That flurry of Red Sox free-agent signings had barely surfaced on Rumor Central on Monday when the crystal-ball readers started weighing in from all over baseball:
Wasn't it obvious, they said, that the Red Sox were gearing up to trade for Cole Hamels?
Well, not so fast. It's only "obvious" that the Red Sox are assembling the pieces to trade for somebody. But it's also "obvious" the Phillies are looking around these days for a team willing to deal the cream of its system for Hamels.
Soooooo ... you don't need to hold a Ph.D. from MIT to add two plus two in this math class. But there's another sector to this equation, too. And it's a problem the Phillies are weighing intently this winter:
Is this a good time or a bad time to trade Cole Hamels?
Even his general manager isn't sure.
"I'm in no rush to do it," Ruben Amaro Jr. told ESPN.com. "I have to do what's right for this organization."
So Amaro and the people around him in Philadelphia kick around the pluses and minuses constantly.
On one hand, the Phillies have finally admitted they're in rebuilding mode. So isn't now the time to deal away an ace who turns 31 next month, just finished arguably the best season of his career and comes with "only" four more years of guaranteed money (at "only" $22.5 million a year)?
On the other hand, where's the pressure on the Red Sox, Cubs, Blue Jays, Dodgers or any of the other Hamels suitors to give up their best young players in November, December or even January? Their high-end starting-pitching options in free agency are massive. And if they don't like the heavy price tag Amaro has slapped on Hamels -- i.e., at least two premier young players, plus another piece or two -- there are plenty of alternatives on the trade market, too.
"I'm in no rush to do it. I have to do what's right for this organization."Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr., on potentially trading Cole Hamels
But the Phillies GM sees no reason to place Hamels on his clearance rack, or to budge on what he's looking for in any way. Not right now. And maybe not ever.
"This is one of the best starting pitchers in baseball," Amaro said. "He's at a level with the [Clayton] Kershaws and [Jon] Lesters and [David] Prices. And some of the metrics say he's even better in some respects. So like I've said, he's one of the best pitchers in baseball, and we don't have to trade him. And if we do decide to move him, it will be for something we think is appropriate."
Amaro says he's already had "some very appealing offers" for his ace -- just "not one I like enough to move on yet." So the talks will go on. The rumors will overflow. And the debate will continue:
Is this a good time or a bad time to trade Cole Hamels?
Tough call. So let's consider each side.
It's a great time
Selling high is always a tremendous idea. So now is that time for the Phillies. Isn't it?
Because the team Hamels pitched for this year was so lousy, most of the planet never noticed that this guy had the most dominating season of his life. But he did. It took him three starts, after he came off the disabled list in late April, to get his delivery and arm strength back. But beginning with his fourth start, on May 11, here are the spectacular numbers Hamels spun off over his final 27 starts:
• His ERA was 2.06 -- the third best in baseball in that span, behind only Kershaw (1.85) and Felix Hernandez (1.96).
• He pitched 188 innings -- the second most in the sport, behind only Price (194.2).
• And Hamels finished the season riding a streak of 23 consecutive starts with no more than three runs allowed (and at least five-plus innings pitched). That tied him, with Kershaw and Orel Hershiser, for the longest streak of that kind in the live-ball era. And we bet you never even noticed.
So look at the other names hanging out in the same sentence as Cole Hamels' name in those notes up above. Then ask yourself how a team in a rebuilding frame of mind could possibly pick any other time but this winter to trade the only player on its roster who could bring back any significant package of young players?
"If he can find a deal where he gets two pitchers who can pitch in the top three of his rotation at some point, or he gets one guy like that plus another guy who is going to play every day in the big leagues on a [winning] team, then he's got to do it," said one NL exec of Amaro. "Or if he gets a little less than that, but he can get another piece who can help in the near future, then he's got to do it."
But then the same exec paused for a moment and came to his senses.
"It's the wrong year to be doing it," he said, "because there's so much pitching out there."
Right. Which just might mean, in other words, that ...
It's a terrible time
Jon Lester ... Max Scherzer ... James Shields ... Francisco Liriano ... Brandon McCarthy ... Ervin Santana ... Hiroki Kuroda. Those would be just some of the starting pitchers any team can find on the shelves of the old free-agent supermarket right now.
