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Rangers land Cole Hamels from Phillies in move for 2016 and beyond

Cole Hamels is going to the Rangers for a package of prospects in a trade designed to help Texas not this season, but for 2016 and beyond.

The Phillies have finally traded Cole Hamels, but he isn't heading to a contender, per se. He’s reportedly joining the Rangers, a team that, despite a nice run in May and early June, is four games below .500, eight games out in its division and, though just four games out of the second Wild Card spot in the American League, in a distant eighth in that race. This is not a win-now acquisition for the Texas. Rather, it’s one designed to help them win next year, when the Rangers will not only have Hamels for a full season, but also hope to get Yu Darvish back from Tommy John surgery and Derek Holland back from a shoulder strain to head up a potentially impressive rotation.

Hamels, who will turn 32 in December and is signed through the 2018 season with a club option for '19 that can vest based on innings pitched totals, will head to Texas along with lefty reliever Jake Diekman. In exchange, the Phillies will receive a trio of the Rangers’ best prospects—catcher Jorge Alfaro, pitcher Jake Thompson and outfielder Nick Williams—as well as lefty starter Matt Harrison and two more minor-league righties, Alec Asher and Jerad Eickhoff.

The heart of this deal is Hamels for the three prospects, but the inclusion of Harrison adds an interesting wrinkle, both because he is a former All-Star starter who is under contract for two more seasons with an option for 2018 and because of the way the money in this deal offsets. Looking past the current season, Hamels is owed $73.5 million over the next three years. However, Harrison is owed $28 million over the next two, and the Phillies are sending $9.5 million to the Rangers along with Hamels. As a result, the Rangers are getting three years of Hamels beyond this one for $36 million, or in other words, a front-end starter for $12 million a year.

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Much as Harrison was once a well-regarded member of the Rangers' rotation, however, he is now an almost completely unknown entity. After having spinal fusion surgery in his lower back last June, there was speculation that Harrison would never pitch again. He has, making it all the way back to the rotation earlier this month, but his velocity is gone—his average fastball in his three starts was 88 mph, compared to 93-plus in his last healthy season—and his already limited ability to miss bats has withered significantly. As a result, he has been hit hard in two of this three starts this year. Meanwhile, over the last three seasons combined, he has made just nine starts—due to surgery for a herniated disc in his lower back, thoracic outlet syndrome and the spinal fusion to treat spondylolisthesis in his lower back—posting a 6.14 ERA and striking out just two more men than he has walked, doing both at a rate of around five per nine innings. Harrison will slot directly into the Phillies’ rotation, but he’s no sure bet to remain there through the end of August.

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As for the minor leaguers in the deal, Asher, who turns 24 in October, and Eickhoff, who turned 25 earlier this month, are effectively quadruple A righties, the kind of generic arms designed to help fill out the rotation of a rebuilding ball club. Both are 6'4" starters drafted out of community colleges, Asher coming out of Florida in the fourth round in 2012 and Eickhoff out of Indiana in the 15th round in '11. Both have posted middling numbers for Triple A Round Rock this season after early-season promotions from Double A. Eickhoff is on the 40-man roster and thus more likely to see action in Philadelphia before Asher, who is not.

The real return, of course, is Alfaro, Thompson and Williams, all of whom were at Double A at the time of the trade. Alfaro and Thompson were rated top-100 prospects by Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus prior to this season, with Williams making BP’s list and both lists prior to last season. All three were among the Rangers’ top seven (per BP) or top five (per BA) prospects heading into this season, and all three were on BP’s midseason list of the top 50 prospects in the game earlier this month, though only Thompson made BA’s corresponding list, and just barely at that, checking in at No. 49.

