There have been rumors this week that the Red Sox are thinking about making a trade for Phillies starting pitcher Cole Hamels to protect themselves against a potential loss of Jon Lester on the free agent market. While some might be excited that the Red Sox are willing to go that far to stay in contention and build a strong rotation, there should be more that question the logic behind such a trade. Given the current circumstances the team finds itself in, there is absolutely no reason to trade for Cole Hamels.
What would the Red Sox actually be getting in Cole Hamels? The easy answer is a very good starting pitcher. In 17 starts to this point in 2014, Hamels has put up 9.05 K/9 and 2.99 BB/9 with a 48.5% Groundball rate, 78.1% strand rate, 2.83 ERA and 3.14 FIP. Hamels also has a pretty impressive postseason record: in 81.2 innings across 13 playoff starts, Hamels sports a 3.09 ERA with 77 strikeouts, just 21 walks, a 1.05 WHIP and .218 average against. There could be some concern that Hamels’s numbers might look a little better because he has spent his whole career in the National League, but that is counteracted by the fact that his home ballpark (Citizens Bank Park) is widely considered to be one of the better hitters’ parks in the game. So there is a lot to like about Hamels as a player, and any team would do well to have him at the top of their rotation. The problem this causes for the Red Sox is that the better the player, the better the return required in a trade for him.
Now this is where logic starts to exit the building in these rumors. The reports referenced above agree that it would take at least three top prospects to convince the Phillies to move Hamels, and rightly so. However, Hamels is also signed to a long, expensive contract that pays him $24 million a year AAV. The Red Sox have what is considered one of the deepest, most high-impact farm systems in baseball, so losing three top prospects might not hurt them as much as it would other teams, but three top prospects is a steep price to pay for any player, never mind that they are already earning one of the highest salaries at their position. Money is also not a problem for the Red Sox, as they are one of the highest-revenue teams in baseball and have as much payroll flexibility as any team in the game. However, current circumstances leave them in a position where they would not have to give in on both fronts.
The Cole Hamels trade is being billed as a potential Plan B for Jon Lester’s possible defection, however there is no reason why it should come to that point. If the choice is between paying Jon Lester or to letting him walk and trading for Cole Hamels, there should be no second thoughts; pay Jon Lester. For one thing, Lester is actually a better pitcher than Hamels (not to mention he has pitched his whole career in Boston, so he is a proven success here), and for another he has gone on the record as saying he would be willing to take a discount to stay in Boston. You could probably get Lester signed for a deal resembling the one Hamels signed, right around $24 million/season and be able to bring back your homegrown ace without touching your farm system. Instead, the choice would be to have to pay the same premium price on Hamels’s deal, while also giving up prime assets from the farm system. The Red Sox have to face the reality of their situation at this point. They are going to have to pay a steep price (in $$) to keep Lester, but there is absolutely no reason they should pay heavily in both dollars and prospects to acquire Hamels.