All winter, the focus on the Phillies has centered on Cole Hamels. He’s their best player, they’re an obvious seller, and the remainder of his contract is a bit of a discount relative to the current market price for frontline starting pitchers. Of course, those last two factors also mean that the Phillies asking price has been quite high, as they look for multiple young prospects in return, with the acquiring team also absorbing the entirety of the rest of his contract. For reasons that have been covered ad nauseum, no one has been willing to give up that kind of talent while also taking on $96 million in salary commitments, and so for now, Hamels remains in Philadelphia.
At some point sooner than later, now that spring training is beginning, pitchers are going to start getting hurt. Pitchers on contenders. Guys that win-now teams were counting on are going to report some stiffness in their elbow, and after a few days of assuming its just normal dead arm, they’ll be told they need Tommy John Surgery. And then the rumors will begin to kick up, and that team will get attached to Hamels as a potential suitor, and eventually, Hamels will have a new home. At least, as long as he isn’t one of the guys complaining about dead arm anyway.
From now through the trade deadline, the asking price for Hamels probably only goes up. The Phillies are already paying the cost in awkwardness of bringing him to spring training, so there’s no reason for them to give in and take a deal similar to what they’ve been offered at this point. Amaro is betting on injuries depleting the supply of arms on contending teams, pushing the demand for Hamels higher, allowing him to get the kind of return he’s been seeking all winter. As long as Hamels stays healthy, it will probably work.
But Cole Hamels isn’t the only interesting piece of trade-bait in Philadelphia. And in fact, if I was a team like the Red Sox or the Padres, I might actually target Cliff Lee instead.
Given his age and the fact that he’s coming off a season plagued by elbow problems, the Phillies simply aren’t in a position to make the kinds of demands for Lee that they are for Hamels. And while they’ve apparently been against paying down any of Hamels salary to obtain better talent in return, there’s basically no question that they’re going to have to send cash with Lee in any trade. Because of the remarkably high $12.5 million buyout on his 2016 option, Lee’s remaining contract can either be looked at as 1/$37.5M or 2/$52.5M; no one is going to take the rest of that deal without some financial relief.
With their financial resources and lack of talent, the Phillies should be in the market to use their payroll to buy younger players that they wouldn’t be able to sign through free agency. While they may have their reasons for not wanting to use Hamels in such a way, Lee is an obvious candidate for such a move, since the question isn’t whether the Phillies will include cash in a Lee trade; it’s how much they’ll include in order to maximize their return.
And this is where I think a deal for Cliff Lee could be perfect for a lot of teams, especially teams who might already be running up against their 2015 budgets. The Phillies have already budgeted for Lee’s salary this year, and unless they’re planning on becoming a late player in the market for Cuban defectees, there aren’t really ways to redeploy his salary to upgrade the roster in other ways. And most teams don’t treat their MLB payroll and international acquisition budgets as one pool, so even if they did save some money by trading either of their star pitchers, it’s not clear that money would be immediately available to bid up the Cubans anyway.
Meanwhile, the Red Sox payroll currently sits at about $180 million, so they’re bumping right up against the luxury tax threshold. The Padres are very likely out of money after signing James Shields, a move that was only made possible because the Dodgers are paying almost all of Matt Kemp’s salary in 2015. By keeping Lee’s 2015 salary on their own books, the Phillies could instantly turn him into a fascinating target for those contenders who have already spent their money elsewhere.
Let’s say the Phillies went along with this plan, and agreed that they would pay 100% of Lee’s 2015 salary, leaving the acquiring team only on the hook for either the $12.5 million buyout or the $27.5 million salary in 2016 if his option vests — which it does with 200 innings pitched this year, as long as he doesn’t end the season on the DL — or they picked it up as part of the trade. At that point, the risk to the acquiring team is quite low, as they will pay just the $12.5 million buyout if Lee doesn’t live up to expectations, and it would be applied to next year’s budget anyway.
And if Lee does pitch well, returning to prior ace-like form, the $15 million marginal cost difference to have him in 2016 might actually be something of a bargain anyway.
The lack of risk associated with short-term deals drives higher annual average values, so while Lee probably isn’t worth $28 million next year, it might actually be closer than we’d think. The average cost of a win on long-term deals was around $8 million this winter — we’ll get into that more next week — and it isn’t crazy to think that a healthy Cliff Lee could be a +3 WAR pitcher for each of the next two years. ZIPS projects him for +2.4 WAR in 140 innings this year, while Steamer is at +2.7 WAR in 170 innings, so both project him at over +3 WAR per 200 innings in 2015. You can’t count on getting 200 innings, of course, but prior to last season, he’d been a durable workhorse; we’re not talking about Francisco Liriano here.
And just being on the hook for either the buyout or the 2016 salary gives the acquiring team significant insurance against another injury. The $27.5 million salary only comes into play if Lee stays healthy and pitches well, in which case a team would be buying two years of quality performances for the same AAV that Ervin Santana signed this winter. And while Lee’s results weren’t that great last year, there are plenty of reasons to prefer him to Santana-type pitchers for the next couple of years.
Keep in mind, Lee’s struggles in 2014 were all BABIP-related. His 81 xFIP- ranked 15th in MLB among SPs with 80+ innings pitched, sandwiching him squarely between Madison Bumgarner and Jon Lester, and ahead of Max Scherzer, among others. And while it’s entirely reasonable to think that the elbow problems that led to diminished stuff also led to harder contact allowed, it’s still the least predictive result a pitcher can theoretically control. Betting on Lee isn’t betting on a broken down pitcher returning to prior greatness; it’s simply betting that he’ll be healthy enough to not allow a .358 BABIP again.
And if he’s not, well, then it costs you $12.5 million in next year’s payroll to make him go away. If he’s healthy enough to just get some BABIP regression and maintain most of his 2014 performances, he’s still likely a very good pitcher when he’s on the mound. And maybe not all that much worse than Hamels, at least in the short-term.
This is the kind of low-risk, high-reward, short-term acquisition that has the Red Sox written all over it, but it’s also a kind of a perfect play for a team like San Diego or St. Louis as well. With the 2015 salary off the table, it wouldn’t be difficult at all to see a real bidding war commence, and once Lee strings together a few good spring training outings where he’s flashing his pre-injury velocity, you could start asking for legitimate prospects.
No, you’re still not getting Mookie Betts or Blake Swihart, but basically every other name that has been bandied around for Hamels is probably not too far off a fair return for a subsidized Cliff Lee. You won’t get two of those guys for Lee, even paying down his salary, but $25 million buys you a pretty good prospect, and in the day and age where Brett Anderson gets $10 million in guaranteed money, asking teams to be on the hook for Lee’s $12.5 million buyout isn’t outrageous at all.
If I’m Boston, San Diego, or St. Louis, Lee is exactly the kind of upside play I’d be looking for. With Hamels, you not only absorb the cost in prospects surrendered, but you spend the next four years hoping that his elbow doesn’t blow out. Under this scenario, there’s almost no downside for the acquiring team. And that reduced risk is what drives prices up.
With Lee’s contract immovable without some financial considerations, the Phillies should just go whole-hog and keep his entire 2015 salary on their books. They’ll still get the flexibility of reinvesting the savings next year, and if they make him a free-for-2015 pitcher, they could land the kind of deal they’ve been looking for all winter.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.