Since the beginning of the 2012 season, the Arizona Diamondbacks have been searching for a true top-of-the-rotation arm to slot into the rotation. IN 2011, Ian Kennedy over-performed his talent level and Daniel Hudson showed he was a budding star. Yet those two, even with the help of other quality, inning-eating arms were not enough to get the Diamondbacks past the Milwaukee Brewers in the NLDS. Sure the Diamondbacks had just drafted future aces* Trevor Bauer and Archie Bradley, but the team needed another difference-making arm right away in order to compete. The result? First, Trevor Cahill in 2012. Then, a run at Zack Greinke in 2013 and Masahiro Tanaka in 2014. Along the way, Bauer was traded and now in 2015, Bradley is starting to look somewhat worrisome.
To open 2015, Dave Stewart took a new approach to trying to land a TOR arm, going for multiple tickets in the TOR arm sweepstakes. He acquired Jeremy Hellickson, Rubby De La Rosa, Allen Webster, and Robbie Ray. All of these pitchers came with question marks, but all of them were also cheap (though Hellickson was entering his second year of arbitration), and all of them at least possessed the scouted potential to be difference-making arms. The results of that experiment have been a pretty mixed bag. Allen Webster has shown why so many felt he was destined to be a power arm out of the bullpen somewhere. Jeremy Hellickson has shown he can get outs, but that he is not actually one of those few pitchers that can easily defy his peripherals. This has allowed him to look good for shot stretches, but the team can pretty much book it that he will be suspect about once every three outings. Rubby De La Rosa has looked like an ace more than once this season, but like Hellickson, has been unable to avoid the entirely too frequent stinkers. Of all the acquisitions, Robbie Ray has looked the best, but is still finding success in beating his peripherals. This has many wondering if he is really the pitcher he has flashed, or if he is more appropriately more a reliable #3 starter with flashes of great stuff.
Despite all of this, the Diamondbacks are still at least one or two arms short of a solid rotation, and are still in search of that reliable, lockdown, TOR pitcher. Some (including this writer) have speculated that some of the moves made by the Diamondbacks front office were prelude to another, larger move. With the trade deadline approaching, and with the team still in search of a TOR arm, it has become somewhat of a thing to try and picture the Diamondbacks making a move for one on or before July 31st.
Should the Diamondbacks make an aggressive move and acquire a TOR arm at the deadline, putting the league on notice that they are "for real" and giving a vote of confidence to the young, dynamic core of position talent being assembled? This is very similar to the question being asked here by Jim on Monday. I'm going to stay focused on trading for pitching though, as if the team is going to be in the position of strong buyer, pitching is where they will be shopping.
There are at least a dozen or more arms that would be a good TOR fit for the Diamondbacks. For the purposes of this conversation though, there are only four arms with any relevance, and really, only two of those make any sense. The four pitchers are: Zack Greinke (who will almost certainly opt out of his Dodgers deal at the end of the season), David Price, Johnny Cueto (both of whom are free agents at the end of the season), and Cole Hamels, an ace under control for four more seasons pitching for the last place Philadelphia Phillies as they begin to rebuild. With the Dodgers somewhat comfortably sitting in first place in the NL West, Zack Greinke is not going anywhere, even if the Dodgers would trade him in the division. Despite losing Miguel Cabrera for six to eight weeks, the Detroit Tigers have almost no incentive to move David Price either. That leaves Cueto and Hamels as potential TOR trade targets.
ERA 2.61 / FIP 3.07 / xFIP 3.12
ERA+ 147 (2015) / 125 (career)
Pros: A strong argument can be made that Cueto represents the best pitching talent coming available at the end of the season. At the end of his controllable time with the Reds, his price will be relatively cheap compared to Hamels.
Cons: There have been some concerns with the health of Cueto's arm over the years. To their credit, the Reds have handled Cueto very well, making sure that for the most part, concerns did not turned into actualities. In any trade for Cueto, an extension must be in hand for the Diamondbacks to pull the trigger. Alas, Cueto's camp has no incentive to bargain, so any extension will come at the high end of the scale for expected market value. This means Cueto would be handed a seven-year contract, and having him pitch through age 36 at $23-25 million AAV.
