Cole Hamels is still a member of the Philadelphia Phillies, although the situation becomes more untenable almost by the day. The Boston Red Sox remain the most-discussed potential trade partner in the market, but with GM Ben Cherington unwilling to relinquish either of Mookie Betts and Blake Swihart, those negotiations appear stalled. So naturally, alternative rumors have bubbled up. The most interesting of those rumors have involved the St. Louis Cardinals, who make all the sense in the world as a Hamels destination. There’s just one problem: Phillies GM Ruben Amaro has, thus far, refused to entertain a trade proposal from the Cardinals that didn’t include Carlos Martinez. And the Cardinals refuse to even consider moving Martinez.
Alex Crisafulli wrote a good piece here Monday morning outlining the argument for that stance. This is a counterpoint to that piece. For my money, the Cardinals would be fools to let Martinez stand between them and Cole Hamels. Here’s why:
1. The Astronomical Odds of Martinez Becoming Hamels
Like Mike Mussina, David Cone and other thin, cerebral pitchers before him, Hamels is chronically underrated. He has four top-10 finished in Cy Young voting, and that’s almost certainly too few. He just had his best or second-best season, at age 30, and that’s saying something, because he’s been worth at least 4.1 WAR (per Baseball-Reference) in seven of his eight full seasons. (If you prefer FanGraphs for your pitcher valuations, they have him between 3.5 and 4.6 WAR in all eight seasons.) He strikes out four times as many batters as he walks. He’s dominated in the Postseason. He’s maintained excellent numbers even as the team (and especially the defense) around him has deteriorated badly over the last few years. No pitcher is a Hall of Famer until he is one, but Hamels is on a Hall of Fame track.
Could Carlos Martinez blossom into something akin to Cole Hamels? Sure. There’s time, yet. Martinez has electricity in his arm Hamels can’t match, could never match, can scarcely even imagine. He has what NFL scouts call ‘arm talent.’ It’s not just about velocity; Martinez has very natural movement on his fastball and an easy feel for multiple secondary pitches. He delivers them all with a relatively loose delivery, even if the effort there is always in evidence. One watches Martinez pitch, and words like ‘ceiling’ and ‘nasty’ and ‘unhittable’ just roll off the tongue.
Here’s the problem: Martinez isn’t Hamels, and by his age, Hamels was. There’s zero reason to think Martinez is going to develop durability and stick as a starting pitcher. He’s never averaged even five innings pitched per start, at any level. Call that careful handling of a young hurler who throws hard; it certainly is that. That’s laudable, and should help keep Martinez healthy (or as healthy as anyone can expect to be) going forward. Still, it’s an issue. Martinez hasn’t eaten innings before, isn’t ready to eat innings now, and won’t be ready to eat innings for two or three more years, given his baseline workload over the last few years, along with his youth and his unimposing frame.
There’s also the fact that, as good as Martinez has been, he really hasn’t been very good. In two seasons of big-league work, mostly spent in the bullpen, he has an ERA of 4.28 and a walk rate of 8.8 percent. Yes, he strikes people out, and no, he doesn’t allow home runs, but until he adds pitch efficiency and command to that pair of skills, he’s nothing more than an above-average one-inning reliever. There’s a hard cap on the value of that kind of pitcher, and it’s not a high ceiling. Again, the scouting report and the eye test say he’ll improve, that he’ll figure it out soon enough. But a lot of scouting reports and eye tests say that. Juan Cruz is probably Martinez’s median projection. I was a young Cubs fan during Juan Cruz’s early days. Juan Cruz was electrifying. He was awesome. I enjoyed watching him more than any other Cubs pitcher in 2001 and 2002. Juan Cruz was worth 5.1 WAR in 12 big-league seasons, and was never worth even 2.0 WAR in a single campaign. TINSTAAPP.
2. Service Time and Contractual Questions
Hamels, as most people well know by now, is under contract for four more years, and is guaranteed $96 million. Because $6 million of that is the potential buyout on a club option for 2019, it’s also possible for whatever club controls him to get that fifth season and extend the total guarantee to $110 million. That’s an outrageous bargain, is what it is, in a market that saw Jon Lester get six years (and an option for a seventh) at the same annual average value. (Hamels is better than Lester, has a more consistent track record and is almost exactly the same age.) It’s the contract everyone wishes they could sign a Lester, a David Price or a Zack Greinke to, but that no one could ever get a pitcher this good to sign on the open market.
