CD's Connect the Dots... Red Flags

To watch him throw is to marvel at the physical talents. A curveball that literally causes hitter's knees to buckle. A changeup that veteran hurlers envy. A fastball that regularly touches 94 MPH. The poise on the mound that tells the world that here is an athlete born to be a pitcher. Those are the rose colored images painted for all to see. Unfortunately, for Cole Hamels, the troubled young phenom in the Phillies organzation, the red roses have turned to red flags.

The news could not have been more staggering, nor more ironic. Literally days after announcing to the world that Hamels was ready for spring training and might open the season at Double A Reading, the Phils had to announce on Tuesday that he had suffered yet another setback. This time it was a broken bone in his left hand, the hand that throws the curve, the changeup, and the fastball that causes people to marvel.

Even more ominous, the story is slowing unfolding that Hamels was not an innocent bystander, merely in the wrong place at the wrong time. It appears he may have initiated the problem by throwing the punch that ultimately lead to his injury. Certainly, the truth will unfold as time passes, but this much is clear. For a pitcher of such talent as Hamels, this latest setback can do nothing but give pause to wonder if there aren't deeper issues here, and if the Phils will ever see that enourmous potential transformed onto the fields of Citizens Bank Park.

As most Phillie fans are well aware, Hamels is no ordinary prospect. Far from it. He is not only perhaps the most talented prospect in the Phils' organization, but is one of the top 10 or 15 prospects in baseball. This hurler so dazzled the opposition in 2003, that he was named Minor League Pitcher of the Year despite pitching a bit over 100 innings. His dominance was awe-inspiring, as he appeared a man among boys while pitching in Lakewood.

His performance reminded many long time observers of Steve Carlton during that magical 1972 season when the Phils were atrocious, except when Carlton pitched. That Phillie team won a mere 59 games, yet Carlton won a staggering 27 of them, and was so dominant that he literally lifted his teammates to greater heights every time he was on the hill.

Such was the performance of Hamels with Lakewood in '03. Performing for a very poor team, his record of 6-1 with a microscopic ERA of 0.84 was made even more impressive by his 115 strikeouts in but 75 innings of work. While a late season promotion to Clearwater resulted in an 0-2 record, he still was impressive with a 2.73 ERA and 32 strikeouts in 26 innings of work.

The entire Phillie organziation was ecstatic and began to have images of a young Hamels and Gavin Floyd soon leading a pitching staff that would include Brett Myers, Ryan Madson and others to untold glory in The City of Brotherly Love. Ah, but unfortunately, those nasty old red flags began to appear again.

Again? Sadly, the red flags first appeared when the Phillies were assessing their chances of drafting Hamels in the 2002 June Amateur Draft. With the 17th pick in the first round, the Phils thought their chances were nil as rumors spoke that teams like the Padres and Angels had Hamels clearly on their radar screen.

It would have been impossible not to have him on the screen...a 10-0 record in his senior year at Rancho Bernardo High School in San Diego had everyone excited. Even more impressive was the way he had seemingly bounced back from what appeared to be a career ending broken arm, an injury that had caused him to miss his entire junior season.

It was this broken arm that had first elicited red flags in area scouts; not the injury necessarily, but how it happened. The talk was of a football injury, but even to this day the story is sketchy. Truth be told, it would seem that a player suffering a broken arm would know how it happened, but Hamels remains elusive about the cause. This much is known. It was his golden left arm that was broken, and it was certainly a tribute to not only his rehabilitation schedule but to a doctor able to fix completely what once was damaged that saved the day.

Still, baseball history has not been kind to pitchers who suffer broken arms and Hamels was attempting the near impossible. Who can forget the tales of former star pitchers Dave Dravecky, Tom Browning and Jim Wright? All struck down in their primes with broken arms, never again to regain their form. Yes, Hamels was facing long odds, but his 10-0 record seemed to be a startling exclamation point to a heartwarming story.

Yet, when both the Padres and Angels passed on Hamels, despite the obvious lure of drafting a local prodigy, Hamels literally fell into the Phillies' hands. Needless to say, the Phils never blinked an eye and actually congratulated themselves on their seeming good fortune. They would merely ignore the red flag of a mysterious broken arm and cultivate the good fortune of drafting a youngster of immense promise and skill.

Negotiations dragged on through the summer, and as other Phillie high school picks like Zack Segovia, Kiel Fisher and Jake Blalock quickly signed contracts and began their careers, Hamels balked. Oh, the negotiations were never acrimonious, and the Phils never thought they had a J.D. Drew situation on their hands, but it still seemed a bit unsettling. Especially when word leaked out that rather than staying in shape by playing for a summer league team, Hamels was spending his time enjoying the San Diego summer.

All seemed forgotten when in a late August appearance at old Veteran's Stadium, Hamels and the Phils announced agreement on a deal worth 2 million dollars. The price seemed reasonable, especially since merely the year before, fellow high school whiz Gavin Floyd had signed for twice the amount. Hamels said he would report to Clearwater in September for the Florida Instructional League, with aspirations of a full season ticket awaiting him in April of 2003.

