Well out of first place and 13 games below the .500 mark, the Philadelphia Phillies were thought to potentially be in the market to trade All-Star starting pitcher Cole Hamels prior to the July 31 trade deadline. Now reports are out that the team is actually looking to piece together a new long-term deal with the 28-year-old left-hander. On the surface it’s difficult to see whether or not giving Hamels a big payday is a good idea or not for the high-spending Phillies. The team already has some large contracts on the books, and its offense looks to be in sore need of a reboot.
Keeping a star like Hamels around is always a plus, but doing so likely means that the Phillies will need to give him a five or six year deal with an average annual value north of $20 million. Considering that awful Ryan Howard contract is just now in the infancy stages and other names like Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence will need new contracts of their own soon, would worrying about Hamels be the right thing to do? I think so. Aces Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee are aging and won’t be around forever; Hamels offers the organization a starting pitcher in his prime with the skill set to age gracefully. Even if Hamels does experience a drop in velocity as he gets older, his success is so contingent on an excellent change-up that it’s doubtful his level of performance would dip much over the next half-decade.
Obviously there is no way the team will be able to afford long-term deals with Hamels, Victorino, and Pence. Hamels and Victorino both find themselves without a contract at season’s end, while Pence hits Super Two status and is nearly done with his arbitration phase. Of these three players, all of whom have big names, Hamels is the most valuable and should be the priority going forward. Since his breakout in 2007, Hamels has asserted himself as a consistent 4-6 WAR player when healthy, and his injury troubles are well behind him at this point. Still about 17 months shy of turning 30, Hamels is a good bet to provide this kind of production for the length of contract he is expected to command.
As for Victorino and Pence, there is plenty of evidence to suggest neither possesses the skill set their names might suggest. Victorino will turn 32 before the start of the 2013 season, and he’s having what is easily the worst season of his career thus far. Just a year removed from a fantastic 2011 (.279/.355/.491, 5.2 WAR per Baseball Reference), it’s important to realize that Victorino’s last campaign was actually the only one in his career that was markedly above average for his position at the plate. Much of the buzz generated around Victorino centers around his personality, speed, and defensive ability. As he ages, much of his value is likely to deteriorate.
Hunter Pence is just 29-years-old, and while he’s been consistently above average (at least per OPS+) for his position, there are certainly other factors to consider. Pence is not an elite player; he owns a career .829 OPS, UZR has his defensive work slipping across the last two years, and he will likely be in line for a contract above what his abilities warrant. Plus, do the Phillies really need to invest in any more offensive players as they plod along past their primes?
Victorino has already been mentioned as a possible trade candidate as the deadline approaches, and I think the Phillies should seriously consider actively trying to ship out Pence as well. The team has no chance at recovering in 2012, and a solid return for these two players could net much-needed help for the farm system. While the Phillies have the resources available to them to spend big on the free agent market, they could maximize their damage by regrouping and growing from within. Imagine what this team would look like should they develop a few homegrown prospects (much like they once did) to go with their expensive veterans?
Cleaning house on the offensive side of the ball could open up room in the Hamels negotiations, allow the farm system to return to relevancy, and even allow the club to take a look at other avenues. Why not kick the tires on intriguing free agents at positions in which there is no immediate sign of help? You know, make offers to guys who are likely to actually earn or exceed the money the team is paying them? The Phillies don’t need to rebuild; their rotation will still look pretty good next season, especially if Hamels is re-signed. But they do need to re prioritize and retool. Cashing in a few of their chips now could be a big step in the right direction.