It has been an almost "perfect storm" conversion of recent events that have
made the Cole Hamels Watch such an important and perhaps defining moment in the
Phillies season, one in which they do seem to have weathered much of the storm
to restore their current lead in the National League Eastern standings. After
what seemed an interminable period of losing, which really only lasted two weeks
[June 14-27] and saw the team perform at a 2-10 pace during that period, almost
all seems back on course for the Good Ship Cholly-pop entering what is normally
known as the Dog Days of August.
The disclaimer of "almost all" has come about because of a recent report on a local Philadelphia radio sports station. The report, given to long time sportscaster Howard Eskin, was that according to several scouts who routinely watch the Phillies, ace lefty Cole Hamels is currently suffering from a tiny fracture of the elbow, but will attempt to pitch through it. Eskin was quick to point out that these reports were not from him, but had been passed along to him by his "sources."
Of course, any mention of Howard Eskin is guaranteed to produce more than the usual round of guffaws and laughter, amidst a general feeling of incredulity. To be fair, Eskin has been wrong many times and made a special point to mention that these whispers were not coming from his mouth but from the mouths of baseball scouts who have been watching Hamels pitch. For his part, Cole Hamels denied the reports emphatically and emphasized his continued goal was to pitch the entire 2008 season without even one stint on the disabled list.
The story might well have died there except for several disquieting and seemingly unrelated events that have taken place over the past few weeks which well could lend credence to Eskin's assertions. One fact that cannot be disputed is Hamel's recent ineffectiveness on the hill. He has not been victorious since defeating the Atlanta Braves on July 3, 4-1, a period of over a month now. Interestingly enough, he pitched 8.2 innings that night, and threw 125 pitches. He was allowed to throw that inordinately high number of pitches because he had a shutout going into the ninth inning and was anxious to complete the shutout.
Since that evening over a month ago Hamels has started five games, losing two and pitching to no-decisions in three others. His effectiveness has continued to decrease, and his last two starts against the Braves and St. Louis Cardinals have been two of his least effective outings of the campaign. Equally troublesome has been his propensity for throwing the home run ball, something that was rarely a problem for him in his early days with the organization.
Another interesting tidbit that took place at the July 31 trading deadline was General Manager Pat Gillick's acknowledgment that the Phillies were close to landing a starting pitcher. Gillick mentioned that it would have been a three team trade, and the Phils had agreed with one of the teams about the player they would have received. That team could not work out the personnel details with the third team so the deal died a natural death.
Gillick would not comment on the pitcher involved, though various sources indicated that it was probably either Bronson Arroyo of Cincinnati or Paul Byrd of Cleveland. In the end, it mattered little who the unnamed pitcher was since the deal wasn't consummated but what did matter was the timing of the potential transaction. It came within weeks after the Phils had seemingly taken care of their starting pitcher shortage by acquiring veteran right-hander Joe Blanton from the Oakland Athletics.
With Blanton on board to lend a helping hand, it seemed that the Phils five man rotation was set for the time being. Oh, there were certainly still issues with Brett Myers, issues that have since been resolved by his two standout performances on the recent road trip, but the team had recalled lefty starter J.A. Happ from Lehigh Valley and appeared to have no less than six potential starting pitchers on the staff.
Yet Gillick, far from being coy, insisted that there were several unnamed factors at play in his decision to pursue another starting pitcher, factors that he refused to discuss. One of the rumors was that the Phillies were attempting to deal Myers to a team that would use him as a relief pitcher, something that he has desired all year long. Another train of thought was that Happ was being brought up to become that long sought "second lefty reliever" out of the bullpen to assist the occasionally beleaguered J.C. Romero.
This reasoning might well have made sense except for several upcoming points of contention. One was that both Gillick and manager Charlie Manuel made special mention of the fact that they thought of Happ not as a reliever but as a starting pitcher and that is how they planned to use him. Another was the fact that the Phillies tried desperately to acquire a lefty reliever at the trading deadline. Names like Ron Mahay, Jack Taschner, John Grabow and George Sherrill were mentioned prominently during the final hours before the trade deadline as potential Phillie acquisitions. All had two things in common. All were relievers by trade, and all four are left-handed.
So, this seems to fly in the face of assertions that Happ was being recalled to pitch out of the bullpen. Then to add even more fuel to the fire, in the past few days the Phillies have sent right-handed reliever Rudy Seanez to the disabled list and recalled none other than 32 year old lefty reliever Lee Walrond from Lehigh Valley.
