10 Degrees: Cole Hamels' trade value might be Phillies' lone bright spot amid roster of bloated contracts

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

The latest reminder that the Philadelphia Phillies are an actual major league ballclub, as opposed to a Ruben Amaro Jr. fever dream in which he endeavors to lavish old, older and oldest ballplayers with contracts bad, worse and what were you thinking, came Monday afternoon. Four Phillies pitchers combined to no-hit the Atlanta Braves. It was a cool moment.

Particularly because it reminded the world that not only does Cole Hamels still exist amid the mountain of derp that is these Phillies, he is turning in one of his finest seasons at the perfect time for Philadelphia to cash in.

Cole Hamels was part of a no-hitter on Monday in Atlanta. (AP)
Cole Hamels was part of a no-hitter on Monday in Atlanta. (AP)

Some time between now and Nov. 1, Hamels must submit to the Phillies a 20-team no-trade list for next season, major league sources told Yahoo Sports. The nine teams to which he couldn't block a trade this season indicate his mindset: both Los Angeles teams, the Yankees and Red Sox, Washington, Atlanta, St. Louis, Texas and San Diego. The first eight were expected to be among the game's finest. San Diego is his hometown.

The list almost certainly will change, though Hamels' priority of choosing top-notch teams is unlikely to. Some players wield no-trade clauses as weapons, blocking deals to big-market teams to squeeze something extra if a team asks him to waive it. That's not Hamels' style. He has shown no inclination to leave Philadelphia, though should the Phillies this offseason function properly for the first time in years …

1. Cole Hamels will be wearing a different uniform next season. Amaro told Philadelphia reporters Monday that he planned on overhauling his roster this offseason, which is all well and good in a fantasy land where opposing teams agree to pay full freight for the overpaid boondoggles with which he has saddled the Phillies.

Out here, in real-world land, Ryan Howard is going nowhere unless the Phillies care to pay almost every penny of the $60 million he's owed for the next two years and his contract buyout in 2017. And bum-elbowed Cliff Lee will get $37.5 million – his $25 million salary and a $12.5 million buyout – from the Phillies' bank account. And Jonathan Papelbon will be untradeable seeing as a $13 million-a-year closer is a luxury most don't want, and those who do prefer not to have it when he'll be fewer than 50 games finished from vesting a 2016 option at the same price. And Jimmy Rollins, who turns 36 this offseason, has one more season remaining at $11 million, which is prohibitive enough to keep the Phillies from reaping much talent in return.

Right now, the Phillies have two legitimate trade assets: Marlon Byrd and Hamels. The former is an outfielder signed for one season at a reasonable cost, which could bring in return … a C+ prospect maybe? Perhaps something a little better for the teams that miss out on the small number of worth-a-damn outfield bats that hit free agency this offseason.

Hamels, on the other hand, is a true ace, one of the 10 best pitchers in baseball, and he will draw interest far and wide. When the Phillies placed Hamels on waivers in early August, the Chicago Cubs – the cash-poor, two-years-away Cubs – claimed him. They couldn't work out a trade with the Phillies, but it spoke to Hamels' attractiveness: If the woebegone Cubs wanted him, he will be a hot commodity everywhere. Because as baseball learned last offseason with …

2. Masahiro Tanaka, the price of starting pitching on the free-agent market is beyond absurd. Seven years of Tanaka cost the New York Yankees $175 million, a price that looked like a bargain until his elbow started barking and sent him down this will-he-or-won't-he-have-surgery soap opera that took another twist this week.

Tanaka shut himself down with what he deemed general arm soreness, which he attributed to a lack of physical conditioning. While that sounds promising, the truth is that any soreness for a pitcher with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament does not portend well. It could be just that, in which case Tanaka will twice have dodged the knife, but at some point he and the Yankees will recognize that he's delaying an inevitability.

Trying to rehab his arm and get him back this season was the right call. The Yankees had next to nothing to lose, seeing as if Tanaka had surgery in July he likely would have missed all of 2015 anyway. The vital moment is approaching, though, and the Yankees don't want improvement; they need a fully healthy pitcher, the sort who dotted first-half MVP ballots.

