Who'll win the hunt for Cole Hamels -- if anyone?

ByJayson Stark ESPN logo
Saturday, July 25, 2015

PHILADELPHIA -- Every afternoon, Cole Hamels rolls into the clubhouse of the Philadelphia Phillies, just as he has for the past nine years. Except lately, the greeting from his teammates isn't the standard, "Hey, Cole." These days, it goes more like this:

"Wait, you're still here?"

Well, Cole Hamels is still a Phillie. But for how much longer?

Amazingly, with nine days left until the trading deadline, there are executives out there willing to bet that Hamels will still be a Phillie on Aug. 1. But there are others who say stuff like: "I'd be beyond stunned" if he isn't traded in the next week and a half.

Then there's the general manager who continues to make these phone calls, even as his own job status hangs in the balance. This might be the most important trade of Ruben Amaro Jr.'s career. But he insists he has no sense of urgency to make it by deadline day.

"This isn't do-or-die for us," Amaro told ESPN.com. "In the end, it's about, 'What is the return?' and, 'Is this the right return?' If it is, we'll move forward. And if it's not we won't."

The Phillies continue to talk to about a half-dozen teams about Hamels. But other clubs believe that, if he gets dealt this month, it will be to one of four destinations -- the Chicago Cubs, the Los Angeles Dodgers the Boston Red Sox or the Texas Rangers.

There's still a whole lot of time for that to change, though. More than a week remains before the finish line approaches. And these slow-moving talks still haven't advanced much beyond "the 40-yard line," in the words of one source. So where is this leading? Let's break down the possibilities:

Nowhere at all

From the moment the Phillies hired Andy MacPhail as their president-in-waiting, a theory erupted in front offices across North America. Call it the wait-'til-next-year theory.

For one thing, MacPhail has a reputation as one of baseball's most patient, meticulous thinkers. For another, he won't even take charge, officially, as team president until after the season. And, finally, back in 2007, as president of the Orioles, he made the call NOT to trade then-ace Erik Bedard at the deadline, because he preferred to market Bedard the following winter.

So the Orioles did in fact wait -- until the following February -- to deal Bedard to Seattle, in one of the great move-an-ace deals of recent times. Adam Jones and Chris Tillman were the headliners atop a franchise-altering five-man package the Orioles got back for Bedard. And other clubs worry that if that's the standard MacPhail expects the Phillies to meet in a Hamels trade, he'll be waiting for the rest of his life to duplicate it.

But longtime friends of MacPhail say he recognizes these are two different players and two different sets of circumstances. And even Amaro says MacPhail understands that, with the value teams place on young players these days, "the landscape has changed a little bit."

Nevertheless, there's still this reality hanging in the air: "I think pulling off deals of that magnitude," said one AL exec, "are difficult to do during front-office transitions."

With Amaro on the endangered-GM list, MacPhail waiting to take charge and legendary former GM Pat Gillick serving as the temporary team president, the Phillies might have the most complicated management structure in baseball. So who actually makes this trade?

Amaro makes the phone calls. Gillick makes the ultimate decision. But it's MacPhail who has to live with the consequences. So while MacPhail, from all accounts, has no intention of meddling in names or details, his voice will be heard on this, loud and clear.

That seems, from the outside, to create more impetus for the Phillies NOT to deal Hamels now than to move him before the deadline. But MacPhail's former vice president of baseball operations in Baltimore, Jim Duquette, isn't so sure of that.

"I think the difference between this situation and ours is that Pat's there," said Duquette, who worked under MacPhail alongside GM Mike Flanagan. "Let's face it. If Flanny or I went to Andy and said, 'This would be a good deal,' I don't know if Andy would have signed off on it. But if Pat Gillick, Hall of Fame GM, goes in and says, 'This is the best we can do and it's something we SHOULD do,' that carries a lot more weight."

What happens, though, if Gillick and MacPhail disagree? Who has the final say? That's a question no one can answer -- yet. But it's a source of great fascination to other clubs.

"Even if Andy says no and Pat wants to do it, I don't think Pat would back down," said one executive who has dealt with both. "No way Pat is going to answer to Andy on this one."

In the meantime, Amaro just laughs when he hears people say that having this three-headed monster running the show makes it much tougher to make a trade.

