DENVER - His first home start at Citizens Bank Park occurred on a Friday evening in mid-June, 6 years ago. He was 22 years old. Cole Hamels is 28 now, already a rich man, but soon to be richer. Much richer. So rich, in fact, that a handful of scouts spent Sunday afternoon bird-dogging his every move, as sure a sign as any that the Phillies have yet to rule out the possibility of trading him. When Hamels walks out of the home dugout and climbs onto the mound at Citizens Bank Park next weekend, he could be doing so for the last time.
If you buy it, book your tickets now. Saturday, July 21, 4:05 p.m., San Francisco Giants. Five days later, the Phillies will be in Atlanta. Five days after that, the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline will have passed, and the Phillies will move forward with whatever remains of their once-vaunted roster.
The only sure thing is what Hamels reinforced on Sunday afternoon, when he struck out seven and held the Rockies to one run in eight innings of a 5-1 win. If the Phillies fail to strike a deal with the free-agent-to-be and instead trade him to the highest bidder, we will have witnessed the culmination of one of the most stunning lapses in franchise history. It would be a toxic chain reaction that began with the trading of Cliff Lee in November 2009, a move that later forced the desperate acquisition of Roy Oswalt, which required the Phillies to part with the same type of blue-chip prospect they are now said to be seeking in exchange for the services of the most talented home-grown pitcher in franchise history.
If you buy it, then book your tickets and get ready to say goodbye. And then get ready to pound your head against an immovable object. Because nothing about it will make sense. Free agency is not some nocturnal predator that jumps out of the bushes unannounced. When the Phillies signed Lee to a 5-year, $120 million contract in December 2010, they knew Hamels was 2 years away from reaching his own payday. When they traded two of their top prospects for Hunter Pence last season, they knew that the organization was perilously thin on young talent. Every general manager needs to worry about the future. But trading away the player who has the most peak years in front of him is not the way to address it.
And maybe it is as simple as that. Maybe the reason nobody in the clubhouse sounds too concerned about the Phillies trading away him is that teams like the Phillies do not trade away players like Cole Hamels. Maybe all of this is just a big case of due diligence on everybody's part. Hamels certainly does not sound like a pitcher who might only have two starts left for the only professional organization he has ever known. This is the time of year when you have to assume that nobody is telling you the complete truth, because doing so would erode the kind of leverage that can turn a 6-year contract into a 7-year contract, and vice versa. Sunday, a reporter asked Hamels if he asks his agent for updates on the status of contract negotiations, and the pitcher replied that he does not.
"I don't care, because I get to go play baseball," he said. "I get to control my own destiny, so that's the least of my worries. I know if I stay healthy and I'm able to pitch, I know I'll be able to do well and I'll be able to do it for a really long time and everything else will kind of fall into place."
Which is awfully difficult to believe. Then again, so is the notion that the Phillies, who have spent the past 4 years paying top dollar to fill every need, would suddenly fail to summon the funds necessary to retain the player most responsible for launching the franchise into its current orbit. Four years after Hamels nabbed NLCS and World Series MVP honors, he leads all Phillies pitchers in ERA (3.07), innings (126), strikeouts (125) and wins (11). He has pitched at least seven innings in each of his last five starts and in 12 of his 18 starts. And he has done so in the most important season of his career.
"That's why he's good," manager Charlie Manuel said. "That's what a professional's supposed to be - a frontline professional player. I say it all the time, it's hard to be a regular player in the big leagues and it's hard to pitch in the rotation."
And the Phillies are open to letting him leave?
"I know the Phillies want to keep him," Manuel said, "and in a lot of ways he wants to stay, but also you don't become a free agent often and nowadays a lot of guys like to go out on the market. We'll see. I think he wants to stay with us, but at the same time, I think he's still thinking about something that he has a right to do."
Until he decides, 5 days could be goodbye.
Contact David Murphy at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @HighCheese.
For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read his blog at www.philly.com/HighCheese.