The recall of Walrond effectively gives the Phillies their desired two lefties out of the bullpen and would seem to leave the talented and highly valued Happ in proverbial "baseball limbo." Unless, of course, he has become the teams safety valve in case they need another starting pitcher in the near future. Which would seem to lead right back to Cole Hamels and his valuable but often brittle left arm.
Let's take a quick dissection of the current Phil rotation and decide if anyone other than Hamels could at this point be considered for replacement. Surely not ageless Jamie Moyer, arguably the greatest acquisition of the Gillick Era, and a hurler who has not suffered from either injury or ineffectiveness since his arrival two years ago in 2006. Certainly not young Kyle Kendrick, who has merely fashioned a 19-9 record in a bit over a year since his recall from the minors in May of 2007.
Brett Myers has certainly cemented his place in the rotation after his two stalwart starts against Washington and St. Louis and recently acquired Joe Blanton has never been a reliever before and was not brought in to become one now. Added to that is the fact that the team was overjoyed with his recent 2-1 triumph in St. Louis and the fact that he pitched, in the words of Mike Arbuckle, "exactly like the scouts told us he would pitch" when the team brought him in.
That leaves only Cole Hamels as the missing equation to the potential math problem here. And there is no way the Phillies are thinking of A] sending Hamels to the minor leagues or B] attempting to move him to either the bullpen or to another club in a waiver wire deal this month. No, the Phillies understand as well as anyone just how talented and valuable Hamels is to not only their present but their future as well.
Any talk of present or future Phillie success almost always begins and ends with the names Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Pat Burrell, Brad Lidge...and Cole Hamels. The team and organization will do everything possible to insure that he remains healthy and wealthy while they remain wise when it comes to his treatment and workload. Speaking of workload, herein lies the potential rub to this whole Cole Hamels issue. Simply put, there are many long time baseball insiders who question just how much of a workload the golden left arm of Hamels can actually take when it comes to the rigors of a long and grinding major league marathon season.
Truth be told, one of the reasons that Cole Hamels has been so outspoken about staying off the disabled list this year is that his history indicates that he has never been able to attain this goal in the past. In high school he sustained a fractured left arm during his junior year at Rancho Bernardo, an injury that made many scouts wary of drafting him when he became available in the summer of 2002. To their credit, the Phils had no such concerns and have since reaped the benefits of having trusted their instincts.
Still, the fractured left arm was not the only injury the talented lefty has suffered, but was merely the first of several. While in the minor leagues, Hamels was involved in an off field fight and broke his left hand. The injury healed well and he has had no further issues with his hand. However, his back difficulties are another story and one that was so serious that it A] caused the Phils to place him on the disabled list last August and B] was important enough to Hamels to cause him to campaign for a team chiropractor, a request the Phillies wisely agreed to this spring.
Until the Eskin rumor surfaced last week there was little to indicate that anything was potentially wrong. Since the report, there has been ample evidence that something could be amiss with the Phillie lefty. Not only his ineffectiveness but the fact that as of August 4, he has amassed no less than 160 innings pitched so far this year. At his current average of 7 innings per start [in his 23 openings] Hamels is likely to pitch about 230 innings this year if he maintains his current pace. There is more than one scout in the business who doubts that the lanky lefty can withstand a pace of 230 innings, not to mention the added total if the Phils make it to the playoffs in October.
Although the Phillies will never admit it publicly, they may be equally as wary and this is why they felt the need to have the trusty left arm of J.A. Happ available just in case. Not only this, but the top pitching prospect in the organization, right-hander Carlos Carrasco was not only advanced to Triple-A Lehigh Valley this week, but pitched effectively in his first start with none other than Assistant GM Ruben Amaro and Managing General Partner David Montgomery in attendance.
Amaro was quick to deny any significance to his and Montgomery's appearance at the ballpark but did not deny the possibility of a September recall to Philadelphia for their prized 21 year old right-hander. This could only add to the drama of the question, "whither Cole Hamels?" which is likely to be uttered by every concerned Phillie fanatic over the next couple of months. If nothing else, it makes his next few starts against Florida, Los Angeles and San Diego very significant and potentially news worthy.
