Although teams claim players on waivers in August all the time, and, because word never leaks out, it doesn’t become a story, I don’t think the heavy attention that the Chicago Cubs’ claim of Phillies ace Cole Hamels was unreasonable. Sure, I think a lot of the discussion was ill-informed, being that a trade was always extraordinarily unlikely. But the process of discussing the situation was meritorious both as an object lesson in August waiver trades – how they happen, why they happen, why they don’t happen, and why waiver claims aren’t always a big deal – and as a guide for the near-term future of the Cubs.
Let’s call the Cubs/Hamels hype full of sound and fury and signifying … something.
The something, as we discussed, is the Cubs’ readiness and willingness to target and pursue top tier pitching, even if it comes at a high price (either in dollars or prospects). Not only is that reassuring with respect to the Cubs’ financial position (though, with so much money coming off the books, and revenue increases slowly coming online, we expected some spending soon), but also with respect to the Cubs’ internal belief about where they are in the rebuild. You don’t go adding 31-year-old ace-level pitchers unless you believe it’s time to go. I see it, too, for the Cubs in 2015/16/17, and I’m glad their actions are starting to align with that belief.
But, that’s all academic. Because the reality of this process is that Cole Hamels is not actually coming to the Cubs right now. With the two-day period in which to complete a trade coming to a close later today, we can safely say no deal is forthcoming. Buster Olney says it. Patrick Mooney says it. Gordon Wittenmyer says it. And, for whatever it’s worth, I’ve said it.
Wittenmyer’s piece adds, via a source, that the Phillies wanted one of the Cubs’ top young shortstops for Hamels, plus more. The shortstop in question is almost certainly Addison Russell (Javier Baez and Starlin Castro are on the 40-man roster, and thus subject to the waiver process in August if you want to trade them), a top five prospect in baseball.
Acquiring Hamels, even on a contract that will pay him $96 million over the next four years (or $110 to $114 million (because of varying options) over the next five years), has value. I am in complete agreement on that. For me, however, that value never reached the level of an Addison Russell. If the Phillies ate a bunch of the deal? Sure, then maybe. But they’ve shown no inclination to do so (which I totally understand).
I don’t think asking for Russell in a deal for Hamels is unreasonable, but I do think it would be a mistake for the Cubs to pull that trigger.
Even if you consider Russell solely as an asset – imagining that he never plays a game for the Cubs – the monetary value of his projected future performance is enormous, and in the range of tens and tens of millions of dollars. Some projections have prospects less elite than Russell worth as much as $30 to $40 million. Hamels, on the other hand, by reasonable calculations, would offer no surplus value on his current contract after this season.
That means, in order to justify trading Russell (and more!) for Hamels, the Cubs would have to believe that the value of merely having Hamels under contract (and not risking the free agent market to try, and maybe fail, to sign someone like Jon Lester or Max Scherzer (for more total money)) is on the order of tens and tens of millions of dollars. In other words, it’s like saying “winning” a free agent bidding war, itself, is worth $30 to $40 million. Is “getting the guy” at market rate really worth that much? Well, here’s the pretty easy way to know that it isn’t: you could just tack $20 million on to your offer and win the bidding war.
So, that’s a convoluted way of saying – just for example – that Russell plus Lester at $130 million over six years (when the next highest bidder was only at $110 million over five) is worth more than Hamels, alone, at $110 to $114 million over five years. Instead of using Russell’s (too much) value to acquire a pitcher who’s making market rate, the Cubs would be better off paying a comparable free agent more than he’s worth and keeping Russell.