A year ago, Cole Hamels was everywhere.
He tossed the coin at the 50-yard line before an Eagles-Giants game, danced with Ellen DeGeneres, read the Top 10 List for David Letterman, signed a $20.5 million contract extension, moved into a 2,700-square-foot condo high atop one of Philadelphia's tallest skyscrapers and became the pitchman in a half-dozen commercials.
Life was good.
In 2009, though, Hamels got flattened by reality. Only 25, with just two above-average pitches and having slacked in his winter training program, the 2008 World Series MVP became mediocre. In the postseason, he caught flak for negative body language on the mound and a misread comment about being eager for his nightmarish season to end.
But, through it all, Hamels is still a member of the Phillies rotation, even after a whirlwind period in which they dealt for one Cy Young Award-winning ace and ditched another in corresponding trades. And while the masses debate the decision to send Cliff Lee to Seattle in an effort to replenish a farm system further decimated by the addition of Roy Halladay, one underlying factor played into both moves.
The Phillies' faith in Hamels is unyielding.
"Last year, most people were looking at him as a top-of-the-rotation guy," general manager Ruben Amaro said, "and that's exactly what I believe he is."
This winter, Amaro and pitching coach Rich Dubee are keeping close tabs on Hamels, and the word is he began throwing nearly a month ago. Without the television talk-show hosts requesting his appearance anymore, he's expected to report earlier than usual to the Phillies' training facility in Clearwater, Florida, where he and Dubee plan to work on his not-ready-for-primetime curveball.
And during spring training, Hamels may try adding another breaking pitch, perhaps a slider, to make his fastball and changeup repertoire less predictable to hitters who have been seeing it for the past four seasons.
"He knows he's going to have to prepare himself," Amaro said. "Last year, he got to spring training early, but I just don't think he did much as far as going on the mound and throwing. He's fully aware that he needs to prepare differently.
"Cole, for the first time in his career, probably in his life, struggled a little bit and had a below-average season for him and for what we expect from him. But he's going to come away from last season with a great learning experience. There aren't too many teams who, in my mind, have the kind of combination at the top of the rotation that we do."
Why Rollins got an extension now...
Jimmy Rollins contract included a team option for 2011, and the Phillies always intended to pick up that option. So, why wait? With seemingly no reason to delay the inevitable, the Phillies made it official a week before Christmas, agreeing to pay Rollins $8.5 million in 2011 instead of making him play out 2010 as the final guaranteed year on the five-year, $40 million extension that he signed in 2011.
"That was something I didn't want Jimmy to be thinking about during the course of the season," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. told the Wilmington (Del.) News Journal. "I view Jimmy as one of the best shortstops in baseball. We're hopeful he continues to be one of the best."
Thus, seven of the Phillies' eight starting position players are under contract or club control through 2011. Only right fielder Jayson Werth will be a free agent after the 2010 season. But Rollins, Ryan Howard, Shane Victorino, Raul Ibanez and Ryan Madson are eligible for free agency after 2011.
The Phillies already have $108.85 million committed to 11 players for 2011: Howard ($20M), Roy Halladay ($20M), Chase Utley ($15M), Brad Lidge ($11.5M), Ibanez ($11.5M), Cole Hamels ($9.5M), Rollins, Placido Polanco ($5.25M), Madson ($4.5M), Ross Gload ($1.6M) and Brian Schneider ($1.25M). Victorino, Carlos Ruiz, Ben Francisco and J.A. Happ will be arbitration-eligible. The team also has a $4.5 million option (or $250,000 buyout) for J.C. Romero.
Park is likely a goner
Chan Ho Park didn't accept the Phillies' latest offer, believed to be for one year and $3 million, and according to GM Ruben Amaro Jr., the sides may be at irrevocable odds.
"I just don't think Chan Ho and the Phillies are going to be able to bring the marriage together," Amaro told the Wilmington (Del.) News Journal.
Amaro said the Phillies have the same needs - another late-inning reliever, depth for the rotation - that existed before the twin trades involving Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. And although he said the Phillies are "trailing down a path on (signing) a reliever or two," Park doesn't figure into the Phillies' plans unless he drops his asking price.
According to a source with knowledge of the situation, Park has drawn interest from several teams that would consider him as a starter. The Phillies would use Park solely as a reliever. More realistic reliever options may be free agents Mike MacDougal or Danys Baez.