This is less of a rumor and more of one guy suggesting it as a possibility, but The Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo lists the Braves as possible suitors not only for Mike Moustakas, but also southpaw Cole Hamels. The first player has been discussed exhaustively starting with last offseason and continuing through the failed Jose Bautista experiment. But what about Hamels, a pitcher the Braves were all-too-happy to see get traded to the Rangers a few years ago (3.19 ERA over 37 games against the Braves). Does he make sense?
At his height, Hamels was – fairly quietly, I might add – one of the best pitchers in baseball. He had six four-win seasons before his first full year in Texas (2016). Hamels also hit the 200-inning mark seven times. Yet, he was always the forgotten guy on some good Phillies’ staffs. He never finished higher than 5th in the Cy Young ballot and only went to three All-Star games, but he was an elite-level pitcher.
Traded at the deadline in 2015, Hamels went to his fourth All-Star Game in his first season in Texas and finished with a 3.32 ERA/3.98 FIP, leading to a 3-win season. Yeah, it was his worst total since his rookie year but was all-in-all a productive campaign. And then, last year happened. He landed on the DL with an oblique strain, his first trip to the DL in three years, and finished with a career-worst strikeout rate. His ERA was the highest it had been in nearly a decade at 4.20. His fWAR total of 3.0 in his first year in Texas was cut in half.
The strikeout rate has returned in 2018 over ten starts, though his walk rate of 9.0% is close to a personal worst (though it’s certainly not that bad). He’s been vulnerable to home runs, but an 18.6% HR/FB rate is likely to regress considering his career average of 11.5%.
What is a bigger concern to me is that he’s being hit hard. At his best, Hamels used a fastball/cutter/changeup combo to induce a lot of a weak contact. Since coming to Texas, he’s also used his curveball more. But age has a funny way of taking away your effectiveness with your pitches. In 2015 with the Phillies, 4.9% of batted balls were classified as barrels (i.e. hit nearly perfectly in terms of quality of contact). The average exit velocity was 86.9 mph and the expected slugging was .362. That’s the guy Braves fans remember.
But this Hamels isn’t that guy. Again, age is a bad mistress. In 2018, 9.4% of batted balls have been graded as barrels. The major league average is about 6%. His exit velocity on average is 88.5 mph, a full mile-per-hour higher than the league norm. That may not seem like a lot, but even a half-a-mile-per-hour difference can be significant when you look at offensive production. The expected slugging, by the way, is .469. And more – this is just a continuation of the decline that we saw last season.
That’s not to say Hamels has no value whatsoever. But does he fill a role the Braves don’t already have? Well, if you are looking for a fourth starter with postseason success, Hamels does have that. In 16 starts in the playoffs, he has nearly a K an inning with a 3.48 ERA. He is also the proud owner of an NLCS and World Series MVP. However, that was a decade ago. Still, the current Braves starting staff has 3.2 innings combined of postseason experience. Perhaps you’d want to change that.
But on the other hand, does Hamels make the Braves a better bet to make the playoffs? After all, does postseason experience matter if you don’t get there? Consider that a current starter would lose time to him. Can you honestly say you’d rather have Hamels than Sean Newcomb, Mike Foltynewicz, or Mike Soroka? No. Nobody can say that right now. Would you rather have him over Julio Teheran? Perhaps. Same with Brandon McCarthy. Neither veteran is really blasting the competition – their combined 0.4 fWAR lags behind both Newcomb and Foltynewicz and is tied with Soroka. Also, Hamels should get a boost from a move to the NL East.
But Teheran and McCarthy are already Braves and won’t cost prospects to give up. That’s the other thing – cost. What would it actually cost the Braves? The good news is probably not a lot outside of financial considerations. At $22.5 million, Hamels is far too expensive for the production he has provided over his last 34 starts since the beginning of 2017. That will drive down the Rangers’ asking price. As will the $6M buyout for 2019. Hamels has a club option for 2019 of $19M that will certainly be declined. He also has a limited no-trade clause, but the Hamels has often included the Braves as a team he would be willing to be traded to without needing his permission.
In terms of cost to surrender, the expectation is that the Rangers won’t get much of a haul for Hamels for all the reasons I’ve already stated. Perhaps the Braves could have him for a couple of project prospects – Corbin Clouse and Huascar Ynoa, for instance. The Braves could sweeten the pot for financial help, though Alex Anthopoulos has publicly said the Braves will have payroll freedom as long as they remain competitive. Of course, once again, to facilitate any kind of trade, the Braves would also presumably have to move a veteran starter who won’t fetch much in a deal. Or, if the Braves are concerned about Soroka, maybe that push to make another trade won’t be that big of a deal.
I asked “does Hamels make sense” earlier. A number of words and sentences later and I remain convinced that he really doesn’t. Sure, I imagine Anthopoulos would love a starter with postseason experience, but you have to get there first. Does Hamels make the Braves immediately a better ballclub? That answer is no sure thing, though I do lean toward yes. But does he bring much of an impact? On that, I believe no. The Braves would be taking on a veteran who turns 35 two days after Christmas, has been less durable of late, and definitely less effective. They’d be hoping for a miracle turnaround.
They’d be hoping, basically, for Jose Bautista Round 2.
But Bautista cost a million and nothing else. While Hamels is better right now than Bautista was, he’s just not good enough to make the kind of impact Atlanta could use. Hamels is the guy you acquire when you need a fourth starter, not the one you grab to help lead a young staff. Maybe Nick Cafardo can see the Braves showing interest. Me? It seems like the kind of move a worse GM than Anthopoulos would make.