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Cole Hamels was the answer to the quiz, and the Rangers were the only team to get an A

Sorry, other teams. Try harder next time.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Before every episode of South Park, there’s a disclaimer about celebrity voices being impersonated. Before the start of every SB Nation MLB newsletter — won’t you subscribe today? — there’s an introduction setting up exactly what the newsletter is. And before every article of mine from now on, I’m going to include the following:

Before you start reading the following article, please remember that the Texas Rangers traded for Cole Hamels when they were two games under .500 and seven games out of first place, then rallied to win the division. Then the next season, they got to have Hamels for the entire year.

It seems important to remember that before we talk about anything baseball related because it’s one of the more fascinating transactions of the last decade. The Rangers were ...

  • coming off a 95-loss season
  • under .500
  • devastated by injuries (again)

... and yet they still ditched a bounty of prospects and absorbed a fair chunk of salary to make their team better in the short term. That they won the AL West seems like more of a happy accident in retrospect. They were getting Hamels because they knew he would help in 2016. And they were very, very right.

It was a risky move. It is still a risky move. The Phillies have no regrets, after all. Jerad Eickhoff is a part of their future in a way that Hamels wasn’t likely to be, and while the other prospects in the deal have been a mixed bag, that’s to be expected. Eickhoff should be young, cheap, and outstanding for a while, and he would have helped the Rangers this year if Hamels weren’t around.

But Hamels is around, and he might win the Cy Young. He leads the AL in Baseball-Reference’s WAR and adjusted ERA (second in ERA-, if that’s your thing). The FIP and xFIP suggest that Hamels has been lucky, but if you ignore them, it sure looks like a typically fantastic Hamels season. So I’m ignoring them.

Your first job is to imagine what would have happened if the Rangers didn’t trade for Hamels. They would still have the $32.8 million left on Matt Harrison’s contract, but part of that would be insured, so it gets tricky. The difference between what’s left over with Harrison and the $73.5 million the Rangers owe Hamels would have been what they could have spent on the free agent market last winter. Let’s say it’s $90 million.

The Rangers could have had all those prospects back and Jeff Samardzija.

The Rangers could have had Jerad Eickhoff and Mike Leake.

The Rangers could have had Ian Kennedy and, I don’t know, Chris Young. It still doesn’t matter which one.

Or, perhaps more realistically, the Rangers could have spent $55 million more on Johnny Cueto. Unless they wanted a little more cost certainty and spent $125 million more on David Price. They would have kept those prospects. They would have been very, very expensive prospects in a roundabout way. And the Rangers wouldn’t have been better.

Because the Rangers are paying Cole Hamels something less than Ian Kennedy money, they can then take the savings and have themselves an international-signing blowout one of these years, replacing the prospects they lost in the trade, and still have several millions left over.

Your second job is to think of all the teams that would have been much better off doing the same kind of trade. The Giants wouldn’t have been able to sign Samardzija, which might be a feature, not a bug, and they wouldn’t have needed to get rid of Matt Duffy in a move of calculated desperation this deadline.

The Dodgers, oh, boy, the Dodgers. They wouldn’t have had to mess around with 127 different injury risks. They would have had Hamels for last year’s postseason, and they would have had him for this entire season. The cost to acquire him probably wouldn’t have been that much greater than what they gave up for a couple months of Rich Hill and Josh Reddick. We might be talking about them being favorites to repeat as World Champions, really.

The Red Sox would have saved nearly $150 millions on David Price ... unless they splurged on both, which would have allowed them to keep Anderson Espinoza. What a rotation of doom that would have been, supported by the lineup of radioactive doom assuming Boston could have talked Ruben Amaro down from his Mookie Betts desires.

I don’t know if Hamels would have been enough to save the Cubs in the postseason last year. Probably not, considering they were swept in the NLCS. But he couldn’t have hurt, and he would have strengthened an already ridiculously strong rotation this year.

The Blue Jays would have had their Price-like ace from last year, except they would have gotten to keep him this year.

It’s tempting to do this with about 20 more teams, but you probably get the point. This is all complicated by Hamels' 10-and-5 rights, which he exercised to ruin the Astros' plans. So maybe this isn't about blaming your favorite team, but rather about praising the Rangers' vision. With the power of hindsight, even with a relatively deep market for starting pitchers last offseason, the correct answer was always Hamels. Especially considering how much money the Phillies were willing to absorb to pay for better prospects.

That, all of that, is why it’s extra-double-secret amazing that the team that figured this all out was an under-.500 team that hadn’t contended for two years. They saw through the smoke, and they correctly identified exactly what they would need when Yu Darvish returned from injury.

There’s probably a lesson in all this. It’s easy to assume that teams should use free agency instead of dealing their prospects because it’s only money, after all.

Except when there’s a chance to get an ace on a 3rd-starter contract, that might be the best choice of all, even if it costs a bushel of highly regarded prospects. Because, well, see ...

Something like that. If the search for starting pitchers is a test for every franchise, the Rangers got the highest marks for creativity over the last year. The Hamels trade made a certain amount of abstract sense for them at the time.

In retrospect? It was the best move they could have made. What an unlikely path to AL West dominance. Take a few moments to appreciate it more than you already have.