atlanta braves

Sorry, folks, no storybook return to Philly for Cole Hamels

Sorry, folks, no storybook return to Philly for Cole Hamels

It sounded like a great idea.

But it won’t happen.

Cole Hamels is headed to the Atlanta Braves on a one-year, $18 million contract, according to ESPN. The veteran lefty had been pursued by a handful of teams, and the Phillies did have interest, but the Braves made the top bid.

Hamels’ landing with the Braves — especially on a one-year deal — will no doubt sting in Philadelphia. Hamels was drafted by the Phils in 2002 and six years later was MVP of the franchise’s second World Series championship. Hamels was traded to Texas as part of a rebuild in the summer of 2015 and many fans had hoped he’d return as a free agent this winter. Even Hamels talked about a potential reunion in Philadelphia last May.

The sting is compounded by the fact that Hamels is going to an NL East rival. The Braves and Phillies play 19 times per season and Hamels could make a half-dozen or more starts per season against the Phils. Hamels has pitched against the Phils twice in his career — both last season with the Chicago Cubs — and it has not gone well. He was tagged for 18 hits and 11 runs in just six innings.

The Braves, who won the NL East each of the last two seasons, remain in go-for-it mode. They have had a busy winter, previously signing free-agent relievers Will Smith and Chris Martin and catcher Travis d’Arnaud. Hamels will be the elder statesman in a rotation that includes youngsters Mike Soroka, an All-Star at 21 last season, and Max Fried. He will be backed by a big offense that features Phillie killer Freddie Freeman and young guns Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies.

Hamels, who turns 36 this month, is no longer the top-of-the rotation pitcher he was during his prime in Philadelphia, but, if healthy, he can be a strong stabilizer in the back half of any team’s rotation. He had a 3.81 ERA for the Cubs in 27 starts last season but missed a month with an oblique injury suffered in late June. Hamels was quite good before the injury, recording 2.98 ERA in 17 starts. He struggled and pitched to a 5.79 ERA in 10 starts after returning from the IL. He did not receive a qualifying offer from the Cubs so he will not cost the Braves a draft pick.

So, where do the Phillies go from here as they attempt to improve and deepen their starting rotation?

Well, they are trying to sign Zack Wheeler to work along with Aaron Nola near the top of the rotation and they continue to look for stabilizers and innings-eaters who can fill out the middle and back end of the rotation with Zach Eflin and Jake Arrieta.

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Phillies free-agent target: Josh Donaldson

Phillies free-agent target: Josh Donaldson

Leading up to baseball’s winter meetings, we will take a daily look at some of the game’s top free agents and how they could potentially impact the Phillies.

Today, we check in on slugging third baseman Josh Donaldson.

The vitals

Donaldson has been one of the game’s premier sluggers the last half-dozen seasons. He’s an above-average defender at third base and an outstanding competitor. He has belted at least 33 homers in four of the last five seasons and led the American League with 123 RBIs in 2015, the year he won the AL MVP for Toronto. He battled injury in 2017 and 2018, signed a one-year, $23 million contract with Atlanta a year ago and went on to prove himself healthy by finishing 11th in the National League MVP voting in 2019. He played 155 games for the Braves and hit .259 with 37 homers, 94 RBIs and a .900 OPS.

Why he fits

At a position loaded with sluggers, Donaldson is still one of the best and the Phillies have a big need. Phillies third basemen ranked 24th in OPS (.725) and batting average (.243) and 22nd in homers (23) among big-league clubs in 2019. Donaldson’s fiery style of play would quickly win him fans in Philadelphia.

Why he doesn’t fit

The injury history, coupled with his age — he turns 34 in December — would be a concern on the long-term deal he is seeking, especially when the Phillies have a young third base prospect, Alec Bohm, scheduled to play at Triple A in 2020. Donaldson is one of three big third basemen on the free-agent market with Anthony Rendon and Mike Moustakas. The Phillies have already shown an interest in Moustakas, whose price tag could still allow the team to pump significant resources into pitching.

The price tag

Donaldson jumped quickly at a one-year deal last year. That won’t happen this year. He is said to be looking for at least three years and you have to figure the average annual value will be in the neighborhood of $25 million. If Donaldson keeps producing like he did in 2019, he’d be worth it.

Scout’s take

“He loves to play. And when he’s healthy, he’s a major difference maker. There’s value in that power. The concern for me would be that it’s a long season and he could fit more in the American League because of the DH.”

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Braves' signing of Will Smith has ripple effect on NL East and free agency

Braves' signing of Will Smith has ripple effect on NL East and free agency

Two weeks into free agency, the Braves have been more active than any team. Their biggest move was Thursday's signing of left-hander Will Smith, the top reliever on the market.

Prior to that, Atlanta brought back three of its own would-be-free-agents in right fielder Nick Markakis, catcher Tyler Flowers and reliever Darren O'Day.

The Smith signing is definitely the highest impact move of the bunch and makes the Braves a lot better. His deal is for a reported $40 million over three years. He is coming off his first All-Star appearance and back-to-back stellar years. He was 6-0 with 34 saves and a 2.76 ERA for the Giants in 2019, he struck out 96 in 65⅓ innings and he held lefties to a .157/.167/.229 batting line. Read that again ... 157/.167/.229!

Bryce Harper will face Smith many times over the next three years. The teams meet 19 times per season and you'd figure Smith will face Harper in a high-leverage situation whenever the game is late and close. Harper is 0 for 8 with five strikeouts lifetime against Smith. Smith will also factor into plenty of matchups with Juan Soto.

The Braves tried various closing formulas in 2018. They went through Arodys Vizcaino, A.J. Minter, Luke Jackson, Shane Greene and Melancon. For most of the season, the ninth-inning was a weakness, yet the Braves still won 97 games. 

Melancon will return in 2020 and could still close, but Smith is another very good option if he falters. It would probably make more sense for the Braves to try to use Melancon as the ninth-inning guy to free up Smith for high-leverage spots against lefties in the eighth or even seventh inning.

Why did Smith sign so quickly? For a couple reasons. First, $40 million over three years is a sweet contract for a reliever. He may not have beaten this deal even by waiting. But his representatives also effectively leveraged Thursday's qualifying offer deadline against teams interested in Smith. There was at least a threat that Smith could accept the Giants' one-year, $17.8 million qualifying offer if a better alternative was not presented by Nov. 14. That created more urgency on the Braves' part.

Removing Smith's name from the free-agent relief market further depletes an already light market. The top two potential free-agent relievers were set to be Smith and Aroldis Chapman, but Smith is a Brave in mid-November and Chapman returned to the Yankees on a new deal.

With Smith off the board, the top free-agent reliever might be longtime lefty starter Drew Pomeranz. In 25 appearances with the Brewers after a midseason trade, Pomeranz had a 2.39 ERA and 0.91 WHIP with 45 strikeouts in 26⅓ innings. He's generated a ton of buzz this winter and should also find a lucrative multi-year contract.

Chris Martin, Sergio Romo, Will Harris, Daniel Hudson and Dellin Betances are the best free-agent bullpen arms left. There are also trade candidates like Ken Giles, Raisel Iglesias and maybe Ian Kennedy if the Royals eat most of his remaining $22.5 million.

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