Over the last 10-14 days, we've witnessed a noticeable uptick in the amount of smoke around the Cole Hamels/Zack Greinke trade bonfires, and it's unlikely that either will be extinguished in the immediate future, as the non-waiver trade deadline still looms 20-something days out, and neither trade candidate has seen their market fully develop as of yet. Both aces have been scouted heavily by intrigued contenders, and both the Brewers and the Phillies have assuredly dispatched their own scouts to collect first-hand impressions of the farm talent of said contenders, but the historical record would lead you to believe that if Hamels or Greinke (or both) are dealt, that the deal(s) won't be consummated for at least another 10-14 days.
According to some of the rumblings emanating from the national rumor mill, though, the Rangers are more interested in swinging a deal for Hamels than they are in ardently pursuing Greinke, so let's narrow our focus down to Hamels for the moment. The synopsis on Hamels is that he's 28, he's left-handed, he's a legitimate top-of-the-rotation talent with low walk rates and the ability to induce lots of strikeouts (his career numbers are embedded below), and he has an extensive (and successful) post-season record, which may very well be the sort of attribute that particularly draws the Rangers towards him as they prepare to embark upon another push for a world championship:
And, of course, Hamels is pitching for a non-contender that completely imploded during the couple of weeks leading up to the All-Star break, as the Phillies are 14 games out of first place in the NL East and 10 games removed from the second wild-card spot in the National League; Baseball Prospectus's post-season odds report, in fact, has the Phillies' playoff chances completely zeroed out, and while that doesn't necessarily preclude a miraculous 2005 Astros-esque comeback in the standings, the overwhelming likelihood is that the Phillies are done for this year, and that they will, at the very least, be forced to undertake a transitional rebuilding project over the next 5-6 months.
Now, there is talk of the Phillies pushing to re-sign Hamels to a long-term extension, but, clearly, they haven't pushed hard enough to this point, and despite there being mutual interest in a long-term marriage, the reality is that this is a team with mountainous post-2012 obligations -- a team with a $170-plus million payroll this season that still owes hundreds of millions of dollars to Ryan Howard and Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay and Jonathan Papelbon and Jimmy Rollins, that has to make tough decisions on Chase Utley and Hunter Pence in the next 18 months, and so on. If they can't retain Hamels (and they probably can't), he's going to be traded, and the Rangers, by most accounts, are going to be one of the teams heavily motivated to make him their own for the stretch run.
With all of that fully in mind, though, there are some very good reasons as far as why the Rangers can't/won't squeeze the trigger and load up the wagon for Hamels ... and, at the end of the day, this may end up being a case where the negatives to such a prospective acquisition outweigh the positives:
(1) There's no more money. This is kind of a murky factor to work through, as nobody outside of those privileged few within the innermost circles of upper management know exactly how much money the Rangers have available to spend during this trade deadline season. There were reports a few months ago of the Rangers already being over budget this season to the tune of $3-4 million, of them needing to draw three million fans through the Ballpark turnstiles just to break even fiscally this year, and that was before the Rangers made their move on Roy Oswalt to the tune of a $5-6 million guaranteed commitment. I don't think there's much question as to whether Texas is over budget now; the big question is, can Texas go any further over budget?
I'm sort of disinclined to believe that the money men (Bob Simpson and Ray Davis) who function as the financial backbone of this ownership group would allow the prorated amount of Hamels' $15 million salary for 2012 to be a deal-breaker; in other words, I doubt that if Jon Daniels and Nolan Ryan and company made a strong fact-based presentation to Simpson/Davis and thoroughly sold them both on the idea of going out and getting Hamels, that they would shrug their shoulders and "yeah, that's great, but there's just no more money to do it." I could be wrong, but I doubt it ... although, clearly, there comes a point where you have to draw the line in the sand and shut it down. We just don't know how close they already are to that point of no return.
(2) The marginal upgrade in talent/wins doesn't justify the cost. This, for many people, is far and away the No. 1 reason why you don't seriously gun for Hamels -- if you acquired him tomorrow, where would you slot him? He's not replacing Yu Darvish or Colby Lewis or Matt Harrison on a merit basis, he's probably not going to replace Oswalt (who I assume was signed with the mutual understanding that he wouldn't have to work out of the bullpen, given his stated disdain for such a role; I wouldn't count on Nolan Ryan "stabbing him in the back" on that count after their long-running relationship), and if he replaced Derek Holland, he would be replacing the guy that the Rangers made a long-term commitment to just a few months ago -- probably for just a few months, sure, but I think you can see how that could easily be construed in a negative light among certain circles.
