Few young hurlers in recent Philadelphia history have created such buzz as have Cole Hamels and Gavin Floyd, aka the Ghost and the Shadow. Not only did they command the largest signing bonuses in Phillie annuals, but they were certainly among the two most highly coveted high school hurlers ever signed in PhillieLand. Oh, a case could well be made that Brett Myers was a major coup back in the early 2000s, and the past has been dotted with such touted youngsters like Art Mahaffey, Ray Culp, Rick Wise, Ferguson Jenkins, Larry Christenson, Dick Ruthven and Scott Munninghoff. Not coincidentally, all made it to the big leagues, albeit with varying degrees of success in The City of Brotherly Love.
Mahaffey, Christenson and Ruthven all had there best years with the Phils, while Culp and Wise went on to greater fame and fortune elsewhere. Jenkins, of course, carved out a Hall of Fame career in Chicago and Texas while Munninghoff had a brief early season role with the eventual World Champion 1980 Phillies before returning to the minor leagues, and eventual anonymity in the American League. Myers, of course, has flourished in Philadelphia and appears set to establish
himself as a top of the rotation mainstay with the Phils for years to come.
Still, most of the above named hurlers have paled in comparison to the excitement created by the anticipation that both Hamels and Floyd would someday anchor a staff that would finally lead the team and its city back to the upper atmosphere of the National League, a place that they maintained for the greater part of a decade back in the late 70s and early 80s. Yet, for all the expected fireworks created by the potential of Hamels and Floyd, it has occurred to me that as of now, the fireworks have been much more fuel than flame as these two youngsters attempt the difficult task of establishing themselves as productive major league ballplayers.
Equally frustrating for Phillie phanatics is that while both have yet to fully make their mark in a rotation that badly needs their services, the reasons for their lack of sustained success couldn't be more clouded in mystery...much like the young lions who confounded the hunters in Africa, the Ghost and the Shadow. For Hamels, it has been merely a case of health, or lack of it. With Floyd, consistency has been the culprit, or once more, the lack of it.
Cole Hamels, thy name is the Ghost, and a more confounding ghost was rarely seen in a Phillie uniform. So talented that even the most jaded and skeptical of baseball scouts have eagerly compared him to Steve Carlton, the simple truth is that we have rarely witnessed this amazing skill since he signed in late summer of 2002. When he has pitched, he has dazzled and amazed everyone with his poise, command and knowledge of pitching. Truth be told, Cole Hamels could well be the best left-handed pitcher ever signed by the Phils, and this is said with
apologies to both Curt Simmons and Chris Short.
Yet, for all the admitted dash and dance of his pitching talents, he has up to this point displayed an equally consistent ability to find himself unable to pitch for reasons that are both easily explained, as well as some that have never been totally understood. Oh, we know all about the back spasms, elbow twinges and various and sundry other minor injuries that have up to now curtailed his growth as a pitcher.
Not so easily understood are the other injuries, the broken arm suffered in high school as well as the broken hand received last spring when he either A] started a fight with an ill-advised left handed punch or B] defended himself in a fight with a still ill-advised left handed punch. The truth of what really happened in the fight may never be known but this much we do know. For a pitcher who makes his living throwing with his left arm, hitting someone with your left hand is never advisable and for a player to be suspended by his team, like Hamels was with the Phils, the chances are that B is closer to the truth than is A.
As for the broken arm suffered in high school, again that prized and fragile left one, the story changes depending on who you ask. Hamels said it occurred in a touch football game, while others insist it happened when he once more became entangled in an ill-fated fight and off the field theatrics. Whichever story is true, and at this time, the point is moot, the fact remains that Hamels has all too often given everyone a taste of his tantalizing talent, and then disappeared into the mist and fog. Like the Ghost.
The latest such disappearance occurred as he was about to make his much
anticipated home debut against the Washington Nationals this week. It seems that he was soft tossing last week in New York and felt a "pop" in his shoulder, never a good sign for a pitcher, especially one with the fragile health of Mr. Hamels. Red flags were waved and alarm bells went off everywhere in Philadelphia as visions of Tyler Green, Brad Brink and Pat Combs once again danced in the heads of Phillie executives from Mike Arbuckle to Dallas Green.