Jordan Zimmermann ... Doug Fister ... Jeff Samardzija ... Mat Latos ... Rick Porcello ... maybe even Johnny Cueto. Those would be some of the starting pitcher alternatives out there if you're a team like the Red Sox which wouldn't mind trading some of its excess position players for a veteran starter.
So given how many other options are out there, "it's going to be very difficult," said one exec, "for Ruben to do this the way he's going to need to do it."
And what way is that, you ask? Another industry source who has talked with Amaro laughed at that question.
"Ruben is in a spot," the source said, "where he's not going to play his hand unless it looks like the deal of the century."
And that, say multiple teams, is pretty much the type of deal Amaro has been asking for consistently, from last July to now -- a return so glittering that nobody can question it.
What he wants, said one exec, is "your two best [young] guys, plus 'you take all the money.'" And he's taken that hard line, other clubs believe, as much because of the heat he's feeling personally, with a year left on his contract, as it is because of the position his team finds itself in.
"You look at the players he got back in some of these other deals [for Cliff Lee, Hunter Pence et al] and, basically, he got nothing," said an official of one club, bluntly. "Really, their window to make these moves was two years ago. Two years ago, they had a chance to make three, four, five moves and break up their core when there was still big value there."
But now, the same official said, the only member of that core who still has that type of value is Hamels. So "I'll tell you what," he said. "If they do this, if they do trade him, they've got to get this right. They can't get this one wrong."
Bingo. And Ruben Amaro is totally aware of that. But he also admits the landscape of baseball has changed, that the way teams value elite prospects has shifted and "you're not going to get the best two or three players from an organization for one player. That's not going to happen anymore."
But when Amaro was asked if that means he plans to adjust his expectations of what his team needs to get back for a player like Hamels, he replied: "No. I don't think so. ... The best package you could acquire can certainly still be a very strong package. And frankly, it will have to be."
Amaro appears to be under no pressure, other teams say, to move Hamels' money. But Hamels' contract does give him the power to block trades to all but eight teams. And the Red Sox and Blue Jays, two clubs with strong interest, are among the teams he can veto.
USA Today reported this month that the eight teams Hamels can't block are the Cubs, Dodgers, Cardinals, Braves, Nationals, Padres, Yankees and Rangers. But sources say that was a previous incarnation of his list, and that at least one of those teams has changed since the end of the season.
That list is heavily slanted toward National League teams, you'll notice. And friends and teammates of Hamels have long said that's not an accident, that he strongly prefers to stay in the NL and would have a difficult decision if he's asked to approve a deal to the AL.
But does that include Boston? Good question. Other teams' scouts report that the Phillies have laid extensive groundwork for a potential deal with the Red Sox since last season, sending in four of their top scouts to zero in on Boston's best prospects and doing more work this offseason to learn about the background and work ethic of players such as Mookie Betts, Blake Swihart, Henry Owens, Matt Barnes, Christian Vazquez and others.
So the Phillies clearly believe they have a strong potential match with the Red Sox, and that Hamels would waive his trade-veto rights to go there. But if not, potential fits remain with the Dodgers and Cubs, both teams Hamels can't block but also clubs that are thought to be more interested down the road than they are right now.
And down the road is precisely when most teams we've surveyed believe the Phillies are most likely to make this move. Not only might they not have the leverage to get that "appropriate" package back this winter, but next winter is no better, when the likes of Price, Cueto, Zimmermann, Zack Greinke and others could flood the free-agent market with non-trade options. If the Phillies wait until July, though, it's hard to envision a scenario where all of those pitchers' teams would be out of contention and selling.
So it would surprise no one if Amaro held firm this winter and then turned Hamels into the No. 1 attraction of the 2015 trade-deadline auction.
"I think Ruben is in a position," said another NL executive, "where he'll reach as high as he wants to reach this winter. He doesn't have to move him, but he's prepared to move him if the right deal comes along. But it's got to be almost the perfect deal, or he'll wait until July."
So are the Red Sox prepared to make "the perfect deal" this winter, now that they've stockpiled the depth of trade chips that could make it happen? Is someone else? We're about to find out. But don't bet on it. Eventually, other teams say, Amaro is going to have to accept reality and make a practical deal, not the perfect deal, whether he wants to or not.
"He's never going to make a deal where Phillies fans say, 'Hey, that's great, Ruben,'" said an exec of one team. "He needs to realize that ain't happening."