The Red Sox didn't force a trade for Cole Hamels this past winter because there was enough potential in the rotation and lineup that his presence wasn't absolutely necessary. This potential included seeing if Joe Kelly could be a reliable fifth starter in the American League, if Justin Masterson could rebound while healthy, if Wade Miley could return to form in front of a better defense, and if a regular offseason program would fix what was wrong with Clay Buchholz.
It didn't work out, and, after throwing Rick Porcello's unexpected demise on top of that pile, Sox starters have an ERA nearly a full run higher than the league average.
Kelly looks like a reliever -- a very good one, mind you, but a reliever nonetheless. Masterson doesn't even seem fit for that role, as a return to his old mechanics didn't bring his velocity back. Miley was roughed up in April, but over the 98 innings he's thrown since May began, he has a 3.65 ERA and is averaging over six innings per start -- that's what the Sox thought they were trading for. Buchholz has been wonderful, allowing two or fewer runs in 12 of his 18 starts, but once again we were reminded he can't be penciled in for 200 innings or 30 starts when he hit the disabled list with an elbow injury.
Hamels would go a long way towards fixing many of these problems in the future. He averaged 32 starts and 212 innings per season from 2008 through 2014, and with 19 starts and 119-2/3 innings to his credit this summer, those averages appears safe. That would give the Red Sox a reliable, top-of-the-rotation presence, and take some of the pressure off of Buchholz -- much like when Jon Lester was around.
It's not just the quantity of innings, but also the quality. Hamels has a career 123 ERA+, and while his 2015 looks a little down after two rough starts, the blame cannot be placed solely on him. The Phillies have the worst defensive efficiency in the league, to the point where they make the Red Sox defense look great. Defensive Efficiency is the percentage of balls in play converted into outs -- the Phillies have only done so with 67.7 percent of balls in play, 4.6 percentage points behind the league-leading Angels, and 2.2 points behind the middling Sox. It's no wonder Hamels has a .312 batting average on balls in play on the season, with more than half-a-run of separation between his FIP and ERA.
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And yes, Hamels will be 32 next season, and his contract runs through his age-34 campaign. And yes, it's likely the Sox would need to pick up his option for 2019, turning it into a four-year pact that ends when he's 35. The free agent market will not be any different in these regards, though, and will only feature more expensive players who are more difficult to project because they will require longer deals. David Price and Johnny Cueto, both 29 this season, are likely to get upwards of $200 million, which means they are also likely in line for at least seven years.
Sure, they're younger than Hamels, but they will be older when their next deal ends. And Cueto, amazing as he is, doesn't have Hamels' track record of health. When Hamels is likely to cost less than half as much as either Price or Cueto going forward in both years and dollars, the appeal of trading for him becomes that much more apparent: even if Hamels' option has to be picked up, from 2016 onward, he would only be owed $87.5 million over four years.
The Sox need another top-of-the-rotation arm -- this much is obvious. Buchholz, for all of his talent, has only been that guy over a full season once. Porcello is unlikely to be this bad going forward, and should even return to form if he can get his fastball back down in the zone, but is in a position to derail the Red Sox rotation in 2016 if he's relied upon too heavily. Wade Miley has been above-average for the last three months, but that's something a contender needs in the middle of their rotation, not towards the top.
Eduardo Rodriguez has promise, but will only be 23 in 2016, and as we've seen, he has his own issues to work through before he's a consistent contributor. Neither of Henry Owens or Brian Johnson are that kind of pitching prospect, and while they have value, it's not the kind that would make up for the loss of Buchholz or another horrid Porcello campaign. Plus, let's remember that there is no guarantee Owens or Johnson is ready to be at their best in 2016, or even ever: look no further than what the trio of traded Sox pitchers, Anthony Ranaudo, Rubby De La Rosa, and Allen Webster have failed to accomplish in 2015 for a reminder of that. The transition from the minors to the majors is not an easy one, and not one that every promising prospect successfully completes.
Hamels, Buchholz, Miley, Rodriguez, Porcello is a fine-looking rotation, especially if Porcello rebounds. Maybe Hamels doesn't have another 150 ERA+ season in him, but you can't guarantee Cueto or Price have that many left in them, either: they'll be 30 just next year, and won't be considered "younger" for much longer. A rotation with Hamels is one that can weather a disappointing performance from a couple of key offensive contributors, and it's a rotation that can handle an injury, especially if the Sox don't have to give up all of their near-ready pitching to acquire him.