Martinez is, of course, a long way from making Hamels money. He does, however, have a bit over one year of big-league service time to his name, meaning that he’s two years from arbitration and five years from free agency. In essence, trading Martinez for Hamels would cost the Cardinals zero years of club control, and the monetary cost would be the difference between that $110 million (or $96 million, if giving away Hamels’s 2019) and whatever Martinez will make between now and free agency. If Martinez is any good, that number is going to be somewhere between $20 million and $35 million.
I haven’t said so explicitly until now, but, of course, the Cardinals would have to surrender more than just Martinez in order to get Hamels. However, I really can’t see a scenario where the value of those prospects tilts the scales. While it wouldn’t be mere throw-ins, and would dent a pretty strong farm system somewhat, I have a hard time imagining the combined value of Martinez (for five seasons, at $25 million) and a prospect or two (of uncertain cost, uncertain value) exceeding that of Hamels on a deal that pays a fair market rate (maybe even a bit less) on a friendlier term than can be gotten elsewhere. That’s to say nothing of whatever salary Amaro might be willing and able to eat to get the deal done.
Look, the Cardinals’ dominance of the NL Central is coming to an end. I’m a Cubs fan at heart, so no one need necessarily believe me here, but it’s hard to imagine a team being much better positioned for a prosperous future than the Cubs are, in the current competitive landscape. Chicago has not only the best farm system in baseball—indeed, by multiple accounts, an almost historically good farm system—but a young Major League team with at least two All-Star position players just entering their prime. The Cubs can outspend the Cardinals, and they’re only going to slowly gain payroll flexibility over the next several seasons.
The Pittsburgh Pirates are also younger than the Cardinals, and they also have a stronger farm system than the Cardinals. They have the makings of an outfield as good as the game has seen since the Indians teams of the mid-1990s. They’re disadvantaged, in terms of resources, but their two-year playoff run has brought back a vibrant and sizable fan base, and their home park is a cash cow. They’re not going anywhere.
The Cardinals have done a great job. Over the last half-decade, they’ve said goodbye to Albert Pujols, resisted pulling some free-agent triggers they would have regretted, gone into seasons with questions unanswered and answered them brilliantly. They may only have won three of the last six NL Central titles, but they’ve been to the playoffs five times in that span, been to the World Series twice, won it once. They did it with that exceptional patience, relentless long-term planning, and a draft-and-develop record non pareil. They might be able to sustain all three of those things well into the future.
However, two other things also aided them in the building of their miniature dynasty, and these two things shouldn’t be counted upon to happen again. Those two things are the development of a very good core group, guys who could (it’s not likely, but it’s possible) end up in Cooperstown, in Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday and Adam Wainwright; and a lot of very good fortune. Molina is 32, and was scarcely average at the plate in 2014, after three years of being the best offensive catcher in the league. Holliday is 35, and had his lowest OPS+ since 2005 last season. Wainwright is 33, and rumors of an elbow problem followed him throughout an uneven October showing in 2014. Including the playoffs, he’s faced just under 3,000 batters in the three seasons since he was shelved by Tommy John surgery.
It’s not as simple as saying that the window is closing. The team has some younger players who are also nearly elite at their positions, like Matt Carpenter (though, a late bloomer, even he is already 29), and newly-acquired Jason Heyward (though he’s a free agent after 2015, so even if the Cardinals retain him, the surplus value is about to be diminished by an enormous contract). Their farm system is, as I mentioned, more asset than liability, and they’re deep at both the Major and the minor-league level. If Hamels were a short-term addition, it wouldn’t be worth trading Martinez for him, just to make one last run. This isn’t that kind of situation; the Cardinals aren’t that kind of organization.
Since Hamels is no less a long-term asset than Martinez, though, and since he has much, much greater short-term value—value the team can capture this season and next, while they still rule the divisional roost—St. Louis GM John Mozeliak should cough up Martinez, already, throw in the necessary freight, and go win another pennant.Next post: Season Preview Series, Part 9: White Socks out of the Bocks
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