The list of teams with the need and resources -- emphasis on resources -- to trade for Cole Hamels likely shrunk when the San Diego Padres signed James Shields. Not that the Padres don't still have the trade chips to pull off a Hamels swap, because their wild winter has not come at the expense of their most highly regarded prospects. But considering that Shields already put them well beyond their anticipated budget, it's difficult to imagine the Padres parting with a package centered around, say, Andrew Cashner, and having to take on Hamels' significant salary.
One wonders, then, if the Phillies have been painted into a bit of a corner.
The Phillies know that Hamels is their biggest trade asset, and they know keeping him -- at age 31 and with at least $100 million remaining on his contract -- is viewed as an unattractive luxury for a club taking a necessary competitive step back in 2015. Again, though, how many clubs are in a position where they can justify the monetary and young-talent investment it would take to add Hamels to their rotation?
The Red Sox, for sure. Maybe the Rangers, Cardinals or Dodgers.
That's probably it.
All of which is to say the Phils have probably let things linger too long to get adequate value back for Hamels between now and the end of Spring Training.
If anything, the best window to move Hamels might have been last summer, when Hamels was in the midst of a resurgent and possibly career-best season and desperation set in among contending clubs. Once the offseason arrived, Max Scherzer, Jon Lester and Shields were probably viewed as cheaper commodities, in a sense, because their acquisitions required only money (granted, in Scherzer's case, it's a great deal of deferred money) and not prospects.
This is all speculation. But with the Dodgers reluctant to get into any long-term entanglements, the Rangers somewhat pigeonholed by past investments in the likes of Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo and the soon-to-rise price tag of Yu Darvish, and the Cardinals' past policy of conservative spending all known, the Red Sox still appear to be the most likely landing spot for Hamels -- but only if they're willing to go past the luxury-tax threshold for at least one year.
Perhaps general manager Ben Cherington and Co. have been wise to be patient in regard to Hamels, because one can envision a scenario in which an atrophying of the top-tier pitching market makes the price tag more palatable between now and Opening Day.
In other words, if the Phillies' realistic list of trade partners for Hamels has indeed been whittled down to one club, that does not put them in a strong bargaining position by any means. Nobody's ruling out a blockbuster spring swap, but such trades are rare for a reason. To that point, the Red Sox might make it through camp having maintained their current belief that they're good with the groundball-oriented staff they've assembled.
So at this point, it appears most likely that the Phils will go into the season with Hamels, which is itself a risky course, of course. Show me a 31-year-old with 1,800 big league innings under his belt and I'll show you a guy at risk of injury or regression that would hurt his trade value.
But even if Hamels does maintain his elite 2014 performance, the midseason market could still bear more affordable fruit for clubs in search of starting help.
Maybe the Reds get buried in a deep National League Central and offer up two or three months' worth of Johnny Cueto for trade. Maybe the White Sox's anticipated big season goes awry and Jeff Samardzija is dealt for the third time in 12 months. Maybe the Nats deal from their rotation depth to augment another part of their roster, and pending free agents Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister are there for the taking. And who knows what other unforeseen seasons arise? A year ago, Jason Hammel was an under-the-radar signing who became a worthwhile trade chip for the Cubs.
Some will take issue with some of the names above, simply because they're on teams that currently identify themselves as contenders. But to predict who will be moved and under what conditions is impossible. At last year's July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, three teams viewed as legitimate World Series contenders -- the A's, Tigers and Cardinals -- traded away their starting left fielder, center fielder and right fielder, respectively.
Weird things happen.
The Phillies can't plan or prepare for those weird things, unfortunately. Heck, by the time July 31 comes around, Cliff Lee might have established himself as a more attractive trade target to contenders than Hamels, given that he's only under wraps through 2016 rather than 2018 as Hamels is. When it comes to pitchers north of 30, the shorter the investment, the better.
The thing is, if Hamels were on the open market this winter as a free agent, he probably could have commanded even more than the four years and $100 million left on his current deal (five years, $114 million if his 2019 option year is exercised, which it would likely have to be for him to waive his no-trade clause to go to the Red Sox, in particular). But the Phils needed a team to both take on the money and give up the game's greatest currency -- young talent -- and that's a tough sell.
As it stands, the Phillies still have every motivation to move their ace. But the truth is that they might have missed the opportunity to sell high.