Fortunately, the news looks good...for the time being. The "pop" was probably more crackle than snap and the lefty is expected to make a rehabilitation start this week in the minors and is could well be back in the rotation by early June. Still, with Hamels, anticipation is as much a part of the game as are the results, so forgive me a bit, if I wait and see how he does in his rehab start before I again anoint him as savior of a much starved Phillie pitching staff.
As with all ghosts, they can be as contrary and reluctant as they are elusive. While Hamels certainly gives Phillie phans pause to wonder if they have at last struck gold in this California golden boy, it might well be best served to wait and wonder just when this ghost will reappear, hopefully on the pitchers mound and not once again on someone's missing in action stat sheet.
Gavin Floyd has been as equally confounding and confusing as has Hamels, but for a much different reason. Unlike Hamels, Floyd has rarely been injured since signing a contract just days before beginning college classes at the University of South Carolina in the late August of 2001. In fact, for all the skills of Hamels, it is Floyd who commanded the larger bonus, a staggering 4 million dollars, back in the summer of 2001. This merely doubled Hamels' bonus, and yet no one balked at Floyd's price tag then. He was that good, and much was expected of him.
With a prototype major league pitcher's built and height, Floyd would seem to have everything going for him. His brother Mike was a former Phillie minor league player so the pedigree is certainly there. Tall, lanky, and with a devastating curveball, Floyd has all too often tantalized everyone with his potential, and then left again to hide in the shadows. Gavin Floyd, thy name is the Shadow. In reality, there is much to be said about this description of Gavin Floyd.
Think of a shadow for a minute. It appears occasionally, always bigger than life, and always accompanied by sunshine and brightness. However, the shadow comes and goes with the variances of the location, much like Floyd's success comes and goes with the variances of his location, pitching location that is. When his curve is working, his average fastball looks quicker than it is, and keeps hitters off balance and honest. When the curve doodles instead of dips, he loses confidence in it, with predictable results. The off balance fastball becomes a batting practice pitch and Floyd not only loses control, but effectiveness.
Fortunately, the Phightins have shown more patience with Floyd this year, and if patience is a virtue, then the Phils have been quite virtuous with the right-handed hurler. It has been well chronicled in this column of the emotional damage done to Floyd last year, though the time is soon coming when this story must be forever be permanently put to rest.
For those phans still unaware, Floyd tossed a brilliant opening week gem against the St. Louis Cardinals in his initial start of the '05 campaign. Yet, instead of going directly to Floyd and congratulating him on his solid seasonal debut, manager Charlie Manuel quickly announced to one and all that, however grateful he was for Floyd's solid opening week success, he would soon lose his job once
Vicente Padilla was deemed healthy enough to resume his place in the rotation.
With predictable results, Floyd's next start was an unmitigated disaster, as was the rest of his season. This changed, however, when new GM. Pat Gillick took the youngster aside this spring and said a starting rotation job was his as long as he continued to earn it. Floyd seemed to relish this confidence building approach in spring training games and was easily the best hurler on the Phillie spring staff. He clearly earned a berth in the rotation, a spot he still has
though his performances have been uneven and sporadic. Much like a shadow.
Even now, there remains much to like about the Ghost and the Shadow. In Hamels two major league starts against Cincinnati and Milwaukee, he left both games with the lead and could easily be 2-0 if not for the foibles of an occasionally unreliable bullpen. Not once has he appeared awed or ill-prepared in either start and only injury seems capable of keeping him from soon becoming one of the more dominating hurlers in the National League. In fact, no less an authority than Atlanta Braves skipper, Bobby Cox, was inspired to call Hamels a potential number one starter in Philadelphia...and soon! If and when this occurs, it can be hoped that Hamels will be a ghost no more, but a
prized and reliable starter on a suddenly imposing young Phillie staff.
