Moshe Mandel contributed to this post.
At this point four years ago, the Yankees faced a difficult choice. They were among the few potential landing spots for Twins’ ace Johan Santana. The match seemed perfect. The Yankees desperately needed an ace. They had just re-added Andy Pettitte, but they still needed someone to slot in ahead of him and Mike Mussina. Santana was there for the taking — Minnesota had made it clear that he would not be with them to start the season. But the Yankees had other plans.
Why trade prospects and sign Santana to a big money contract, when they’d have to wait just one year for another left-handed ace to hit the free agent market? And so they spurned the Twins and waited for CC Sabathia. That was a risky move for sure, but a calculated one. There was no way that Sabathia was signing an extension before his free agency. The Indians had offered him one, but it wasn’t even close to the offers he’d get after the 2008 season. There was also no chance they’d trade him before the season, because they were just one game away from the World Series in 2007. And so the Yankees waited.
We can look at the current market similarly, but it’s not at all the same. Yes, there are a number of high-end pitchers scheduled to reach free agency following the 2011 season. If this were 2008, and the circumstances were similar to Sabathia’s, the Yankees might be justified in sitting it out this winter, sticking with their internal options, and waiting to nab a starter from the free agent market. But as we saw with John Danks’s extension, this is a different game. There might not be any top-end starters left for the Yanks once the 2011 season ends.
Matt Cain: The Giants have some good and expensive pitching, but chances are they’ll work to hold onto Cain. Recent reports indicate that they’ll try to get something done before spring training.
Zack Greinke: He has the best chance of anyone to reach free agency, but it’s not clear if the Yankees consider him an option in New York. Still, a pitcher with his track record at age 28 could be enticing.
Cole Hamels: The Phillies have spent tons of money building their roster. Why would they hold back when it comes to an ace-level left-hander?
That’s the extent of the high-end pitchers on the market — guys who could firmly step into the No. 2 spot, or even the No. 1 spot, for the Yanks. There are some other decent names on the list, such as Anibal Sanchez and Shaun Marcum, but it’s more difficult to see them atop the rotation. These three best fit as top of the rotation arms. Yet once free agency begins we might see only Greinke on the list of available pitchers.
If the Yankees do desire one of these pitchers, they might have to get creative. That would necessarily involve a trade, though it’s tough to envision any of the three pitchers becoming available in a trade — at least before July. But, since this is the time of year when crappy trade proposals run rampant, perhaps we can find something here. In fact, Moshe and I independently formulated the same framework for a deal that would bring Cole Hamels to New York. So, please indulge us for a moment.
Philadelphia gets: Gio Gonzalez, Austin Romine, another non-top-5 prospect from NYY
Oakland gets: Brett Gardner, Manny Banuelos
Yankees get: Cole Hamels
Our trade proposal sucks. But let’s examine it anyway.
Why it works for Philly: Instead of getting one more year of Hamels and then getting six to seven expensive years of free agency, they get four years of Gonzalez at arbitration prices. They also get a few prospects to help replenish their system. Romine in particular could entice them, because their starter, Carlos Ruiz, is 33 this season. The additional prospect helps replenish their system.
Why it works for Oakland: They get an absolute haul for Gonzalez. In fact, that might be the weakest part of this deal (other than the Phillies actually trading Hamels, of course). They get Gardner for three arbitration years and Banuelos for six. Perhaps the Yanks could sub out Betances here, but it still seems unlikely. I can’t imagine Oakland saying no to this.
Why it works for New York: They get a second ace lefty to complement Sabathia. In fact, Hamels is quite similar to Sabathia in terms of their pre-free agency numbers. Through 2008 Sabathia had a 3.66 ERA and 3.62 FIP, while Hamels has a career 3.39 ERA and 3.63 FIP. There are certain differences among them — Sabathia’s pre-free agency numbers came in a tougher offensive era, and he was in the majors longer — but all told they’re fairly even. With one more season along the lines of his 2010 or 2011 seasons, Hamels will be a perfect comp for Sabathia. They’ll both even hit free agency after their age-28 seasons.
Why Philly won’t do it: Philly might have a lot of money on the books, but there’s little stopping them from extending payroll further. They know the value of making the playoffs, having been there every year since 2007. It helps them sell out every game and will lead to a huge TV rights deal, if they don’t already have one. Additionally, after 2013 they have a lot of money coming off the books, so extending Hamels could cause complications in just one season, 2013. Plus, there’s plenty of allure in retaining a homegrown ace. They would probably rather just extend Hamels.
Why the Yanks won’t do it: They’d essentially be trading their No. 2 prospect, their starting left fielder, and a good catching prospect for one year of an ace. Of course, an extension would have to be part of this deal, but that just gives the Yankees the right to pay Hamels $23 million per season for the next six or seven years. There’s a legitimate chance that they don’t want to get bogged down in that kind of contract. There’s also the matter of Banuelos. Do the Yankees think that he can reach Hamels’s heights? That’s a pretty lofty ceiling, as his career numbers show. If they do think he can reach Hamels levels, how long will it take? Can they put together a rotation between now and then that will keep them in the postseason picture? There are tons of question to ask along with this. And that doesn’t even get into the hole in left field.
To reiterate, this will not happen. I’m certain that the Phillies will sign Hamels long-term. I’m also certain that Brian Cashman will not pay this type of premium for a pitcher just one year away from free agency. If anything, the players involved in this deal illustrate the value of developing pitchers internally. The Phillies have gotten several good to excellent years out of Hamels. If they can swing their final year of cost control for another young lefty, plus prospects, that’s a huge win. Even if Banuelos won’t reach Hamels’ production, even reaching 80 percent of it would probably make him more valuable as a pitcher to the Yankees.
It’s easy to become antsy at this point. The Yankees have some flaws in their rotation, and we’d prefer to see those addressed before the 2012 season begins. But given the asking prices of available pitchers, it just doesn’t seem likely. After all, would you give up all that even for Hamels?