Those days are long gone, and though the Yankees haven't said so officially, the chances of Tanaka returning this season are infinitesimal. Taking his place on that ballot instead is …

3. Alex Gordon and, no, it's not because he's near the top of baseball in Wins Above Replacement this season. Much of Gordon's WAR comes from his glove, which, while spectacular, gets a boost in value more from his peers' awfulness than his season-over-season improvement, as Jeff Zimmerman artfully explained at FanGraphs.

Gordon's ascent has more to do with his bat, and how he's hitting at an elite level since the All-Star break and especially in August. It's not just the ninth-inning heroics; Gordon carried Kansas City's flaccid offense last month, OPSing at .941, nearly 150 points higher than the next regular. He hit nine home runs in 106 at-bats. The rest of the team hit 16 in 874 at-bats.

The competition ahead of Gordon is strong. Mike Trout remains the favorite. Felix Hernandez has been staggering, Robinson Cano a boss, Jose Abreu a manchild. Michael Brantley reminded the Royals in a weekend sweep how he warrants inclusion in the conversation. Gordon belongs toward the top and not in a back-of-the-ballot sneak job like …

4. Josh Harrison is pulling in Pittsburgh. And that is no backhanded compliment: Anybody who performs so improbably well that he finds himself on an MVP ballot a year after logging fewer than 100 plate appearances deserves every bit of praise imaginable.

Harrison's selection into the All-Star Game this year got waylaid in this space as an overreaction to a small sample of productivity. All Harrison has done since the break is lead baseball with a .599 slugging percentage. Yes, 5-foot-8 Josh Harrison is outslugging Abreu, Big Papi, Giancarlo Stanton and every other leviathan who can punish a ball 500 feet.

In the six weeks since the break, Harrison has hit eight home runs in 167 at-bats. Over his first three seasons in the major leagues, he hit seven in 532 at-bats. Between the power and his versatility – Harrison has played second base, shortstop, third base, left field and right field this season – he kept the Pirates around during Andrew McCutchen's absence, and now they're just two games back of the second wild card and three behind the Cardinals atop the division.

Now comes the month where the biggest-time hitters shine. Harrison went 2 for 5 with a double, a performance he'd take any day though one that compared to … 

5. Miguel Cabrera's paled. Mired in a slump that saw him go homerless over the final 28 days of August while posting a .307 slugging percentage, Cabrera went 4 for 5 the first day of September with a pair of home runs and a resounding answer to whether his body is ready for the rigors of a pennant race: Yes.

He's got 25 games to show it – to help carry a Detroit team with a mediocre bullpen, iron gloves, inconsistent bats and questions toward the back end of its rotation. Even with all those issues, the Tigers remain the most talented team in the American League Central, maybe the American League period, when considering the stars. It's Max Scherzer and David Price and Victor Martinez and especially Cabrera, the two-time reigning MVP.

Like Harrison, he'll sneak onto the back end of some ballots this season thanks to his gaudy RBI total. Whether he's got enough to push the Tigers forward depends on which Cabrera shows up: the slap-hitting version or the punisher who hits balls regularly with the force …

6. Jorge Soler did during his debut week in the major leagues. The nicknames came quickly: Soler Power was fine. Soler Flare had the added advantage of rhyming. All spoke to the ability of the latest Cuban sensation to hit baseballs really far.

And more than that, it represented the latest Cubs sensation to do the same. First came Arismendy Alcantara, and then Javier Baez, and now it's Soler, with Kris Bryant next, Addison Russell thereafter, Kyle Schwarber to follow and Albert Almora to polish off the finest group of hitting prospects in as long as scouts can remember.

The excitement on the North Side should be palpable at this point. Between Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks, they've got two cheap, controllable starters locked in. And with an option on Tsuyoshi Wada, plenty of time to assess Jacob Turner and Felix Doubront, and Travis Wood and Edwin Jackson settling in as a back-end-at-best guys instead of opening day sorts, pitching depth exists for the first time in a long time.

Both Chicago teams are being run well, collecting assets on the cheap and dumping those they no longer need, as …

7. Adam Dunn learned Sunday when the White Sox traded him to Oakland. Not only was it a move that spoke to the White Sox's respect for Dunn – they wanted him to play in the postseason before his career ended, which it may after this year – it addressed a massive power vacuum that has befallen the A's of late.