If you squint your eyes a bit and tilt your head slightly askew, you can see how Hamels would constitute a 1- to 1½-win upgrade over Holland in the rotation down the stretch, and, clearly, you're undercutting your post-season rotation variance by taking Holland out of the mix and replacing him with Hamels, which is a good thing -- but to what degree are you really enhancing your World Series chances? If you peg the Rangers' odds of winning the title at, say, 20 percent (I'm pulling this number out of thin air, just so you know), and adding Hamels takes you from 20 to 21-22 percent, and doing so costs you a couple of Tier 2 prospects and a few other lower-level goodies, does that really and truly represent a reasonable exchange of future value for present value?
This is a very complicated issue to work through, and I have only barely scratched the surface of this matter over these last couple of paragraphs. Right now, I'm more interested in planting a few different seeds for thought and giving them time to germinate. It should be mentioned, however, that the Phillies have set a high bar for returning value in any Hamels deal, in that they reportedly want four to five prospects with a few A-grade players in that mix -- and while they certainly won't get that, they will certainly at least require more value than what they would obtain via the draft-pick compensation process, which, absent a trade, would net them a pair of selections in next year's Rule 4 draft if they went ahead and permitted Hamels to walk in free agency.
(3) It's tougher to reload the farm in 2012 than it is in 2011. I'm certain that a few different people have touched upon this matter already, but I think it demands further attention, because it may be the single biggest prohibiting factor that diverts the Rangers' gaze from Hamels and towards other, less ambitious trade targets.
With MLB's injection of artificial equilibrium into the amateur talent markets (and, in particular, the international free agent scene), the Rangers no longer have the option of reloading the farm through sheer monetary force alone by, say, going vastly over slot in the draft on multiple players who have fallen on account of their bonus demands, or by moneywhipping whomever they'd like in Latin America; in fact, it's going to be markedly tougher to replenish the minors through that latter method now, with the pools of available money for teams to spend on international free agents being dictated by their winning percentage during the previous season beginning in 2013 -- a sliding scale, if you will. That's problematic for front-line contending teams like the Rangers.
Now, with all of that in mind, the clear-cut, no-doubt competitive advantages in that realm are now amateur scouting and player development, and I believe that most of us feel relatively okay about where the Rangers are in those particular respects -- but this still mires the Rangers in a tricky place insofar as reloading the farm is concerned, and with the new CBA prohibiting the acquisition of any compensatory draft picks by the Rangers if they should acquire Hamels and then permit him to walk after the season, you have to think that the Rangers are more reluctant now than they were in years past to move quality young players for veteran, non-controllable mercenaries who will hit the pavement as soon as their season reaches its ultimate conclusion. Winning it all is important, but so is building a sustainable contender that can keep earning title shots.
Between all three of those factors and their various sidepoints, you end up leaning towards the belief that, for Texas, this is going to be a deadline season that more closely resembles what the Rangers did last year (or even what they did in 2009, which was nothing) than what they did with the blockbuster Cliff Lee deal in 2010 -- a month where they possibly add a complementary piece (e.g. a bench bat) on the positional side and little else, given that almost all of the pieces of the roster puzzle are locked into place, and given that this is the roster that you're either going to ride or die with. It's hard to see them ending up with Greinke or Hamels or another major name once the dust settles.
As a parting caveat to the last 1,600-plus words, though, I will again add these few qualifying remarks: it is entirely within the realm of possibility that the front office has some legitimate reason to believe that an age-32 Colby Lewis -- degenerative hip condition and all -- won't hold up down the stretch and deep into the post-season. Ditto Roy Oswalt, who is 34 years old and has a bad back. Or maybe the Rangers view Holland as an even bigger second-half question mark than some of his detractors do. Or, hell, maybe they just can't/won't genuinely believe that a post-season rotation comprising Darvish, Lewis, Harrison, and Oswalt can win it all in October. That seems unlikely, but it is possible.
And if there's any semblance of truth to that final round of conjecture, then, yeah, this is going to be a pretty exciting next couple of weeks for the Rangers' fan base. Not necessarily satisfying, not necessarily disheartening ... but definitely exciting.