My goal here is to convince you that the Pirates are the perfect trade partner for the Phillies, in Ruben Amaro's apparent quest to unload Ace-of-Staff Cole Hamels. It's just going to take a while to get there. Stick with me. Deep breath...
I had a pessimistic preseason projection of 84 wins for the Pirates this season. At 3-6 in the early going, it's way too soon to say I'm right to be sheepish about Pittsburgh's chances, but the front office should be concerned.
A little history-- The Pirates, famously, endured 20-straight losing seasons from 1993-2012. Each of the last nine years of that stretch, the team ranked either last, or second-to-last in attendance in the National League. How bad is that? Other than a dead-last attendance mark in 1997, the Phillies have never had a single instance of attendance numbers that low in its entire history at Citizens Bank Park, or Veterans Stadium.
So, with Pittsburgh coming off two straight playoff appearances, this is relatively new territory for the typically-moribund franchise. And, one would think, the last thing the front office wants to do is screw it up. But they are screwing it up. Breaking down the 2015 Pirates: Andrew McCutchen (OF, 6.4), Starling Marte (OF, 5.4), and Neil Walker (2B, 3.6) are the only reliable WAR (Wins Above Replacement, 2014) bats of any significance I see out there. Their supporting cast is questionable.
Josh Harrison was an All-Star last season, but I think he's a .280 MLB hitter. Not a home run threat, no speed, and he doesn't take a lot of walks. From a power position like third base, he's nothing special-- A poor man's Joe Randa.
His injury-riddled 2011 notwithstanding, first baseman Pedro Alvarez has declined every season as a big leaguer. He's the team's only true power threat beyond McCutchen, and he batted just .231 with 18 home runs last season. McCutchen, a former NL MVP and perennial super star, may well be the Buccos' only sure-thing run producer.
What about the pitching? Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, A.J. Burnett, Jeff Locke, and Vance Worley make up the rotation. When Charlie Morton comes off the disabled list (early May?), he'll be penciled in to supplant Worley. Gone is Edinson Volquez (13-7, 3.06 ERA, 2014), arguably the team's best starter from a season ago. The player tabbed to replace him? Burnett, the former Phillie who led the league with 18 losses, and famously raised the white flag on his career last August.Cole is a stud, but the staff is devoid of a true ace. And, without or without a healthy Morton, is completely unreliable.
But, there's hope! The Pirates could trade for Cole Hamels!
Pirates get: -Hamels
Phillies get: -Tyler Glasnow LHP -Josh Bell OF/1B -Elias Diaz C -Vance Worley RHP
The Pirates would be giving up their no. 1 and no. 4 prospects overall, and their second-best catching prospect. Oh, yeah... and a Worley (a throw-in to shed a starter, and some salary). Bell was recently moved to first base, where he's blocked by Alvarez. Maybe he's being showcased for a trade, or maybe he's being groomed to replace Alvarez when the first baseman hits free agency for the first time in 2017.
Either way, Bell is a raw hitter, and doesn't have the natural power stroke you would typically want at first base. He's a project that the Phillies would seem more inclined to be patient with. Diaz is ranked outside the top 10 among prospects in the Buccos' organization, but had a hot season at the plate in Double-A Altoona last year (.328, .823 OPS, 326 at bats). He'd be a prime prospect for the Pirates to hang on to, in the risk-reward category, IF they didn't already have the game's 97th ranked prospect in Reese Mcguire at catcher.
Who does Diaz remind me of? Chooch. Big time. He gets great contact at the plate, and is a true two-way player. His defense is a plus, highlighted by a rocket arm that threw out 33% of base stealers in 2014. Can he do it at higher levels? That's a big question. But the Phillies' current top prospect at catcher, Tommy Joseph, is an even bigger question, having managed to pile together just 221 at bats the last two seasons in the Minors.
The prize-- Glasnow seems like a sure thing. He's 6'8" with a consistent 95+ MPH fastball. He reminds some of Stephen Strasburg. Unfortunately, so does his (potentially) rickety-crickety elbow. His delivery looks pretty violent, which is why I'd consider Pittsburgh's other ace prospect, Jameson Taillon here, who at least already went down that Tommy John road, and seems healthier than ever.
But, really, it's tough to get cold feet over the third-ranked right-handed pitching prospect in all of baseball. His delivery is not as smooth, and he's not as complete a package as baseball's top pitching prospect, Lucas Giollito (Nats... Really), but he is more overpowering. Meanwhile, for this reasonable bounty, the Pirates get one of the consistently great pitchers in all of baseball-- at a bargain.
Hamels finished top-8 or better in Cy Young voting three of the past four seasons. And he's playoff tested. At about $22.5 million over the next four seasons, he'd be considered far undervalued, considering Jon Lester and Max Scherzer (both similarly aged and, arguably, lower-rated) were just given annual salaries in the $27 million range for a less-comfortable time frame.
Consider- There's a team-option for Hamels in 2019 that's pretty tenable at $20 million. His salary will sit at $23.5 million each season until then. Jon Lester will make $11 million more over that time frame. What's worse is, Scherzer will make $127 million over just the last three years of his contract alone (2019-2021), with portions deferred through 2028. The adjusted current-day valuation of his contract, averaged out equally per season, would make Scherzer about $15 million more expensive than Hamels over the same period...and Hamels is far superior!
The Phillies would get three prospects with an excellent shot at making a big league impact by 2017, and the Pirates end up with an ace at a discount to put them back in 90-win territory, and back in the playoffs. Of course, the Pirates have never had a $20+ million player, but it might behoove Pittsburgh to focus more on value here.
If, for some reason, Hamels greatly under performs his deal, he's got only three seasons left with a buy out. If he pitches well, the fourth-year option is a bargain at $20 million. The aforementioned Lester and Scherzer just got fully-loaded seven-year deals at the tippy-top of their market values. And, the Nats won't be done paying Scherzer until 2028.
Hamels is the best value on the Staff Ace market right now, and his career consistency backs it up. Pittsburgh's current payroll is almost $13 million lower than in 2013, so it's not a huge stretch to add Hamels' salary (Portions of Worley's $2.45 million would mitigate this a smidge).
Above all else, the Pirates would have their ace. Cole (Hamels), and (Gerrit) Cole would be a formidable duo at the top of the rotation, and take a ton of pressure off the offense to lead the way. Forget Hamels' big money figure. It makes baseball sense for both teams.
The Oakland Athletics, a team spending $10 million less than the Pirates this season, are not currently paying a single player more than $13 million. But, between Scott Kazmir ($13 M), Coco Crisp ($11 M), Cody Ross ($8.5 M) and Ben Zobrist ($7.75 M), that's over $40 million for just four players whose collective WAR was just 6.9 in 2014-- Hamels', by himself, was 6.8.
The point is, you can spend a lot and spend poorly (see: Phillies), you can spend a little and spend poorly (see: Athletics), but the goal should always be to get the mix of money and talent just right. On all accounts, Cole Hamels and the Pittsburgh Pirates seem like a perfect fit.