FORT MYERS, Fla. — There are two ways to obtain an ace pitcher. You can trade top-tier talent or spend a ton of money. The Philadelphia Phillies unreasonably want the Red Sox to do both.
If the Phillies start Cole Hamels on Opening Day against the Red Sox, it will have been a failed offseason for general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. Rebuilding is not a job that can be done halfway. Once Amaro traded Jimmy Rollins and Marlon Byrd, there’s little choice but to finish the job by dealing Cole Hamels, Ryan Howard, Cliff Lee, and Jonathan Papelbon. The longer he waits, the harder that will become.
Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington knows this and can afford to sit quietly and wait for Amaro to come to him. Because even the second-best deal he can get for Hamels from the Red Sox is likely better than he can get elsewhere.
The Red Sox understand they would have to pay all, or nearly all, of the $90 million remaining on Hamels’ contract. They may even have to pick up the $20 million team option for 2019. Hamels has the Red Sox on his no-trade list for just this purpose.
Investing $110 million in Hamels is not a bad idea. The lefthander is a few days older than Jon Lester and has strikingly similar statistics. It’s almost uncanny, actually. Lester has a 121 ERA+ over nine seasons and 253 games while Hamels has a 125 ERA+ over nine seasons and 275 games.
Lester has thrown 84 innings in the postseason and has a 2.57 ERA. Hamels has thrown 81 2/3 innings in the postseason and has a 3.09 ERA.
The Red Sox were willing to give Lester six years and $135 million. Hamels at five years and $110 million is fair.
For the Phillies, a big part of the trade value will be not having to pay Hamels $22.5 million a year to help them stink a little less. But Amaro also wants Mookie Betts or Blake Swihart, and that’s too much given the vast payroll savings.
Betts may be the best player on the Red Sox roster right now and Swihart is a 22-year-old switch-hitting catcher who could be in the lineup for a decade. Cherington is right to hold onto them.
Amaro needs to get a return than won’t get him further pilloried in Philadelphia or fired. So here’s a formula that could work:
It starts with lefthander Henry Owens. Then pick two from this group: righthander Matt Barnes, third baseman Garin Cecchini, third baseman Rafael Devers, righthander Joe Kelly, and lefthander Brian Johnson.
If needed, add one more player from the low minors. Or center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. if the Phillies want him.
The Phillies get three or four players; the Red Sox get Hamels and get to keep Betts, Swihart, and lefty Eduardo Rodriguez. Everybody is happy.
Sure, losing Owens would hurt. But the Red Sox have to absorb some pain in this deal. The Phillies aren’t taking Allen Craig and assorted spare parts for their ace. Owens is a major prospect, one of the best in the game. Amaro could sell Owens to the Philly media and fan base as being a future Hamels. Plus he gets some other high-profile prospects and continues the needed process of rebuilding.
If Amaro won’t budge off Betts or Swihart, Cherington should coolly walk away and wait. The Red Sox have five respectable starters and a solid group in Triple A. They also could swing a deal during the season. It’s not like they are desperate.
Here are the projected Opening Day rotations for the other AL East teams:
Blue Jays: R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Marcus Stroman, Drew Hutchison, Marco Estrada.
Orioles: Chris Tillman, Bud Norris, Miguel Gonzalez, Kevin Gausman, Wei-Yin Chen.
Rays: Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Drew Smyly, Nate Karns.
Yankees: CC Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, Nathan Eovaldi, Adam Warren.
Which rotation would you clearly take instead of the Red Sox? Probably the Rays and maybe the Orioles. Meanwhile, name all the aces in that group. Buehrle, Dickey, and Sabathia used to be. Tanaka could be if his elbow holds up. Tillman has a chance. But that’s it.
There are two ways to look at that list. The Red Sox can afford to be patient and wait out the Phillies. Or they should jump now and get a pitcher who will clearly make them better than the rest of the teams in their division. They should wait and if Hamels is traded to another team, so be it.
Two writers I respect have different opinions on this. Globe colleague Chad Finn wrote the other day that the Red Sox need an ace.
Another rational thinker, Scott Lauber of the Herald, believes the Red Sox should sacrifice Swihart to get Hamels.
Those are reasonable opinions. But the Sox are coming off a 91-loss season and two last-place finishes in three years. Having an ace to start Game 1 of a mythical playoff series isn’t really a problem right now. Building a team that doesn’t finish last is, and that begins with keeping good young players.
Then there is this: Hamels is 8-13 with a 4.54 ERA in 29 career starts against American League teams. Over the last three seasons he is 3-3 with a 5.17 ERA in 10 interleague starts. He appears to be just the kind of starter the Red Sox need, but there are no guarantees. It’s not a deal to do at any cost.
It would help both teams if at some point during spring training Hamels packed his bags and drove from Phillies camp in Clearwater to JetBlue Park. But the Red Sox are in a position to dictate more favorable terms.