The Phillies absolutely, positively have to do whatever it takes to sign ace left-hander Cole Hamels before he reaches the free-agent market at the end of the season.
Unless, of course, they decide that they must use their biggest chip to begin looking toward the future before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline comes and goes.
That's the dilemma facing Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. After winning five straight National League East titles, his team is now a long shot to even make the postseason. The Phils are reportedly readying a last-ditch offer to the homegrown, 28-year-old Hamels. "There's no question we want to keep him," Amaro said. "He's a cornerstone of our organization. We view him as part of the core of our ballclub. He's a top-of-the-rotation pitcher and we're doing everything we can to sign him."
If Hamels re-ups, case closed. If not, Amaro faces one of the most pivotal decisions of his tenure.
Hamels strongly hinted during the All-Star break that he's committed to testing the market. "It's a long time to play baseball. It's been seven years. Like I've said, I think every human being wants to know what his value is in whatever job they're in. And if you get to do it, I think it's a pretty cool experience. Because you can either be higher than what you thought, or lower. And I'm willing to accept either," he explained.
Amaro, however, said that was news to him. "He's never told us that. We've talked. We continue to speak. That goal [of re-signing him] has never changed," he told MLB.com.
Without an autograph on the dotted line, standard operating procedure would be for the Phillies to get what they can for a star player who can walk away after the World Series. Several contenders had scouts at Coors Field for Hamels' start against the Rockies on Sunday. This is far from a normal situation, though.
The Phillies have had more than 200 consecutive sellouts at Citizens Bank Park. They have long-term commitments to Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Ryan Howard and Jonathan Papelbon, among others. They're not in a position to launch a full rebuilding. Instead, they'll try to reload on the fly.
As Amaro told reporters in Denver before the second half began: "We expect to be contending in '13, '14, '15 and beyond. So this is not a situation where, even if things don't work out for us in 2012, that we're going to make super wholesale changes. That's not what we're about."
Hamels, in the meantime, has been subtly applying pressure on the team. "It takes a long time to build up a fan base like they did and now they have it and you don't ever want to let it just wash away," he said.
Trading the popular MVP of both the 2008 NL Championship Series and World Series wouldn't be a popular move with the paying customers, even if the Phillies conclude that they won't be able to get a deal done. The backlash against sending Lee to the Mariners in an effort to restock the farm system after the 2009 season is still a vivid memory for the front office.
And Papelbon, while offering the usual disclaimers about the business side of the game, suggested that it wouldn't be well received by the rest of the team, either. "I definitely don't think we should trade him. ... I don't necessarily know if our clubhouse would take that too well," he said during the break.
Complicating the issue is the fact that Hamels was drafted, signed and developed by the Phillies. "They've [had a great track record] of signing the players they want, especially the homegrown players," Hamels observed pointedly. "They showed that they want to keep them. Just the way they've kept Chase [Utley] and Jimmy [Rollins] and Howie [Ryan Howard]."
Amaro agreed that there's something to be said for retaining your own talent. "Obviously, you get to know the player better. You get a feel for what he's about," he said. "We've seen Cole grow and mature and there's a value in that. It gives you a much better sense of what a guy is about. When you go outside the organization, you really don't know the player, so there's a greater risk not knowing his personality, goals and such."
In an intriguing twist, Hamels has suggested that he wouldn't rule out coming back as a free agent even if he's traded in the coming days.
The general manager all but dismissed that possibility. "That's a very dangerous way to operate," he pointed out. "There are no guarantees. We might be in a different position then and decide to look elsewhere. And, of course, there are 29 other clubs that are able to make an offer. I think that's just a very dangerous way to operate and not all that realistic, although I appreciate that he's taken that stance."
There's also no guarantee that the Phillies would be able to get enough value in return for Hamels even if they did decide to make him available. In past years, teams that traded for a potential Type A free agent could count on Draft-pick compensation if they were unable to sign him, making it more palatable to give up top prospects. Changes in the Basic Agreement eliminated compensation for rent-a-players and it remains to be seen if that will discourage teams from raiding their farm systems to acquire a win-now player they may only have for two months and then get nothing when they leave.
The only thing that seems certain at the moment is that the Phillies will make another push to get an extension done before the Deadline. They want to keep Hamels for years to come. The left-hander is, by all accounts, comfortable living and working in Philadelphia and confident the team will do what it can to turn things around next season.
So, as it usually does, this apparently will come down to dollars and length of contract. This is called negotiating. And if Hamels is traded, it will only be because both sides couldn't agree on the bottom line.