2018 has not been a good year for the Texas Rangers. Their legendary third baseman is both struggling to stay healthy and hit for power. Their best hitter fractured his elbow and has been a shell of himself since returning. The guy who stepped up in his place is 36 years old. Their future superstars struggle to make regular contact. Their pitching has been mostly woeful, both starters and relievers.
Chief among the pitching problems is Cole Hamels. Coming into the year, we knew his ace-like performances were almost surely gone, but what we have seen has been quite shocking at times.
Knowing they were not competing in the next couple of year the Rangers were hoping for a good performance from Hamels so they could get as much trade value as possible. However, with just a week to the non-waiver trade deadline, that is not shaping up well. Hamels is currently in a spell he describes as one of the worst of his career. The big question is what do the Rangers do now.
With one-year left on his contract can they afford to hold him and hope he bounces back next year? Or should they trade him now and get what they can before he completely falls apart?
In his time with the Philadelphia Phillies, Hamels was for the most part a stud. Not always the biggest name on the rotation, but always regarded as one of the best. In 10 years with the Phillies, he had a .330 ERA and 1844 strikeouts in 1930 innings. Not lights out but pretty impressive. It was his reputation that made the Rangers go and acquire him in 2015 in order to try and win that elusive World Series ring. The Rangers knew their window was closing and they made one last grab for gold which ended in disappointment. They did manage to challenge again in 2016 but again fell to Toronto and since then it has not gone well.
2016 was also somewhat of a turning point for Hamels. In that season he threw 200 2/3 innings, struck out 200 and a had a 3.32 ERA. The next season he struggled a little with injuries finishing with 148 innings, just 105 strikeouts and a 4.20 ERA. However, given that injuries appeared to be the main part of the problem, there was hope that 2018 could see him turn it around and produce those 2016 numbers again.
The 2018 story
To say 2018 has been a roller coaster would be an understatement. After his first five starts, it was clear it was not going to be plain sailing. 28 1/3 innings yielded a 4.72 ERA including three outings with three earned runs or more surrendered. However, the strikeouts were back, but with them came 3.49 walks per nine innings pitched. That walk rate was the highest of his career, and somewhat of an early-season concern.
Things then took a turn for the better through late April, then May and into June. Across his next 11 starts, Hamels had a 3.07 ERA in 70 1/3 innings. The issue now is that the strikeouts had dropped to 7.92 K/9 from 10.90 K/9 and the walks were still up at 3.20 BB/9. That walk rate would have still ranked as the fourth worst of his career and the strikeout rate would also have been fourth worst. The results were good, but the numbers around them did not look great.
His last five starts have been horrific. 22 innings have seen him surrender a 10.23 ERA; yes that is ERA, not K/9. On the bright side, he has been striking out a batter per innings and the walks are actually down to 2.45 BB/9. However, he has been giving up home runs at a crazy rate, 2.09 HR/9. The home run issue has been a season-long trend, 1.81 HR/9, and this is due to his hard-hit rate being through the roof, nine percent higher than 2017 and nearly 16 percent above his career average.
Two sides to every argument
A major part of the problem is that Hamels really cannot pitch in the Rangers ballpark. In his career, he has a 4.69 ERA when pitching there and averages a home run conceded per start. His 2018 numbers make for grim reading, 1-7 with a 6.41 ERA in 59 innings across 10 starts. The good news for Hamels and any potential future suitors is that if traded, he would not have to pitch there regularly. To gauge Hamels’ potential value it is worth looking at his record on the road this season. In 10 road starts, he has a 2.93 ERA with 61 strikeouts in 55 1/3 innings. He has been a completely different pitcher and that is where the problems lie.
The Rangers will point to that road record and say he is still the pitcher he has always been. Because of that, the Rangers will want a decent return for trading Hamels, especially if they swallow some of next years money as well. However, potential trade partners will see the home runs, the walks and the shaky outings in a pitcher-friendly park. Rightly so they will then want to low-ball the Rangers by suggesting Hamels is a declining commodity.
In a way, both sides are right with their stance but can a deal get done?
What happens now?
This has become a weird game of chicken at this point. The Rangers are hoping a team gets desperate enough to overpay a little. Trade partners are hoping the Rangers are desperate to offload Hamels and move on. Both may be out of luck.
The Rangers are still a while away from contending. They can afford to hold Hamels into next season and then hope they can get decent value for him. However, the playoff picture in the American League is becoming fairly clear and that is not helping the Rangers. Teams are becoming hesitant to part ways with anything when they have a good shot to make the playoffs anyway.
The National League might be a more successful hunting ground for the Rangers. The Nationals and Dodgers are still scrapping for their division and may need one more piece. However, the Dodgers just gave up a decent prospect for Manny Machado and the Nationals are in a weird situation themselves with Bryce Harper’s impending free agency.
The final word
My gut feeling is that Hamels does not get traded because the values just cannot match up. The Rangers want a decent prospect haul to help their rebuild but trade partners likely see Hamels as at best a third or fourth starter. A third or fourth starter is no use to you if you get eliminated in the wild-card game. It is all getting rather messy, and Hamels being 34 is not helping. 2018 has given us no clear indication of whether he is declining or just struggling to pitch in Texas. Either way, his next start, Saturday in Houston, could be the difference between a deal being struck or not.