Jon Lester is gone to Chicago, leaving the Red Sox in dire need of starting pitching, facing a free agent market with only the massively expensive Max Scherzer and the older, riskier James Shields available to fill that role. All along, however, it's been understood that if the Red Sox came up short on Lester, there was a safety net in Philadelphia. It's been clear since the offseason began that Cole Hamels, the longtime ace of the Phillies, was up for grabs if any buyer was willing to meet Ruben Amaro Jr.'s asking price. He's been the most obvious backup plan for the Red Sox since just about day one, and one that, in all likelihood, the team would be foolish to pursue.
Strictly in terms of quality, there's no doubting that Hamels fits the bill. Over the last five years, his ERA sits at 3.00 flat, with a strikeout rate approaching a batter per inning and a walk rate of 2.2 BB/9. Even taking into account the fact that he pitches in the National League, Hamels is one of the game's elite arms, and would instantly slot in as Boston's ace. He even has the same 2014 boost as Lester, having turned in the best season of his career for the Phillies last year.
The problem is the cost, and I don't mean in terms of dollars. Even if Hamels makes the Red Sox pick up his $20 million team option in 2019 in order to waive his no-trade clause, at five years and $114 million, Hamels is actually something of a bargain considering that Lester just cost the Cubs six years and $155 million. No, the problem lies in the price to get Philadelphia to deal their ace away which, according to Ryne Sandberg, lies in 'wow' territory:
Ryne Sandberg says return for Cole Hamels "would need to have a 'wow factor'" for Phillies to trade him #RedSox— Scott Lauber (@ScottLauber) December 9, 2014
There's been word that the Phillies would not insist on any one of Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, or Blake Swihart, the young players who are the most obvious candidates to provide that "wow factor," but at least one would very likely have to be included to sway Philadelphia to deal their ace. And that's where the price starts getting prohibitive, and why the Red Sox can't let themselves be forced into making a panic move in the wake of missing out on Lester.
Betts, Bogaerts, and Swihart represent the future for the Red Sox. It's because those three players represent so much value for so little money over the years to come that Boston could afford to invest so heavily in Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez. Mookie Betts is the league minimum solution to Jacoby Ellsbury's departure that Jackie Bradley Jr. was supposed to be, and if Xander Bogaerts struggled mightily in the dog days of 2014, he's the type of impact talent that money just can't seem to buy these days.
The situation is slightly foggier with Blake Swihart, since the young catcher has yet to perform at the major league level and Christian Vazquez' glove is good enough to justify his presence behind the plate for years to come even if the bat never fully materializes. Still, as a solid defensive backstop with big offensive upside, Swihart is a rare commodity in baseball these days, and incredibly valuable as a result.
Sox, Phillies have talked Bastardo for Coyle trade
The Red Sox and Phillies have discussed a trade that would send Sean Coyle to Philadelphia in exchange for lefty reliever Antonio Bastardo.
These are the types of players you include in trades for young, cost-controlled pitchers. If not necessarily those of Hamels' quality, then at least those close to it. They are not the types of players a team should be in the business of surrendering in exchange for high-cost talent, even if it comes in slightly under the market price. Consider the fact that the Red Sox paid some $72 million to sign a young(ish), unproven talent like Rusney Castillo. If we peg the price of young talent at that level, then Cole Hamels now costs some $186 million for five years. Even at half of Castillo's price, we're firmly in Jon Lester territory for one less season of Hamels. That's insanity that the Red Sox would never even consider were the price actually laid out for them in dollars.
The situation is made at least slightly trickier by the opportunity cost the Red Sox now face in the wake of their acquisition of Hanley and Sandoval. If Bogaerts, Betts, and Swihart are Boston's future, well, they're in a position where they want to win now. This certainly incentivizes the Red Sox to do what they can to give their lineup the pitching support it deserves, and with their first choice off the table, the team does have to find another way to provide the lineup with the support it needs. But if they weren't willing to go above six years and $135 million for Jon Lester, then committing $114 million and one of the cornerstones of this franchise's future to acquire Cole Hamels would represent not just bad value, but a complete breakdown in the decision making process in Fenway Park.
If the Phillies are willing to come down from their "wow factor" price--if Ruben Amaro Jr. really does understand that the valuation of prospects has changed to reflect a more efficiency-conscious league--then maybe something can be worked out. But if he's the old Amaro who's still trying to make deals the way the did in the old days of baseball where seniority and experience ruled all, the Red Sox can't let themselves be driven down to his level through desperation.