which is more than a season less than Sabathia. Really, though, that will be irrelevant. In fact, John Boggs could argue that Hamels has a fresher arm because of the lighter workload. Nobody can argue that Hamels hasn't proven he can carry the load of an ace. He has logged at least 208 innings in his last two seasons, at least 193 in each of his last four, at least 180 in each of his last five, and has logged at least 216 twice. And that's not including this season.

What really matters is how deep Hamels has pitched into the starts he has made, and his average is between 6 1/3 and 6 2/3 innings, the same as Sabathia's.

The only other argument that is even partially substantive is the fact that Hamels has spent his entire career in the National League, while Sabathia, Santana and Lee had been in the American League when they signed their deals. Hamels has a 4.19 ERA in 20 starts against American League teams, not including the World Series. 

Still, that argument can be countered with a number of similarly unquantifiable points:

1) Hamels has spent his entire career in one of the more extreme home run parks in the majors.

2) Hamels' interleague ERA is inflated by some rough starts in his first couple of seasons as a pro. Since 2008, he has a 3.38 ERA, 8.4 K/9, 4.7 BB/9, and 1.177 WHIP in 15 interleague starts. Again, that doesn't include the World Series, which in 2008 worked out pretty well for him. 

3) Hamels has 13 career postseason starts. Santana and Sabathia both had five. Cain had three. Cliff Lee had 11. And Hamels' career 3.09 postseason ERA is better than Santana or Sabathia's. 

All of that is quibbling, though. Fact is, Hamels' career record stacks up equal or better than those of our four comparables at the time they signed their deals.

But we all know that the free market favors recent performance of career performance, so let's take a look at each player's last three seasons heading into their deals.

Player/Years ERA K/9 BB/9 HR/9 WHIP IP G/GS
Hamels 2010-12 2.85 8.7 2.2 1.0 1.071 495.0 75/74
Sabathia 2006-08 3.03 8.3 1.8 0.7 1.140 686.2 97/97
Santana 2005-07 2.99 9.4 1.9 1.0 1.013 684.1 100/100
Cain 2009-11 2.97 7.2 2.7 0.7 1.115 662.2 99/99
Lee 2008-10 2.98 7.2 1.3 0.6 1.122 667.1 93/93

Hamels has a better ERA and WHIP and better strikeout and walk rates than Sabathia did in the three seasons before he signed his deal. Keep in mind Hamels is only a third of a way through his third season. Right now, he is on pace for 224 innings over 32 starts, which would bring him up to 649 innings over 96 starts. That's an average of 6 2/3 innings per start, same as Cain and Santana, about a half an inning less than Sabathia and Lee. 

Again, the only arguments you can make against Hamels are on the extreme periphery of being relevant. 

Hamels' 0.79 groundball rate is the same as Sabathia's was when he went to the Yankees, and it is much better than those posted by Santana, Cain and Lee. Sabathia did allow a lower ratio of extra base hits than Hamels has allowed, so there is that.

It doesn't matter how deep you look into the numbers, Hamels belongs in the same class as Santana and Sabathia, who in my opinion are the two most relevant comparables because of their age at the time of their deals as well as their left-handedness. Sabathia is the most comparable because he was actually on the open market, while Santana was still under club control when the Twins shipped him to the Mets, who then signed him to his deal. Cain signed his deal at the beginning of this season, which was to be his last before free agency. 

For the Phillies to sign Hamels now, they would have to expect to dole out a contract that is at least equal to the one Cain signed, which would be a six-year deal at $127.5 million guaranteed, which would leave Hamels a free agent again heading into his 34-year-old season. 

Once he hits the open market, you would have to expect that at least one team would be willing to match the Sabathia deal, in the sense that they would be willing to give him $23 million per season through his 34-year-old season. That's how we arrive at the six-year, $138 million figure. After that, it is impossible to predict where the market will go. 

As we all know, the Phillies are reluctant to give out contracts longer than three years, particularly when it comes to pitchers. But they gave Lee a five-year deal, and Hamels will be three years younger than Lee was.

That's a lot of money for a team that already has $109 million guaranteed to eight players (Ryan Howard, Roy Halladay, Lee, Jimmy Rollins, Jonathan Papelbon, Chase Utley, Kyle Kendrick, Laynce Nix). Factor in an arbitration raise from Hunter Pence's current $10.4 million salary and a sure-to-be-exercised $5 million option for Carlos Ruiz, and the total is at least $125 million for 10 players. That leaves them with 15 roster spots to fill, including potential big-money positions like starting pitcher (Hamels), center field (Shane Victorino) and third base (Placido Polanco).