BY: Richard W. Humphrey

With the All-Star game in the rear view mirror, all off the field attention is now focused on making trades as the non-wiaver trade deadline is less than three weeks away. There has been much speculation that the Rangers are the favorite to nab Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels, if the Phillies make him available.

Hamels is in the final year of his contract and will get a mega-bucks deal in free agency this winter. He has said that he likes Philadelphia and the organization, and thus would like to stay. It really gets down to money then. The Phillies payroll exceeds $170 million, third behind the Yankees and Red Sox. They are locked into big contracts for Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Jonathan Papelbon and Jimmy Rollins. They don’t have much payroll flexibility to run Hamels’ annual figure into the $20 million range.

With little likelihood of retaining Hamels after the season, the question becomes “will the Philllies trade him?” They are clearly one of the more disappointing teams in baseball, finding themselves in last place in East at the All-Star break, after winning the division for five straight years. They are 13 games under .500, trail division leading Washington by 14 games, and trail in the Wild Card race by 10 games. On the other hand, they have been offensively challenged with the absences of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. Utley is now back and Howard is expected soon, so the Phils will wait as long as possible to see if they can get back in the playoff hunt, before pulling the plug on the season.

Under the terms of the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA), the Phillies will receive two high draft picks for Hamels if they keep him and he signs elsewhere this winter. If he is traded, the team that trades for him will not receive draft pick compensation if he signs elsewhere. Undoubtedly, the Phillies can trade Hamels this month for a return that far exceeds the draft choice compensation, but theoretically the price that he will fetch in a trade should be less because the acquiring team will not be recieving draft picks he he signs elsewhere this winter.

The Rangers are rumored to be “in” on Hamels. There are numerous reports that Ranger scouts have been attending Hamels’ starts, as well as reports that Phillie scouts have been attending Round Rock and Frisco games to look at Ranger prospects. National writer Buster Olney speculates that the Rangers are the favorites to land Hamels if he is traded, while the smoke signals out of Arlington all tell fans not to expect a block buster trade deadline deal.

The question of money has been raised. Taking on Hamels would involve a payroll increase, likely in the $4 plus million range for the balance of the season. The Rangers don’t want to admit it, but the money is probably not a problem. They never flinched at adding Roy Oswalt earlier this season. All reports have the Rangers’ budget based on 3,000,000 attendance. At the rate crowds are flocking to games, this year’s attendance is going to end up around 3.5 million. Certainly the additional attenders will be pruchasing the less expensive tickets, but when parking and concessions are added, it’s not unreasonable to assume $50 per person of additional revenue. $50 per person for 500,000 more fans translates into $25 million of revenue with very littloe additional cost associated with the increase. This has to conseratively add up to $15 million to the bottom line.

The next question is what to do with the rotation if Hamels is acquired. The current rotation is Oswalt, Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison, Colby Lewis and Derek Holland. One would get bumped to make room for Hamels; and in the playoffs, teams usually shorten their rotation to four starters with the off days, so two would get bumped. That assumes that Neftali Feliz has already been bumped to the bullpen once he returns from the disabled list. There have been a spate of pitching injuries since late May, and the entire situation may sort out on its own through injury.

The other question is what will it take to land Hamels. At this stage, the asking price is said to be on the moon. The Phillies have a hole at third base, so Mike Olt is undoubtedly on their radar screen. Teams routinely want an arm back in a trade, so the Phillies would want someone such as Holland or Harrison, but would likely settle for Martin Perez. Philadelphia would still be seeking another couple of lower level prospects. That’s a hefty price for a rent-a-pitcher that brings the Rangers two months or so of regular season pitching (perhaps 10 starts) and a veteran for the playoffs. Hamels likely ends up with the Dodgers or Angels next year signing as a free agent, so Ranger fans should not harbor hope that Hamels may stay past this year if acquired.

Mike Olt would be a difficult prospect to part with. The Rangers strength at the upper levels of the minor leagues is in pitching talent, and Olt is one of the few power hitting prospects in the system above the bottom two levels – Rookie League and short season A. Jurickson Profar is also one of the most sought after Ranger prospects and one of the top five in the minor leagues for all of baseball. The Rangers need him as insurance for Elvis Andrus, who likely leaves once he becomes eligible for free agency.

On the other hand, if the Angels get involved on Hamels, and they likely will with the starting pitching problems they currently have, Texas might be forced to overpay for Hamels to keep him away from Los Angeles.

It will be an interesting game of poker over these next two plus weeks before the non-waiver trade deadline, and Hamels does have to be traded this month if he is traded at all. He would never get through waivers after July 31.

Hamels may mean the difference in the salad days of playoff mediocrity or the filet mignon of a World Series championship. This time of the year has to be tough on Jon Daniels’ nerves; but for fans, it is one of the most exciting times of the season.

COCKTAIL CONVERSATION: FSN-Southwest reports an 83% increase in viewership this season. Certainly, the continued success of the team on the field accounts for most of the fan interest, but FSN has really done a good job with the pre- and post-game shows around the telecasts. Also, in another note relating to fan interest, the Rangers home attendance will go over the 2,000,000 mark on their next home game July 23rd. That will be the 46th home date of the season, clearly the earliest Texas has ever reached 2,000,000 in a season. In fact, it was just four years ago that the Rangers didn’t reach 2,000,000 for the entire season.

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