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Max Scherzer or Cole Hamels: Who makes more sense for the Yankees?

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Two aces are available, one via free agency and one via trade. Which route would be best for the Yankees?

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees would have you believe that they're perfectly content entering 2015 with a starting rotation made up of Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, CC Sabathia, Nathan Eovaldi and Chris Capuano. Maybe they believe it themselves. It's not a group without potential. Tanaka and Pineda have been elite when healthy, Eovaldi has great stuff, too and CC could always rebound. But it's a collection that could tumble into disaster with the twist of a knee or the tear of a ligament. No matter how often it's repeated, it's still difficult to believe the Yankees are uninterested in either of the two unequivocal, no doubt about it, surefire number ones still on the market. The guys who could instantly flip the staff from "could go either way" to "one of the best in baseball."

Max Scherzer's free agent market has been slow to develop - not uncommon for Scott Boras clients - thanks to an asking price that's still sitting somewhere north of $200 million. Cole Hamels isn't a free agent, and won't be for several years, but has been made available by Philadelphia and would waive his no-trade clause to go to the Yankees. Like Scherzer, he's controlled by a man who is famous for making unreasonable demands. Phillies GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. reportedly asked New York for Luis Severino or Aaron Judge for the middling Marlon Byrd and the prehistoric Jimmy Rollins. Adding either ace seems unlikely at the moment, given the Steinbrenners' recent purse string tightening and Brian Cashman's prospect-hugging ways of the past few years. But whether Scherzer or Hamels would be a better get for the Yankees is interesting. Let's pretend for a moment that the team does hope to snag a top flight starter this winter and that they are willing to pay the requisite price.

Which pitcher would cost the Yankees more really depends on your definition of cost. From a pure dollars and cents perspective, the answer is easily Scherzer. While he might not break that $200 million plane, the 30-year-old Cy Young winner will top Jon Lester's six-year $155 million guarantee. In the end he'll likely "settle" for the second richest pitcher contract in history, which would usher him past seven years and $180 mil. Hamels, meanwhile, is signed through 2018 for $96 million, or $23.5 mil per season. He has a vesting option for 2019 that kicks in if he throws 400 innings the prior two years, including 200 in 2018, and doesn't finish that season on the disabled list with a left shoulder injury. Using Lester's contract as a template, Hamels is a relative bargain. He'll cost around $3 million less than Scherzer per year between 2015 and 2019, and more importantly, he doesn't come with a $50 million plus commitment in 2020 and 2021, the age 36 and 37 seasons for both players.

The price tag attached to Hamels involves more than just money, though. To sign Scherzer, the Yankees would surrender the 17th pick in the 2015 amateur draft and nothing else. (They've moved up two spots in draft order since the beginning of the off-season thanks to the Mets and Blue Jays losing picks.) For Hamels, they'd be parting with several of their best prospects, including at least one of Severino and Judge, and probably someone from the Greg Bird, Gary Sanchez, Ian Clarkin tier as well. Using FanGraphs' $7 million-per-win valuation (not my favorite metric of theirs but useful for this exercise) and a fairly conservative $185 million-ish estimate for Scherzer's contract, the talent the Yankees give up would need to be worth less than 10 or so fWAR over the next seven years to make trading for Hamels the better investment. This is obviously an over-simplified way of looking at it as there are other factors at play. We don't know if the Yankees will bring their prospects to the majors if they don't deal for Hamels, or if they'll use them in another trade somewhere down the road. We also don't know how or if they'd spend what they'd save in 2020 and 2021 by not paying Hamels instead of paying Scherzer. Still, 10 wins over seven years doesn't seem like that much to ask for.

Aside from cost, there's the question of who suits the Yankees better on the field. You really can't go wrong either way. Over the past three seasons, both have been outstanding, but Scherzer's numbers are slightly more prolific.

2012-2014 GS IP FIP WHIP K:9 BB:9 fWAR
Scherzer 97 622.1 2.94 1.13 10.46 2.59 16.5
Hamels 94 640.0 3.21 1.14 8.66 2.26 12.3

Scherzer is exactly six months younger than Hamels and has thrown nearly 600 fewer MLB innings. His lower innings count is reportedly why the Yankees preferred him to Lester earlier in the off-season. Hamels is left-handed, which is generally helpful when pitching at Yankee Stadium and does a better job keeping batted balls on the ground. His ground ball to fly ball rate since 2012 is 1.28 as opposed to Scherzer's 0.86, and that's also a useful trait in the Bronx, especially in front of the Yankees' newly improved infield defense. The fly ball pitcher equals bad fit narrative on Scherzer is a bit overblown, though. Not very many of those flies he allows are well hit - his 0.85 HR/9 average the last three seasons is nearly identical to Hamels' 0.83 - and his outstanding strikeout rate ensures fewer balls put in play to begin with. Sure, grounders can't end up in the seats, but neither can pitches that are swung at and missed.

If Hamels were the only great pitcher available I'd have no issue with the Yankees going all in and giving up the necessary young talent to get him. But he isn't. One of the great advantages the so-called rich teams have - if they choose to use it - is that they don't need to slice up their farm to make the big trade when there's a comparable player available for just cash.