Hamels could be next pitcher in $100M club
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The $100 Million Pitcher Club is currently six deep, but its most recent entrant and its next most likely entrant just so happen to be neighbors in the Phillies' locker room at Bright House Field.Cliff Lee, then, knows full well what must be going through the mind of Cole Hamels these days, as Hamels prepares for a free-agent walk year that, when all is said and done, could place him in pretty prestigious payroll company. "It's a great opportunity," Lee said Thursday morning, before Hamels made his second start of the Grapefruit League schedule. "He finally gets a chance to get what he's worth. You've finally got some control over your future and what's going to happen. It's an earned right. He's to that point. So, this year is obviously a big year for him." It will reach its cash crescendo come winter, when Hamels will be arguably the best starting arm on the open market (Zack Greinke and Matt Cain could be his competitors for that title) and easily the best who works with his left hand. That is, unless the Phillies strike first. And that's a particularly interesting spring subplot for this Phillies team -- a club that has paid top-market prices not only for some external options (see: Lee and Jonathan Papelbon) in recent years, but also internal ones (see: Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins), as well. Hamels has gone out of his way to articulate how much he's enjoyed his time in red pinstripes, how much he appreciates the Philadelphia fans and how satisfying it is to join Lee and Roy Halladay in a three-headed monster atop the Phils' rotation.
You'll note that five of those six $100 million pitchers are left-handed, and Hamels has established himself as one of the truly elite southpaws in the sport. And at 28, he's in his prime years."He's certainly one of the top pitchers in the game, whether it's right-handed or left-handed," Phillies assistant general manager Scott Proefrock said. "He's proven that the last couple years. He does a lot of good things, not only on the field but off the field in the community. We're fortunate to have him." Good fortune sometimes comes in strange circumstances. For Hamels, it came the summer after his sophomore year of high school, when he was playing football in the street and ran full-speed into a parked car, causing a stress fracture in his left humerus. He crumpled to the ground when the bone severely snapped in his next summer league start, and metal rods had to be used to fuse it. A year-long recovery followed. But while the injury seemingly should have doused Hamels' big league dreams, it instead had the unlikely effect of giving him improved arm action and movement on his changeup -- the pitch that helped him become the World Series MVP Award winner in 2008 and a prized piece of one of the most dazzling starting rotations ever assembled. Alas, while that particular injury worked unexpected wonders, Hamels' career has been littered with a variety of other ailments in the years since. Mostly, they affected his Minor League career, which was comprised of just 36 appearances over four seasons from 2003-06. But last year, Hamels spent the entire '11 season hampered by elbow and abdominal issues that had to be addressed surgically at season's end. And while his surface-level stats didn't appear to be affected -- Hamels' 2.79 ERA ranked eighth among all Major League starters -- he did feel it had a negative effect on his money pitch. "It hurt my changeup a little bit," Hamels said. "I wasn't able to turn it over as much and get the drop ... as I'm normally accustomed to. I got a lot more ground balls instead of swings and misses." The numbers bear that out, as Hamels' strikeout-per-nine inning rate of 8.1 was a full point lower than his 2010 mark. Furthermore, his 216 innings total -- while just fine and dandy in isolation -- was not quite up to the standard set by Lee and Halladay, who have become bankable 230-inning commodities. Of course, the fact that Hamels is the only one of the three with a World Series ring is a pretty bankable commodity in its own right. And while the immediate aftermath of his Fall Classic heroics was unimpressive -- a 10-11 record and 4.32 ERA in 2009 -- Hamels straightened himself out in a hurry. "I think he got caught up in a lot of the things in the offseason after the World Series," Proefrock said. "He was World Series MVP, and he did a lot of off-the-field stuff. By his own admission, he didn't prepare as well for the '09 season, and I don't think he ever got caught up. But [GM] Ruben [Amaro] met with him and [his wife] Heidi after the season, and they were very well aware of what had happened. Since then, he's been lights-out." Over the past two seasons, Hamels has compiled a 2.92 ERA and 136 ERA+ (or 36 points above average) -- numbers that qualified him for a steep salary of $15 million in his final round of arbitration this winter. The dynamics of the rotation around him, though, have obviously changed quite a bit since 2008. As Hamels slogged his way through '09, the Phillies made a high-profile trade for Lee. Then they flipped Lee to the Mariners and dealt for Halladay. Then they shocked the baseball world by signing Lee in the winter before last season. All this has had the net effect of shielding Hamels from the spotlight of the vaunted "ace" tag. He has, undoubtedly to his benefit, been a part of the picture, rather than its central focus. "Normally you have to go choose to pitch with the best pitchers," he said. "I'm fortunate in that the Phillies have brought them in. I'm kind of the lucky guy." But don't let the humility or the "Hollywood" good looks delude you into forgetting Hamels is a fierce competitor. And if he applies that competitive fire to the bargaining table, the Phillies are likely going to have to pay top dollar to keep him around. After all, if the Yankees or Red Sox come back to life in free agency next winter, or if the Dodgers are enthused by new ownership and infused with more cash, Hamels could step into a particularly dynamic marketplace. (Yankees fans were already strangely kind to Hamels when he made his spring debut against the Bombers earlier this month.) In the meantime, Hamels' agent, John Boggs, is making his annual Grapefruit League rounds and will have further communication with Phillies officials. But unlike many other star talents, Hamels hasn't subjected the Phils to a spring deadline to get a deal done. "I'm not the kind of guy who needs to put parameters and barriers on it," he said. "I just focus on being able to go out and pitch. That's what the team wants me to be able to do, because our ultimate goal is to win a World Series, not play for a contract." Whether in Philly or elsewhere, the contract will come soon for Hamels. It just might have nine figures on it.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.