Dunn, as if on cue, walloped a home run in his first at-bat with Oakland, powering them to a 6-1 victory against Seattle that busted the A's out of a miserable funk. Manager Bob Melvin called his Athletics “pathetic,” and it fit: Not only had they frittered away their AL West lead, their advantage over the Mariners in the wild-card race coming into Monday was only 4 ½ games.

Certainly things could be worse. They could be more than 20 games back, like …

8. Bo Porter's Houston Astros were before the team fired him Monday. Rare is the power struggle between GM and manager that ends with the guy on the field winning, so this was as much an inevitability as the sun rising every morning. Unless GM Jeff Luhnow completely lost ownership – and he hasn't – Porter was going to serve as the scapegoat for another lost season.

It leaves baseball with just four minority managers: Lloyd McClendon, Ron Washington, Rick Renteria and Fredi Gonzalez. That's 13.3 percent in a game where more than 39 percent of the players are non-white, according to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport's 2014 Racial and Gender Report Card.

On the whole, MLB gets an A from the institute for racial-hiring practices. Baseball does an excellent job in most positions of preaching the diversity that matches its on-field talent. Giving the highest-end jobs to minorities, on the other hand, is an area in which baseball lags.

The chasm between 41.2 percent of coaches being minorities and such a small representation in manager's seats is staggering. Similarly, only three minorities occupy GM chairs: the Marlins' Michael Hill, Amaro (born in Philadelphia to Cuban parents) and Luhnow (born and raised in Mexico City, where his New York-based father moved the family).

Whether a glass ceiling exists is a fair question for baseball to ask itself, particularly as the game grows more internationally. Teams get so myopic that often they fail to recognize something great right under their nose. It's the sort of feeling …

9. Matt Shoemaker gives the Angels these days, as he carries their rotation through the loss of Garrett Richards. Shoemaker turns 28 at the end of September, and his major league career before this season consisted of one start at the end of last season.

He had journeyman written all over him, what with back-to-back seasons of palindromic 5.65 and 4.64 ERAs at Triple-A. The 160-to-29 strikeout-to-walk ratio last year portended good things; the 27 home runs in 184 1/3 innings didn't. Even this season the Angels were loath to commit to Shoemaker, shuttling him back to the minor leagues for a month-long stretch and then moving him to the bullpen for parts of June.

Since joining the rotation June 17, Shoemaker is 11-3 with a 2.70 ERA, 80 strikeouts and 13 walks. Opponents are hitting .229 against him and getting on base 26.5 percent of the time. His current scoreless-inning streak is at 23, and he should be a lock for AL pitcher of the month in August, during which he went 6-1 with a 1.31 ERA and allowed just two home runs in 41 1/3 innings.

It's the sort of performance a team expects not from someone pegged a AAAA guy but instead a …

10. Cole Hamels who has been a World Series MVP. And yet this version of Hamels – the one throwing more fastballs than he has in years and paring back on his changeup, which remains world-class – may be the best yet. He's allowing fewer home runs than ever, striking out nearly as many as ever and still stingy with his walks.

So it's no surprise teams are lining up to trade for him. While Max Scherzer and Jon Lester could get six or seven years and at least $150 million on the free-agent market, with James Shields not far behind, Hamels' deal is positively a bargain in comparison: four years, $96 million, with a $14 million club option for his age-35 season in 2019.

Of course, if Hamels throws 400 innings from 2017-18, with at least 200 in the final season, the option is guaranteed and the total cost of the deal comes to five years and $114 million, because Ruben Amaro loves player-friendly options that scare off teams. This one isn't enough to frighten away most, though it gives the interested parties a smidgen of leverage.

Getting a pitcher for four years instead of seven is optimal for every team, and if it means giving up prospects, it's worth the price. All of this depends on the Phillies suddenly beginning to understand asset value, a concept that has been lost on the franchise since Pat Gillick left. He's back now, filling in as president for the ailing Dave Montgomery, and if he's more than a figurehead, he'll know what's right.

As painful as it may be, if the Phillies want to start over – and they need to start over – they've got to trade Cole Hamels. It's a start for something that should've started long, long ago.

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