"Three heads are better than one, I think," Amaro said, "especially when it's Pat Gillick and Andy MacPhail. I'll put our odds up against [anybody's], as far as experience and knowledge. ... I don't think it's detrimental to making a deal. Not at all. I think it helps give us more perspective."

But is that how it will actually work when the Phillies sift through their best offers? We'll see. Won't we?

The Dodgers

Hamels' contract requires him to give the Phillies a list of nine places he'd be willing to be traded. The Dodgers might very well be the No. 1 landing spot on that list.

But is Hamels the Dodgers' No. 1 choice as they plow into this market? In theory, he should be. He's under control for three more years (plus an option) after this season, at an affordable (for the Dodgers) $23.5 million a year. And never forget that, if Zack Greinke opts out after this season, the Dodgers' rotation for next year would consist of Clayton Kershaw and four guys named Undecided, PTBNL, Somebody or Other and You've Got Me.

So the Dodgers would seem to be highly motivated to trade for a guy like Hamels, who can help them now and beyond. Except other teams report that, surprisingly, the Dodgers have actually shown more interest in rent-a-pitchers, a la Johnny Cueto and David Price.

Plus, they've never been able to sell the Phillies on a package for Hamels that didn't include someone like shortstop phenom Corey Seager or the Dodgers' best pitching prospect, Julio Urias. We've heard rumblings that, if one of those two isn't in the deal, the Phillies have asked for as many as six players back from the Dodgers' 1-A prospect tier. And that ain't happening, either.

Nevertheless, if you polled the other 28 teams in baseball on where Hamels will be working come August, the Dodgers would be the runaway pick. So don't touch that dial.

The Cubs

If you look at all the 21-, 22- and 23-year-olds up and down the Cubs' lineup, it would be tough to convince yourself this is a team ready to win the World Series THIS year. So the Cubs don't fit the profile of a team ready to make a go-for-it July blockbuster -- except for one thing:

They're the Cubs.

So even a trip to the wild-card game would register on the Richter scale in Chicago. And that means the Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer regime will be energized to do SOMETHING in the next week and a half. The questions are: How big will that SOMETHING be? And do the Cubs and Phillies match up?

The answer to the first question is: Get back to us. Depends on how the dominoes fall. The answer to the second question is: Not very neatly.

Other clubs say the Cubs are dangling Javier Baez andStarlin Castroas the centerpieces of a potential deal. But the Phillies appear no more than lukewarm about either of them. And it'shard to see how the Cubs could structure an alternate package without trading young players they'd planned to build around, not move.

But an exec of one team that has talked to them said: "I don't think they'll be in the rental market. So the value to them, with Hamels, is the three years [left on his contract]. This isn't just about selling out to go for the wild card. It's about getting ahead of [the free-agent ace market] this winter."

In other words, don't take your eye off the Cubs. That would be a biiigg mistake.

The Red Sox

Unlike with the Dodgers and Cubs, Hamels has the right to veto a trade to Boston. But we're hearing the Red Sox have been led to believe he'd go there if his $20 million option for 2017 is guaranteed. The issue here, though, is: Why would the Red Sox make this trade?

Their four-game sweeparoo at Anaheim coming out of the break pretty much blew them out of contention. So how logical is it for a team in their situation to be buying, not selling, in July?

Except this isn't a team inclined to think inside any traditional boxes. The Red Sox can't be traditional sellers, because they don't have much to sell. But they've told other clubs they expect to be nontraditional buyers, no matter where they are in the standings, because they see this as a buying opportunity for pieces that could help them long-term -- especially at the top of their rotation.

"If they finish last," said one exec, "that would be three out of four years of last-place finishes. So I can't see them buying to try to get back in it this year. But think of the urgency for next year."

Well, clearly, they're thinking of it. The Red Sox sent one of GM Ben Cherington's most trusted assistants, Allard Baird, to see Hamels' start on Sunday. And the minute Hamels left the game, Baird left the ballpark. So could they have painted a more vivid portrait of what they're shopping for than that?

"I still think the Red Sox have the most pieces to make this deal of anyone," said an NL exec. "But I don't know how aggressive they are. I know that if I didn't have expectations of competing this year, I would not do this. If they wait, they'll have [free-agent] alternatives in the winter. So why take on the risks with a guy like this for the next two or three years, without the upside of him helping you be really good this year?"

