Cole Hamels’ $144 million contract for six years, with a seventh year vesting option, is the latest Philadelphia big money investment in pitching. The Phillies will pay out $69 million in 2013 to the trio of Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay, and Cliff Lee. Compared to the other biggest spending clubs like the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels and Tigers, the Phillies have devoted far more of their large salary expenditures to pitchers. That occurred in the offseason again when they signed Johnathan Papelbon, and continues now as they stare down the barrel of a lost season.
It’s understandable that the team would want to retain Hamels. He’s younger than the other starters, and in a year when the pitching has not lived up to its price tag, he’s been the exception. He was a solid value at his $15 million; now he will be making an average of $24 million from age 29 to 34.
A look at Cole Hamels’ comparables listed at baseball-reference.com does not inspire confidence about this move: John Smiley and Josh Beckett. Of course, those are just approximate comparisons. Looking more closely at just the last two years, the most similar league adjusted ERA’s at age 27 and 28 combined include Jim Palmer and Steve Carlton, as well as names like Rick Reuschel, Denny Neagle, Kevin Appier, and Mark Langston. The Phillies can probably expect similar performance to how Hamels has pitched for the next two years, then a decline toward a league average pitcher by age 33 (year 5 of the 6 year deal).
So, in a vacuum, it’s not a horrible deal, though one that like most long term ones, battles against aging curves and trying to balance player salary inflation with expected decline. They aren’t in a vacuum, though, they are 10 games out of a playoff spot, and look like the window for the current core of 30 something players has closed.
Next year, between Halladay, Lee, Hamels, Papelbon, Howard, Utley, and Rollins, they have 130 million tied up in 7 players. Those players will be on average 33.1, with Hamels the only one younger than 32. Halladay leaves a year later (unless he hits innings milestones that are unlikely with his injury), as does Utley. That leaves roughly $100 million in five players in 2014-2015. By 2016, Ryan Howard, and now Hamels, would be the only big money commitments.
For a team that can spend more than others, having $100 million is still a burden if those players are not producing near their pay grade. A $25 million a year bad contract with Ryan Howard still leaves a big market team with more money to spend than most other teams in baseball, but not when it crosses more than half the team total.
I would have explored a trade. Yes, Hamels is the best asset for the team. The decision was take a short term fall back to trade Hamels and acquire prospects, or sign him long term. Maybe they couldn’t get enough, and they did pursue that. I would have rather not bought his best years remaining while I might have to rebuild from lack of prospects, only to see him become an expensive league average or slightly better pitcher when other money comes off the books.
Philadelphia doesn’t have to go through the long rebuilding cycles of other teams. They could have done a short one, though, trading Hamels, getting some pieces for the future, and letting some contracts come off after 2013, to become players in free agency in 2014.