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That said, none of them are true blue-chippers. Alfaro, who turned 22 in June, is a Colombian catcher with a strong arm and pop in his bat, but he hasn’t slugged as high as .450 above short-season ball, is still a work-in-progress behind the plate and suffered a season-ending injury to his left ankle in early June of this year, meaning he’s due to repeat Double A next year at the age of 23. Thompson, a big Texas righthander, was taken in the second round of the 2012 draft by the Tigers and traded to the Rangers in last year’s deadline deal for Joakim Soria. The 21-year-old starter throws a low-90s two-seamer, can reach the mid-90s with his four-seamer and has a good slider and a developing changeup. However, he also throws from a three-quarters arm slot and has been hit hard by lefties this season, with southpaws slashing .313/.390/.494 in 188 plate appearances against him. Bad luck on balls in play have played a part in Thompson’s poor showing in his first full season in Double A, but his peripherals are nothing special, and it seems telling that he’s been traded twice in as many seasons.

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As for Williams, he turns 22 in September and was selected two picks after Thompson in 2012. A lean leftfielder, he’s a bat-first, and possibly bat-only, player who has speed but gets bad jumps in the field and on the bases, according to BP’s preseason scouting report. A free swinger with contact ability, Williams has cut down on his strikeouts this season (28.8% whiff rate last year to just 18.7% this year) and increased his walks (4.5% last year with two intentional to 7.5 % this year with none intentional), resulting in a strong .300/.357/.480 line for Double A Frisco with 13 home runs in 96 games. That’s an encouraging development, enough so for BP to list him as the 21st-best prospect in baseball earlier this month, ahead of Thompson (30) and Alfaro (34). Still, Williams hasn’t put up the kind of eye-popping numbers you’d like to see from a hit-first player who is arguably the top prospect in a trade of this magnitude.

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It’s difficult to fault the Phillies for landing so many well-regarded prospects in this trade, but I worry that they ultimately favored quantity over quality. There’s no prospect in this trade that I would expect to become a star in the major leagues. Williams and Alfaro could well be above-average regulars at their positions, and Thompson might prove to be a mid-rotation starter, but that seems to be their ceiling in each case, with the likely outcome being that just one of the three reaches that level in the majors. Still, given the hole the franchise is in right now, three prospects with some level of upside are more valuable to the Phillies at this point than an aging ace, even if the latter is a franchise icon.

As for Diekman, the lefty accompanying Hamels in this deal, he’s a tall sinker-slider reliever who misses a ton of bats and can get his sinker into triple digits on the radar gun, but who has significant control problems (5.9 walks per nine innings this season, 4.9 in his four major-league seasons combined). His lack of a pronounced platoon split gives him setup potential, but those walks significantly undermine his value. He’ll be arbitration eligible for the first time this winter and will have to show significant improvement in his control to be worth keeping beyond 2016.

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Getting back to Hamels, he’s getting out of the frying pan and into the fire in terms of hitting-friendly home ballparks, but the good news is that he’s well adapted to such an environment, having steadily increased his ground-ball rate and, accordingly, reduced his home-run rate over the course of his career. He’ll also have to adjust to facing AL lineups with the designated hitter with regularity, but there’s little reason to worry about him. He has consistently been among the better pitchers in the major leagues over the course of his career and ranks among the major league leaders in Deserved Run Average this season with a 2.67 mark that suggests he has pitched far better than his 3.64 ERA on the season would indicate.

That said, there’s plenty of reason to worry about the rest of the Rangers’ projected 2016 rotation. Darvish and Martin Perez are coming off Tommy John surgery (Perez having returned to the rotation two weeks ago with poor results in three starts thus far). Holland, who is due to begin a rehab assignment on Thursday, is coming off two injury-shortened seasons (he has made just six starts since the end of the 2013 season). Meanwhile, Chi Chi Gonzalez, the righthanded prospect likely to be favored for the fifth spot, has been unimpressive in his Triple A debut this season and walked more men than he struck out in his seven major league starts from late May through early July. Hamels provides a necessary anchor for that group, which the Rangers hope can join forces with what briefly seemed to be a rejuvenated offense to return them to serious contention next year and beyond. Right now, however, he’s just a shiny bauble on what remains a pile of rubble.