His upcoming start on Thursday against the Marlins speaks for itself given the fact that the Florida nine have proven to be worthy and formidable opponents for both the Phightins and the New York Mets this season. Currently the Marlins trail the Phils by only a few games and can do significant damage to the Phillie playoff hopes by defeating their hosts at Citizens Bank Park this week. It will be up to Hamels to help insure this doesn't happen in the final game of the three game series.
The lefties next two starts are scheduled to take place on the West Coast in Los Angeles and in his hometown of San Diego. Both starts are significant for Hamels as he is sure to have several hundred family and friends in attendance, especially during the Padres game. He will no doubt wish to be at his best for both games. With all three games being so important to not only the team but the stylish left-hander, it behooves him to pitch well and with determination. Should he struggle during this period, this will send up a huge red flag to all involved that something is wrong and that perhaps Howard Eskin's "sources" were correct after all. Stay tuned.
For all involved, it is best hoped that the rumors are nothing more than that, unfounded rumors. It seems unlikely that the Phillies could withstand any loss of Hamels for a significant period of time, and certainly not with the Marlins and Mets in hot pursuit. Simply put, the team depends on a top Hamels effort every time out and his loss or ineffectiveness could probably not be solved merely by inserting a Happ or Carrasco in his place.
August is waiver wire month and it will be interesting to see if the team continues its pursuit of another starting pitcher via the waiver wire in the next few weeks. Pat Gillick has long been adroit at picking up a valued player during this stretch and it will not be a surprise if this trend continues this season. At first glance, it would appear that the Phillies immediate need would be another bat to either replace or assist with such slumping or injured regulars like Geoff Jenkins and Pedro Feliz. However, if the team insists on bringing in another starting hurler, the Hamels injury drumbeat is likely to beat even louder than it already is.
While this certainly makes for an interesting sidebar to what has been an equally interesting season, on the field where it most counts the Philadelphia Phillies have righted the ship after taking on far too much water during the latter stages of June and early July. As previously stated, the real downfall of the club occurred during a two week period in June when they faced the American League's two finest teams, the Los Angeles Angels and the Boston Red Sox. Losing five of six to these teams literally sent the Phillies into a downward spiral that seemed to end almost as quickly as it began.
Remarkably the club had an outstanding month of July, though it certainly didn't start out that way when they seemed to be losing ground to the arch rival New York Mets on an almost nightly basis. However, when the summer heat of July turned its pages to the even more stifling swelters of August the Phillies had finished July with a 15-10 record, a division winning .600 pace. This not only allowed the team to gather some much needed momentum entering a difficult schedule in August [eight games against the suddenly powerful Los Angeles Dodgers] but proved to be the impetus needed to catapult back into first place in the NL Eastern Division.
Other than the potential ramifications of a Hamels injury, the team was relatively healthy and getting healthier by the day. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins is unlikely to be 100% all year but seems to have regained some of the quickness that so defines his game. 40 year old reliever Tom Gordon is throwing again in the minor leagues and could rejoin the team when they begin their western swing next week.
Third baseman Pedro Feliz has been diagnosed with a slight bulging disk in his back but the team didn't seem overly worried and has withheld from the inclination to seek a replacement from outside the organization. For the time being, they are content to go with the platoon system of Greg Dobbs and Eric Bruntlett until Feliz is deemed ready to play in a couple of weeks. Henry Ford once remarked that "nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small parts." So far, the Phillies have done just that and more.
To this point Gillick and Company have navigated some potentially troublesome waters with aplomb, patience and the steady hand of master steersman, Charlie Manuel. The slumps of Ryan Howard and Geoff Jenkins, the ineffectiveness of Brett Myers, the loss to free agency of center fielder Aaron Rowand and the injuries to Rollins, Gordon and Feliz have more than been off set by the clear vision of full speed ahead led by the charges of Chase Utley, Pat Burrell, Jayson Werth, Brad Lidge, Jamie Moyer...and Cole Hamels.
Yet the course is far from finished. If baseball were a golf game the Phillies would now be preparing to tee off on about the fourteen hole with the game in hand and a decent lead to protect. Still, they face the final five holes with the slightest bit of trepidation, not because of any lingering fears of slumps, dissension or a roster unprepared for the battles upcoming. Rather, they seek to silence the whispers and prove the rumors unfounded, and along with their ace lefty hurler hope to hit the fairway running with a strong nine iron.
Instead of attempting to find their way out of a thick forest of trees or a marshland of sand and swamp the...Phils seek a Cole-in-one.
Columnist's Note: Please email all questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast
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