Cole Hamels’ name has been on the trade market for the better part of a year, but despite reported interest from teams such as the Red Sox, Rangers, Cardinals, Dodgers, Padres and others, the 31-year-old ace remains in Phillies pinstripes to open the 2015 season. The expectation is that Hamels will once again frequent the rumor circuit this summer, and many of the aforementioned clubs figure to be mentioned as suitors. Struggles in the Red Sox’ rotation and injuries to the Dodgers should place them among the most oft-mentioned suitors, but with an 18-8 start under their belt, the Astros merit consideration as a potential landing spot.
Yesterday, when looking at some items from around the AL West, I briefly explored the idea of a Hamels-to-Houston move when discussing the idea of the Astros making an early move to fortify their rotation. As Evan Drellich of the Houston Chronicle pointed out, both Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs have the Astros’ playoff odds listed at greater than 50 percent with their 18 wins already banked and the second-place Angels trailing by seven games. While an elite bullpen (2.13 ERA, 2.81 FIP, 2.87 xFIP) and an offense that has collectively batted .247/.324/.446 (good for a fourth-ranked wRC+ of 113) have paired with a decisively above-average defense, the team’s rotation has has been less impressive.
Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh have continued their 2014 breakouts and stepped into the No. 1 and 2 slots atop the rotation, but the collective contributions of Scott Feldman, Roberto Hernandez, Sam Deduno, Asher Wojciechowski and Brad Peacock have yielded just a 5.05 ERA. Feldman’s track record of solid innings and contract will keep him locked into a rotation spot, barring injury, but aside from him, there’s little certainty in the team’s remaining rotation options.
Deduno’s solid 2013 effort was bookended by a pair of replacement-level showings. Hernandez was reasonably effective with the Phillies last season, but he hasn’t been a reliable rotation arm since he was still known as Fausto Carmona. Wojciechowski and Peacock are both prospects that have proven little at the Major League level, and neither Dan Straily or Brett Oberholtzer (rehabbing from a blister issue) has ever handled a full big league workload.
While we can make the case that the team has enough arms to patch its way through the season with this mix, the rotation appears to be the clearest spot for an upgrade. Indeed, GM Jeff Luhnow has acknowledged as much, saying yesterday that the rotation is the team’s only “obvious” area to make an addition. He also hinted that the club may ultimately look to add at the top of the rotation rather than just settling for a back-of-the-rotation option. As Luhnow put it, “there are scenarios where we would continue to invest in this team as the year goes on in order to maximize our chances of not just getting to the playoffs, but being better in the playoffs.”
There’s certainly an argument to be made that a less expensive veteran such as Kyle Lohse would be a better target for the Astros, but Houston showed little interest in giving up talent for one-year rentals this winter when it acquired a long-term piece in Evan Gattis. They, in fact, traded a rental by moving the final year of Dexter Fowler’s contract for Luis Valbuena and Straily (and replacing him cheaply via free agency with another rental, Colby Rasmus). Perhaps if the price is right, that would end up being the preferred route, but with an Astros team that is seemingly on the brink of what it hopes will be a sustainable run of contending seasons, there may be some additional value placed on adding Hamels at a below-market rate as opposed to spending heavily in free agency this winter on the likes of David Price, Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmermann, etc.
The Astros aren’t known as big spenders, but they invested $62MM in Major League free agents this offseason — the 13th-largest sum of any team — and they can’t be criticized for not trying to spend more. Houston reportedly made the largest offer for Andrew Miller and aggressively pursued David Robertson, only to see each sign elsewhere. They also appeared set to add Ryan Vogelsong late in the offseason before questions regarding his physical resulted in a decrease in their offer.
Nonetheless, the $96MM in guaranteed money remaining on Hamels’ contract (not including an option that could invest and bring the guarantee to $124MM) is certainly a level of spending that we haven’t seen the Astros approach since escaping the tail end of what was a disastrous $100MM contract issued to Carlos Lee by the previous front office/ownership group. However, if the sum is daunting for owner Jim Crane, the Phillies have expressed a willingness to include money to facilitate a trade. And, as MLBTR’s Jeff Todd explained on Opening Day, the Astros have the second-lightest swath of long-term commitments among all MLB clubs, with only the A’s having a clearer payroll in the years to come. Houston, then, is arguably better-equipped to add a hefty contract like the Hamels pact than the Red Sox or Dodgers, both of whom would acquire Hamels with the added cost of serious luxury tax implications.
As far as prospects are concerned, there’s no question that the Astros’ farm system has deteriorated a bit following the trade for Gattis and the promotion of George Springer (among others). However, ESPN’s Keith Law still ranked them third, even after the Gattis swap, and Basebal America ranked them a less-impressive 14th late in Spring Training. Carlos Correa is among the game’s very best prospects, and while he’d surely top GM Ruben Amaro Jr.’s wishlist when discussing Hamels deals, I’d imagine the Astros consider him untouchable. Moving on from Correa, however, the Astros have a host of Top 100 prospects, with Mark Appel likely considered the second-best among their ranks. Appel ranked between 30th and 35th on the Top 100 lists of BA, Law, MLB.com and Baseball Prospectus, while Fangraphs’ Kiley McDaniel ranked him 18th entering the season. A deep farm system beyond that top two reveals the likes of Vincent Velasquez, Colin Moran, Michael Feliz, Domingo Santana, Josh Hader and Brett Phillips, among others. And while parting with a significant portion of that talent would come as an unequivocal blow to their organizational depth, the Astros are positioned to add more high-impact talent in this year’s draft, with two of the top five picks and four of the top 46.
I’ll be the first to admit that this is a somewhat reactionary response to a 25-game sample, but with 18 wins accounted for, the Astros could play sub-.500 baseball (68-69) over the rest of the season and still finish with 86 wins. Another five months of ~.500 ball will have them firmly in the mix for a playoff spot. At that point, an early or midseason swap of Hamels for the group of occupants that would’ve otherwise provided innings from the fifth slot in the rotation could prove an upgrade of two or three wins.
Hamels, of course, hasn’t looked himself to open the season, but his 91.5 mph average fastball velocity is in line with his 2012-13 levels, and a fluky homer-to-flyball ratio has plagued him thus far. Overall, his bottom-line results through six starts aren’t entirely dissimilar from the first six outings of his 2014 campaign. Perhaps the one area for concern with Hamels is his increased walk rate, but with a rebound in his control, Hamels still appears plenty capable of providing a significant jolt to any big league rotation.
With my perhaps unnecessarily long-winded preamble aside, let’s open it up to public debate…