As for Floyd, his four wins have all been earned, while at least two of his more recent starts resulted in no decisions when bullpen failures grasped defeat from the jaws of victory. Floyd left a game in Milwaukee with a 4-3 lead, only to see the bullpen quickly lose the lead and in a recent start in New York, he had the Mets beat 8-5 late when reliever Ryan Franklin tossed up an ill-conceived curveball to Jose Reyes, with predictable results. Reye's rare home run tied
the game in the eighth inning and the Mets would eventually win a 16 inning marathon that they never led until the final result.
Still, like the shadow, he comes and goes with the weather, and it can only be hoped that with summer approaching, the shadow will stay longer and reflect more powerfully on National League hitters instead of dimming and blending with the changing fortunes of his curveball and occasional lack of command. Though Floyd will probably never be a number one starting pitcher on the Phillie staff, there seems more than enough room for him at the top end of the rotation. It seems quite realistic to picture a starting rotation consisting of Hamels, Floyd, Brett Myers, Ryan Madson and one of an absolute slew of minor league pitching phenoms that could soon burst on to the Philadelphia scene.
This can come none to soon as far as I am concerned. Jon Lieber's latest misfortune, a groin injury, could well be a precursor to an even more alarming announcement...that his trusted right arm is bothering him much more than he is currently letting on. Baseball trainers have long suspected that groin injuries are merely the bodies way of announcing to the world that there is something much worse going on somewhere else, and the athlete is compensating for that injury when a groin pull occurs.
If you may recall, Lieber had an abysmal spring and on more than one occasion commented that his shoulder felt tight. This can never be a good announcement coming from a pitcher who has had shoulder surgery and is nearing his mid 30's in age. My guess is that Lieber's arm is bothering him much more than he is letting on and if this groin injury should keep him sidelined for anywhere over a few weeks, my guess is that the arm is much worse than the groin, and Lieber is merely trying to buy time in hopes of being a major contributor to an anticipated Phil's run at a National League wild card berth.
And while the news remains promising on the eventual return to action of veteran lefty Randy Wolf, the simple fact of the matter is that the Phils will need every able bodied hurler if they are to not only attempt a run at the division leading New York Mets, but to stave off the advances of the ever dangerous Atlanta Braves. At present, the team looks two pitchers short of this goal, a fact that Gillick has certainly noticed.
Rumors are running rampant that Gillick may be in the initial stages of making a run at acquiring lefty Dontrelle Willis from the Florida Marlins before the trading deadline of July 31. In fact, Assistant GM Ruben Amaro has been privately telling anyone who will listen that the team will soon acquire another pitcher. Whether or not this means Willis is an open question but Gillick will not rest until he brings in another starting pitcher and Willis is said to be eminently available. The Phils could offer a package that might include outfielder Shane Victorino, catcher Carlos Ruiz and young minor league pitching phenom, Giovany Gonzalez.
If the Phils cannot work out a deal for Willis, look for another pitcher to come to Philadelphia, and soon. With the uncertainty of Lieber and Wolf, and the inconsistency of another veteran, Cory Lidle, the Phils cannot afford to wait too long before acting. The Mets and Braves are both rumored to be interested in Willis, and if either of these two teams acquires the D-Train, the Phils chances of playing ball past September will be dimmed immeasurably.
Still, a deal for Willis, or Barry Zito for that matter, is problematical at best. At worst, the team hopes that Myers will continue moving forward as a potential top of the rotation starting pitcher, and that the resurrected Ryan Madson will show he belongs in the rotation. The Phils can only hope that Lidle has more good days than bad and that Lieber and Wolf are healthy enough to contribute to the cause on more than an occasional basis.
Oh, and the Phillies certainly hope for one more thing. They hope that much like what happened with the two lions in Africa who eventually surfaced for good and were found to be more fact than fiction, youngsters Cole Hamels and Gavin Floyd will also surface as resilient and reliable starting pitchers on the staff and forever discard their current surnames as...the Ghost and the Shadow.
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