From most accounts, Hamels was once again dazzling in the FIL but proved a major dissapointment to the Phils when he reported to Spring Training in dreadful shape. Oh, the Phils put on a brave face, and talked about going slowly with their prize 19 year old, but clearly they were alarmed at yet another developmental setback for their prize lefty.

Once again, all seemed forgiven when Hamels was finally deemed ready to pitch competitively and began to turn Lakewood opponents on their collective ears. His starts became front page fodder, as fans from Pennsylvania to California [yes, I was caught up in Hamels frenzy!] literally charted his inning by inning dominance of South Atlantic League hitters. It became almost an event when he allowed a run, and the numbers seemed almost surreal. He relinquished only 7 runs in 75 innings, and when he was mercifully moved up to the Florida State League, opposing hitters finally could breathe again.

At Clearwater, his numbers were a bit more pedestrian, but still the talent and mound presence were clearly evident and it culminated in his being named Minor League Pitcher of the Year, an award that was well deserved. Suffice it to say, the Phillie brass from top to bottom was giddy with delight, both at their good fortune in plucking such a steal with the seventeenth pick and for being bold enough to ignore the red flags of a mysterious broken arm and an out of shape appearance in the spring.

To his credit, Hamels not only was invited to spring training with the Phillies in 2004, but made one brief but lasting appearance against the New York Yankees in a memorable March outing. The game was televised nationally on ESPN and Hamels proceeded to strike out the side. And the hitters he faced were not low level minor league players but none other than mega stars like Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Tony Clark.

Yet, even in a shining moment like this, another red flag occured, a sore elbow that refused to subside. This unfortunate injury once again shelved Hamels and although his '04 numbers were again staggering...a 1-0 record at Clearwater with an ERA of 1.13 in 16 innings, along with 24 more strikeouts, the simple fact remained that in nearly two seasons of action, he had pitched a mere 125 innings.

Once again, the Phils put on their best game face and talked of how this go slow pace was actually protecting a golden arm. Perhaps...but the simple fact is that a player only improves by playing and since his junior season mishap, he had only made it through one complete season without injury, his senior season at Rancho Bernardo.

Although Hamels did make a brief, and apparently successful, appearance in Philadelphia's FIL program last fall, the word was that rest and rehabilitation was all that was needed to once again put him on the fast track to major league stardom. When the Phillies announced over the weekend that Hamels was not only healthy but expected to open the 2005 season in Double A with Reading, Phillie fans exhaled again. Unfortunately, the inhale was only days away.

Tuesday's announcement hit like a slegehammer in its stunning reversal...after visions of a dominant April start in Reading culminating in a possible late season promotion to PhillieLand, everything was once again put on hold. This time a mysterious late night brawl had led to fisticuffs, and a broken left [there is that ominous southpaw slant again] hand. At first, Hamels tried to plead mea culpa and make it sound like he was an innocent victim of possibly jealous antagonists.

However, police reports paint another picture, a story of Hamels returning to the scene of the crime, from whence the injury occured. This is not meant to necessarily indict him, the story seems to change daily. What is known is that Hamels certainly exhibited poor judgement and telling disregard for a hand and arm that has been priced at two million dollars and counting.

So, where precisely are we now and what can we reasonably expect in the near future? At this point, the Phils announced that Hamels will miss up to three months, which now puts his return for sometime in May. He will have a pin inserted into his hand, and might have his cast removed after six weeks. He can resume throwing after that, and with care and rehab, he should be fine. The key words in this equation appear to be "should be."

The simple fact is that pitchers are a delicate breed, and the slightest alteration in their delivery can cause havoc to their ability to pitch effectively. Historians remember well the sad tales of former super star hurlers, Dizzy Dean and Herb Score. Both suffered injuries which eventually altered their deliveries and caused them to retire prematurely.

Conversely, one thinks of still effective hurlers like Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux, pitchers who have never suffered major injuries and have maintained their skill through pin point control rather than overwhelming stuff. Clearly, the jury remains out on Hamels and no amount of positive spin eminating from the spinmasters in Philadelphia can alter that fact.

Actually, who can blame the Phillies for attempting to spin a positive light on this latest Hamels setback? For all the money paid, all the potential dominance, the numbers indicate that in two seasons as a pro, Hamels has amassed a ground total of seven wins. Yes, each win so far worth a princely sum of $300,000 a triumph. In this time such less famous organzational lefty mates as Nick Bourgeois and Beau Richardson have won 12 games each while even less heralded southpaw hurlers like Zac Cline and Kyle Parcus have accumulated 7 and 6 wins, respectively.

So, phaithful Phillie phanatics, as we turn the calendar to February, one can but imagine the sweet smell of grass and the sound of bat meeting ball in the Florida sunshine. It is nearly spring, and spring reminds one and all of baseball...Phillies baseball. In the spring, every baseball fan naturally puts on his rose-colored glasses, glasses that see only triumph and success. Fair enough.

Yet, look a bit closer through those glasses, those rose-colored Phillie glasses and one can't help but see a new and potentially ominous flag up ahead. The flag is the unmistakable image of the latest Cole Hamels setback, and the color of the flag is not rose colored...but red.

Columnist's Note: Please send comments or questions to allenariza@earthlink.net and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast

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