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The Phillies shouldn't settle for a rational Cole Hamels trade

There's more going on here than a lousy team rebuilding. There's the simple joy of watching a good player (and paying to do so).

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

There is nothing sadder than star-for-prospects trades that don't work out. Think about Marlins fans watching Burke Badenhop for years, silently grousing that he (and Ryan Webb) were all that was left from the Miguel Cabrera trade. Think about how sad those Cleveland Indians Cy Young lists would look if it weren't for Michael Brantley. The recent franchise legacy would be Matt LaPortas, all the way down.

It's a tricky business, this trading stars-for-prospects. The prospects probably aren't going to work out. How many of the top 200 prospects in baseball will be more valuable than Cole Hamels over the next five years? It depends on what Hamels does, of course, but I'll guess 10. Maybe 20? Even if you assume that 40 of the top 200 prospects will outpace Hamels over the next five years, you're still batting .200. Good luck on those odds, Neifi.

On the other hand, it's not like the Phillies shouldn't want to get younger. Trading Hamels right now makes a great deal of sense. If they hit on a prospect or two -- or if they stumble into the rare Bartolo-for-Grady, Cliff and Brandon trade -- it could totally reshape the franchise for decades, while freeing up money to spend on the hottest free agent in Tomorrowland.

It's time to explore a Hamels trade again, but because I've spent the last hour thinking about the Phillies, I'm in a weird place. So this is about the potential downside of every possible scenario.

The potential downside of trading Hamels for prospects

This assumes that Hamels has another couple years of doing Hamels things, loosely defined as helping his team win more baseball games than most players. This also assumes that the prospects bust. The Phillies fans will watch their homegrown hero lead the, I don't know, Boston Red Sox to the ALCS. At the same time, Dander Santillo is struggling in Triple-A and Moz Rappel is out for the year because of Tommy John. They make Phillies fans yearn for Tyson Gillies and Phillippe Aumont.

There are so, so many ways for good GMs to screw this part up. What chances are you giving Ruben Amaro, Jr.?

This scenario isn't just a downer in an on-field context. It's a crusher in the arena of public relations. Baseball games are expensive. Baseball games are long. It doesn't take much to reach a screw-this tipping point for fans, and I'd suspect some of the more casual Phillies fans reached it a while ago. But if you want to set the cement and really keep people away, trade away the familiar, good players and get absolutely nothing in return. Nothing stinks more of incompetence.

The Twins turned Johan Santana into Carlos Gomez into J.J. Hardy into Jim Hoey within three years. I don't know if that trade chain is responsible for a single empty seat at Target Field, but it certainly adds to the general malaise surrounding a team that's lost 90-plus games for four straight seasons. Attendance is down a cool million since Target Field opened. There are so, so many ways for good GMs to screw this part up. What chances are you giving Ruben Amaro, Jr.?

The downside of keeping Hamels

There are two subsections here. The first is the downside of keeping Hamels around, only to find out that he's a left-handed Tim Lincecum now. Or maybe he's just hurt. The downside here is that the Phillies don't get their grubby paws on excellent, young players who would have been the cornerstones of the next good Phillies team.

That would be a drag, no question. But compare the PR fallout from that one to the busted prospects from the first scenario. The odds would be extremely low that we would know the exact prospect packages offered to the Phillies. If the Twins had kept Santana (and they missed the playoffs the next season by a Santana-sized margin, by the way), it wasn't likely that everyone was going to find out the Dodgers were willing to trade Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw once Santana couldn't pitch anymore. It's unlikely that we'll get to point and laugh at specific superstars who could have been on the Phillies because of a busted Hamels.

The second subsection is the downside of keeping Hamels around and he's the same pitcher for much of the contract. He goes out, pitches well, and the Phillies screw up around him, just like last year. It's Groundhog Day for three, four or five years. The Phillies never go anywhere, and Hamels' largely excellent pitching would be wasted, mostly.

Except, hold on a second. When I was a kid, I remember looking through the sports section at the league leaders and feeling a sense of 5-year-old pride when Jack Clark was in the top 10 for batting average. I remember cheering for Bob Brenly and Chili Davis when the All-Star Game came to Hoth. And I was a grown man when Barry Bonds was the cleanup hitter for a team that would have been improved if they put seven sleeping mules in the lineup around him. Those were some lousy teams. All of those players made baseball more fun.

Now, Hamels isn't Bonds. But he is rather good at baseball. A fifth of the time, regardless of what happens to the Phillies, they'll have a pitcher doing good things roughly 20 percent of the time. They'll be swallowing baseballs and falling through open manhole covers around him, but the Phillies will have one player worth watching, one player worth following with pride, one player who reminds everyone of the good days and makes the Phillies watchable, even if just occasionally.

Again, that's the downside in this particular scenario.

Jeff Sullivan evaluated a Cole Hamels trade using $m/WAR and Surplus Value. This is because Sullivan is a greasy dork. But also because it's the pragmatic thing to do. Look to see what Hamels should be worth, look at what the cheap potential of a prospect is worth, and compare the two. His conclusion:

So there’s an argument for Eduardo Rodriguez for Hamels, straight-up. If the Phillies want some quantity on top of that, they can take some lower-level, toolsy sorts. With Rodriguez in there, though, the Phillies can’t get too greedy because Rodriguez might be more than enough on his own.

A good portion of Phillies Twitter is irate at this suggestion. Why? He showed his work, you know. It makes sense.

Because unless Rodriguez becomes Cole Hamels or something close to it, the real Hamels will be a lot more fun to watch over the next couple years, even if the Phillies are dreadful. That's why the Phillies are holding out for a huge deal. That's why they should hold out. That, and the pesky supply-and-demand that will drive the trade market once Jon Lester and Max Scherzer sign. There might be a second-place finisher for those two pitchers who will offer a lot more than just a single prospect ...

And if not? The Phillies get to keep an excellent pitcher. The fans get to watch him. That's not a bad safety net. While whatever the Phillies decide will go horribly wrong and set the franchise back six seasons, at least we know that there's a rational reason for the Phillies to wait around for an irrational team.