Three years after the Philadelphia Phillies traded franchise icon Cole Hamels, it’s easy to evaluate how some potential trade scenarios that were speculated upon at the time would have worked out.
It would have been a franchise-altering trade if the Phillies were able to get New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman to part with either Luis Severino or Aaron Judge; he, for obvious reasons now, wouldn’t. The Phillies would have gotten a franchise cornerstone if they were able to pry Xander Bogaerts from the Boston Red Sox. Jackie Bradley Jr., on the other hand, has been a very mixed bag offensively during his career, so if he was at the forefront of a package, that’s how the return would be viewed despite his defensive prowess. It’s unclear what return the Phillies would have gotten from the Houston Astros if Hamels didn’t block a trade there, but it probably wouldn’t have been that different from the return they ultimately got months later for closer Ken Giles. So that would have been an underwhelming return for Hamels, who was still in his prime when the Phillies traded him.
The one trade return for Hamels that’s hard to evaluate is the one that the Phillies actually took: a package of five prospects and an injured Matt Harrison from the Texas Rangers for a 31-year-old Hamels and lefty reliever Jake Diekman.
Let’s start with the easiest to evaluate: Harrison. Ruben Amaro Jr.’s front office was willing to absorb the remaining money owed to Harrison in an attempt to increase the haul of prospects the deal would net them. Harrison, making $2 million from the Phillies this year, hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2015. The former All-Star now manages a ranch in North Carolina.
Alec Asher pitched in 12 games for the Phillies between 2015 and 2016 after being acquired in the Hamels deal. After a performance-enhancement drug suspension in 2016, the Phillies dealt Asher to the Baltimore Orioles at the beginning of the 2017 season. Though Asher found some initial success as a reliever with the Orioles in 2017, he ultimately posted a 5.25 ERA in 24 games, 18 of which were relief appearances. This past April, the 26-year-old was waived twice, ultimately ending up in the Milwaukee Brewers organization, where he has spent the bulk of the season at Triple-A.
Jerad Eickhoff is where things start to get interesting. Upon being acquired by the Phillies in 2015, Eickhoff, 24 at the time, immediately joined the major league starting rotation. In eight starts, Eickhoff outperformed any reasonable expectations, posting a 2.65 ERA, a 3.25 FIP and a 1.2 fWAR. Eickhoff was excellent in 2016, as well, posing a 3.65 ERA, a 4.19 FIP and a 2.9 fWAR in 33 starts spanning 197.1 innings. No one confused Eickhoff with an ace starter, but he was the picture of consistency. John Stolnis of The Good Phight nicknamed him “the human metronome.”
However, Eickhoff struggled through an injury-riddled 2017 season, one that saw him go 4-8 with a 4.71 ERA and 4.30 FIP. That was perhaps a precursor of things to come, as Eickhoff has yet to pitch in 2018. Though he doesn’t have thoracic outlet syndrome – one of the worst afflictions a pitcher can come down with – he hasn’t pitched at the major league level in 2018, because of reoccurring finger tingling, which followed up an early season lat strain.
Now 28, it’s unclear what Eickhoff’s future holds. Eickhoff threw a live batting practice in Clearwater Saturday. Even if he has no further setbacks, it’s difficult to imagine him pitching at the major league level in 2018. It’s almost impossible to imagine him joining the team before September, which would allow him to pitch in the postseason, should the Phillies make it there for the first time since 2011. Eickhoff will become eligible for arbitration for the first time in 2019 and can’t become a free-agent until after 2021. But he has to prove that he can stay healthy.
That would perhaps be an easier pill for the Phillies to swallow if the other pitching acquired in the trade hadn’t proven to be a wash. There was the aforementioned Asher, and then there’s Jake Thompson. Once ranked as one of the top 50 prospects in the sport, the Phillies converted Thompson to a relief pitcher prior to the 2018 season after he posted a 4.64 ERA in his first 18 starts at the major league level. All that’s led to is the 24-year-old wearing out his E-ZPass going back and fourth between Triple-A Lehigh Valley and Philadelphia.