Interesting question. But anyone counting out the Red Sox is misreading the tea leaves.

The Rangers

The Rangers are an interesting piece in this puzzle. One reason is, they're one of just two AL teams (the Yankees being the other) that are not on Hamels' trade-veto list. But there's a second reason just as compelling: The Phillies are bullish on this team's prospects, from Joey Gallo to catcher Jorge Alfaro to a collection of live arms topped by Chi Chi Gonzalez and Jake Thompson.

So it feels, said one AL exec, as if the Phillies have worked hard to keep the Rangers "in the discussion." Other teams question whether a team that's nine games out in its division and six back in the wild-card race would overpay for Hamels when it will have so many free-agent options this winter. But like the Red Sox, the Rangers aren't approaching this deadline with an eye just on the standings.

They're positioning themselves to win next year. So they're looking for long-term buying opportunities. And Hamels might be the best fit out there. They've had longstanding interest. They appear to like Hamels more than most of those free agents. And they would clearly prefer the length and dollars in his contract to the haul someone like David Price is about to rake in.

So never take your eye off a club as aggressive and creative as the Rangers.

The rest of the picture

Now obviously, there are more than four teams in on Cole Hamels. Just not at the level of those four clubs. The Astros are another team with interest and the right chips. But they're not convinced Hamels would approve a deal to go there -- much like the Blue Jays, who already have turned their attention toward other options. Elsewhere, the Yankees and Orioles don't seem inclined to give up what the Phillies are asking. The Angels are more focused on bats. The Giants are a major longshot. Too much money for the Royals. Etc., etc.

But suppose the asking price comes back to earth? Then who knows which teams might draw back into the game. Right now, grumbled one exec, "the Phillies want yesteryear's prices, and teams don't make those deals anymore." And that's a tune quite a few teams have hummed for many months now -- to Amaro's consistent displeasure.

"I guess we've been criticized for having our expectations too high," the GM said. "But I think that was a little overblown, frankly. I've talked to Pat about that a lot -- people thinking we have to have the top three players in everyone's organization. And that's not [true]. ... I think the perception of what we're trying to do and what our expectations are, are different from the reality. We SHOULD have high expectations on certain players. But I think we have realistic ones, too."

Amaro continues to deny that he's ever told other teams he needs to "win" a Hamels deal, even though an exec of one club that kicked the tires reiterated this week that he "definitely" said that last winter. Nevertheless, the semantics don't matter. It's making the deal that matters. So while other clubs say the asking price has eased slightly since the offseason, they still recognize the weight Amaro, Gillick and MacPhail can't help but feel as they contemplate this trade.

"I don't think the price is unreasonable or way too high at this point," said one exec. "I just think there's so much pressure on them to make this trade and have people say it's awesome. ... Are the Phillies eventually going to trade this guy for 85 cents on the dollar? I still think that's going to be really hard for them to do."

So 12 months after the Hamels rumors first started swirling, the pitcher in the eye of this typhoon finds himself staggering toward July 31, trying to keep his sanity. His teammates describe him as frustrated. And what human being wouldn't be, as his future hangs in the balance?

"I'm sure he'd like to have a more definitive answer," said teammateAaron Harang. "I think anybody in that case would. But for him to be a franchise fixture for his whole career, and World Series MVP, and to be The Guy for so long, it's just one of those things where you can't help but wonder if it's really going to happen. If it finally happens, I think that'll ease his mind. But right now, he's got to keep his focus, and keep his mind locked right here."

Maybe that frustration explains the worst two back-to-back starts of Hamels' career this month -- 20 hits, 19 outs, 14 runs. But if he felt the heat, in more ways than one, in those two starts, just wait until his next start -- this weekend in Chicago, against the Cubs.

If he pitches well, "people won't take those two [bad] starts seriously," said one exec. "But what happens if he gets bombed again? So let's face it. They need him to go out there and have a good start."

Let's make this clear: Cole Hamels' career won't be defined by what could be his final start as a Phillie. But his trade value easily could be. Rationally, that makes very little sense. But neither does the possibility that this guy might not be traded at all. And with nine days left until deadline day, both of those wacky possibilities are totally in play.

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