What Hamels will cost is still somewhat up in the air. Jayson Stark reported that the Phillies are willing to work with teams who won't give up their very best youths, specifically citing the Dodgers, who want to hold on to Corey Seager and Julio Urias, as an example. The idea there was that the Dodgers could instead give up six of their better prospects -- six seems like a high number that could come down, and what the Phillies think of as better might not be what you think of as better, so just who that would mean is a bit up in the air.
The Sox want to keep Betts just like the Dodgers want to keep Seager. (Photo credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports)
So maybe it's four prospects and two intriguing lower level guys who aren't quite prospects yet, or three prospects and two guys like that -- it seems like a changeable thing, mostly because a hard line stance on six or nothing seems impractical.
So, the Sox could similarly hold on to Mookie Betts and Blake Swihart, assuming the Phillies like enough of Boston's other prospects -- the fact the two sides are still talking suggests they do. A deal centered around center field prospect Manuel Margot and near-ready lefty starter Henry Owens makes a lot of sense for both sides, but those two are not nearly enough.
Who else would make this work for the Phils: Jackie Bradley Jr., who has been disappointing in the majors but has torn up Triple-A this summer and has one of the best gloves in the game? Javier Guerra, who has recently entered the national consciousness thanks to his surprising display of power as a teenager at Low-A? One of the young arms at High-A, like Ty Buttrey or Teddy Stankiewicz? Maybe Christian Vazquez, since he's back to throwing again after Tommy John and the Phillies' interest in a young catcher has been clear for a while now?
There are options beyond even those names, and so long as the Sox get to keep Betts, Swihart, and Yoan Moncada, they are probably open to all of them. Prospects are wonderful to dream on, but it's not as if wearing a Red Sox uniform is the only way they will provide for Boston. Some of them -- like Betts, Swihart, Rodriguez, and Bogaerts -- can grow up to be cornerstones of the franchise. Others -- like perhaps Margot and Johnson and more -- end up playing for another team in order to bring in the missing piece the farm system can't provide. And it's important to stress that Hamels isn't a rental: he would be making the team better in the future, too, and in a way no one in the Red Sox farm system can. He'll cost money, but so will anyone else with his ability, and he'll cost less of it.
Plus, the Sox can afford to add another $20 million-plus player to the roster, especially with all of the young, cost-controlled talent they've already brought into the fold. The departures of Shane Victorino and Mike Napoli alone will more than make up for Hamels' $24 million average annual value, as the two combined for $29 million in salary this year. Xander Bogaerts, the first of the major youths to hit free agency, won't do so until 2020 at the earliest, by which time Hamels' deal (and Porcello's) would be over with. So, even if the Sox can't extend Bogaerts before free agency, they'll have the space to make a competitive offer for him if that's something worth doing by then.
Why aren't the Sox trading Hanigan?
There haven't been any trade rumors involving Ryan Hanigan, and it actually makes sense.
Adding Hamels would mean the 2016 payroll has over $135 million guaranteed on it already, but the rotation would be full, and the Sox already have a Victorino replacement on hand in Rusney Castillo. Figuring out how to replace Mike Napoli is a task, sure, but one the Sox can complete without spending anywhere close to all the money left under the luxury tax threshold. With 2014 second-round pick Sam Travis already at Double-A, they might even be looking for more of a short-term replacement at the position, which likely means someone cheaper than Napoli was to begin with.
It's never an easy decision to part with so much potential, but for an organization with one of the best farm systems in the game, one who has, since their last serious negotiations with the Phillies, added Yoan Moncada, college player of the year Andrew Benintendi, and another likely top-10 -- if not top-five pick -- in next year's draft, cashing in some of the many, many chips for Hamels makes sense. It would make the Red Sox better in the future, it would keep them from having to commit upwards of $200 million and seven or eight years to one of the aces on the free agent market, and would give them a pitcher who is far more realistically and cheaply obtained in a trade than Chris Sale or maybe even Sonny Gray.
Hamels is the best balance of cost, in both prospects and dollars, and if the Sox have the opportunity to get him while keeping their already graduated youths, then they need to take it. There are risks, and obvious ones, but it's not as if a Hamels-less life is also a risk-less one for Boston -- the need is apparent, and they have what it will take, so all that's left is to do so.