Since April, Thompson has been recalled from Triple-A five different times. That means he’s also been optioned back to Triple-A five times. Regardless of where he’s pitched at, Thompson hasn’t been overly effective. In 26 games at Triple-A, 23 of which have been relief appearances, Thompson has a 4.09 ERA. He has a 4.96 ERA in nine relief appearances at the major league level in 2018. A scoreless three-inning relief appearance in a 13 inning win over the Nationals on July 1 is probably the highlight of his career thus far, which is telling.
Thompson still has one more option left, so it stands to reason that he could remain in the Phillies organization for 2019. Perhaps things will click for him as a reliever next season. But to this point, he’s had an underwhelming career, especially when you consider that he was one of the key pieces in the return for the second-best left-handed pitcher in Phillies history.
The two players that make this deal hard to evaluate three years later are outfielder Nick Williams and catcher Jorge Alfaro.
Williams, who will turn 25 in September, is slashing .261/.333/.457 with 14 home runs and 39 RBIs. Williams is hitting .317 in July, and after essentially starting the season as the team’s fourth outfielder, he’s slid into the starting right field role.
There’s plenty to like about Williams – particularly his elite power to center and left-center field. However, there’s still holes in his game. He’s only walked 24 times in 2018. His defensive metrics have consistently been bad. There are those that think Williams will be a long-term starter for the Phillies. Others, myself included, think on a World Series contending team, Williams may be best suited to be a fourth outfielder, one that can step in for a slumping player, DH during games at American League parks and be a star pinch-hitter. Williams is hitting .400 as a pinch-hitter in 2018, so it’s not a dis to point out that he could thrive as the first option off the bench if the Phillies had another right fielder. But you hope to get more than that when you trade a franchise icon with years of contractual control left.
The perceived success (or lack thereof) regarding this trade may ultimately come down to how Alfaro’s career pans out.
For as much as Alfaro’s high upside – both offensively and defensively – is apparent, highs ceilings don’t always translate to great careers.
While there were once worries that Alfaro wouldn’t develop into a good enough receiver to continue catching long-term, it’s evident how hard he has worked on his craft as a catcher. Despite having allowed eight passed balls already, FanGraphs says that Alfaro has been the second best defensive catcher based on advanced metrics. In terms of framing runs, Baseball Prospectus says his 8.4 framing runs in 2018 are third best among qualified catchers. If you take defensive metrics with a grain of salt, fair enough. But it’s clear that on top of his world-class arm, Alfaro is developing into a very good defensive catcher.
Offensively is where questions remain for the 25-year-old.
Alfaro has as much raw power as a young catcher could have. But after hitting five home runs in 107 at-bats at the major league level in 2017, he has just seven home runs in 253 at-bats in 2018. He only hit seven home runs in 324 at-bats for Triple-A Lehigh Valley in 2017 before being promoted to the majors. When Alfaro hits a home run – specifically when he hits one to right-center field – it gets out of the park quickly and goes far. But he’s yet to consistently tap into the immense power that he possesses, perhaps because he too often looks like he’s trying to hit a 500-foot home run at the plate.
The Colombian-born catcher is also striking out in nearly 40 percent of his at-bats. When you consider that he’s walked just 13 times this season, that’s an alarming rate. In total, FanGraphs says Alfaro has been a below replacement level offensive player in 2018. If his high offensive ceiling wasn’t apparent and he hadn’t turned into the make-or-break piece in one of the most important trades in team history, perhaps one could overlook the offensive inconsistencies that he’s shown in his young career. But that’s not the case.
One thing is clear when evaluating the July 2015 Cole Hamels trade: it was the right move for the Phillies to move him as they attempted to rebuild. There was some thought in the years leading up to Hamels being traded that if the Phillies didn’t get a bounty in return for the 2008 World Series MVP, they should hold onto him because he could still be pitching at an elite level the next time the Phillies were contenders. Well, the Phillies are contending, and while another National League contender acquired Hamels this past week, he’s no longer an elite arm. The thought process of trading Hamels at the back-half of his prime was sound. It’s still not entirely clear if the return the Phillies got for him is.
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