The Cost: Cueto is certain to be given a qualifying offer by the Reds in the off-season. This means the Reds would get a pick in the compensatory round between the first and second rounds of next year's draft. Any piece going to the Reds needs to offset that pick. Plus, the Diamondbacks would also need to trade additional talent (of a much lower caliber) to obtain Cueto's services for the remainder of this season. Not counting players taken in this season's draft, the Diamondbacks can count Aaron Blair, Braden Shipley, Jake Lamb, and possibly Archie Bradley and Patrick Corbin among those that would satisfy the first part of the cost. The rest of the cost could probably be summed up as a pair of quality B or C prospects, as the Reds have nothing to gain by taking on short-term talent (Ziegler, Perez). Thus, a possible trade might look something like Blair + Brandon Drury + Peter O'Brien, and possibly even one more lower prospect like Jamieson (or someone from the low minors). Then, there is the cost of extending Cueto, as already discussed above.
The Verdict: The Diamondbacks are not one TOR arm from winning 90 games this season. Even if they continue to experience good fortune with the offense and find a bit more production (adding 3 wins) out of second base, this is not a 90-win team. 90 wins is currently the safe low threshold for being a playoff team. Since the Diamondbacks are unlikely to receive one dollar's worth of savings in any extension given to Cueto this season, and since they are not likely to make the playoffs, it seems unwise to trade that much talent away to obtain the hard-throwing right-hander. If the team is seriously that invested in Johnny Cueto as the answer to their rotation problems, he will be available as a free agent in November and the team can spend copiously to acquire him, spending only money, while leaving the farm system intact.
ERA 3.02 / FIP 3.33 / xFIP 3.19
ERA+ 126 (2015) / 125 (career)
Pros: Cole Hamels is durable, having thrown 200+ innings in five of the last six and six of the last seven seasons. He throws from the left side. He's a gritty (yes, I said it) workhorse of a pitcher. None of that compares to his biggest asset though, his contract. Cole Hamels is under contract through 2019. In that time he will cost $75.5 - 79.5 million (depending on clauses). That is below market value for a quality TOR arm in this new market. An acquisition of Hamels is an acquisition of a TOR arm, below cost, and free of long-term commitment.
Cons: There are few cons when it comes to acquiring Hamels. There is his age, though that is mitigated by the short-term nature of what is left on his contract. Hamels also possesses a no-trade clause, which could seriously complicate things. The biggest negative to acquiring Cole Hamels is his cost.
The Cost: Unlike the Reds, who will lose out on increasing Cueto's value beyond a draft pick if they do not trade him, the Phillies are in the driver's seat when it comes to Hamels. Yes, they are a team in serious need of a rebuild. After this season is over, more than $60 million will be coming off the books, and that is assuming no other trades are made to increase that figure. The Phillies may be one team in even more dire need of MLB pitching than the Diamondbacks. The difference is though, they already have a TOR arm. Between minor league promotions (possibly including Aaron Nola, Zach Eflin, and Ben Lively) and some savvy off-season spending, Hamels could be the foundation of a much-improved rotation in 2016. The Phillies also realize, as the rest of the world does, that Hamels' contract is below market value, and they will want compensation for that as well.
Last winter, the Red Sox were very interested in Cole Hamels. Philadelphia wanted the Red Sox to take all of the salary and to include MLB's top catching prospect (and #17 overall) Blake Swihart along with more talent. This gives us a baseline as to what the Phillies are after. It is almost impossible to say what the Diamondbacks equivalent would be, but thinking that two of Blair, Shipley, and Bradley would need to be included is not out of the question. Regardless of the final cost, it would be an exceptionally painful one that would almost certainly gut the upper levels of the system.
The Verdict: The cost for acquiring Hamels is likely to be prohibitively expensive, and this is before the team makes concessions to Hamels in order to convince him to agree to the trade. What concessions might be needed for that? A new 2-3 year extension? No thanks. Merely picking up his final season at max value? No problem. Regardless, after completing the trade, the Diamondbacks would be very hard-pressed to have enough MLB-ready talent left in the system to fill out the remaining needs of the team for the remainder of this season or the next. The cost for acquiring Hamels would make trading for him an exceptionally risky move, without the Dan Haren benefit of recouping the cost down the road.
The Take: The Diamondbacks are not a playoff team this season. They may or may not be next year, depending on personnel changes and development between now and April of next year. Free agency is going to increase the number of TOR arms available, all of them costing nothing more than money and the first pick of the 2016 draft. While this team may be impatient to win, and win soon (2016), there is little if any benefit to paying the prospect price for either of these pitchers. If Hamels could be had for only slightly more than Cueto, then it would be a deal worth making. But the team needs to have enough left in the system to infuse some talent in 2016 if it wants to make a run, and that simply will not be the case if it makes the move for Hamels.
The Diamondbacks should not be in on either of these arms. Wait for the offseason where the $50 million in available spending can be used to make a difference instead. Then, if the team needs to make a move next July, it has money and prospects both to address whatever need still remains.