Coming off arguably the greatest 9-9 season in the history of major-league pitching, Cole Hamels edges toward the late prime of his career still anchored to a team that seems intent on repeating its mistakes.
Can the Phillies ever get their timing right on when to hold on to a player and when to make the best deal possible and move on? The last several years should have served as proof that the team isn't very good at those decisions, and if Hamels isn't traded before the start of the regular season, the Phils will put themselves in danger of making their biggest mistake.
As it stands now, with general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. having turned down offers from four teams, including the ace-starved Boston Red Sox, Hamels apparently will spend another season crafting masterpieces among a clubhouse full of finger-painters.
That's pretty much what happened in 2014 as Hamels pitched to a 2.46 earned run average and held opponents to two earned runs or fewer in 19 of his 30 starts. His record in those games was 8-5 with six no-decisions. That is a fair definition of wasting talent, but the Phillies, who aren't going anywhere soon, seem willing to waste it until they can't get anything in return. If that is what happens, it is madness - and another example of poor decision-making.
I know, I know. The prospect for fans of enduring a season without either hope or the lanky, elegant lefthander is almost too much to contemplate, especially in the grip of a cruel late winter. Sure, the Phillies are awful, but once every five days they have a chance to be merely mediocre. Without Hamels, even that would be taken away.
It is the right thing to do, though. Amaro has no choice but to hold on to Cliff Lee and let him prove he is healthy. Then it is possible that Lee could be moved closer to the non-waiver trade deadline in exchange for prospects.
The only thing Hamels could prove between now and the July 31 deadline is that he isn't healthy, or that he isn't having a good year. At this moment, coming off his magnificent, wasted season, his trade value will never be higher. Amaro has to leverage the best deal possible from among the interested teams and he has to take it.
Hamels is guaranteed $94 million over the next four seasons, and could remain in 2019 on a $20 million team option or a $24 million vesting option if he compiles 400 total innings in 2017 and 2018. He will be 34 years old in 2018. Baseball has seen examples of workhorse starters who maintain their effectiveness well into their 30s, but has also seen many examples of those who fell off quickly. Hamels takes care of himself, but that's not a guarantee that the warranty on his left arm won't expire.
For the last eight seasons, Hamels has averaged 31 starts and 208 innings. He hasn't had fewer than 30 starts since 2007. That's a good recommendation for any team looking for a reliable pitcher, but also one that must be taken with a little caution.
It just makes sense for the Phillies to get what they can now, get out from under the contract and let Hamels seek some meaningful wins. Waiting could backfire loudly and the organization would certainly recognize the sound from experience.
On another level, it would also be interesting to see how Hamels fared somewhere else. As consistent as he has been, and as eternally promising, his 108-83 record doesn't match up with his excellent 3.27 career ERA. It's good, but not great. Over the years, his record has sometimes suffered because of poor run support, but nobody is always unlucky.
In the 2011 season, when the Phillies set a team record with 102 wins, Hamels was 9-2 on June 14 and went 5-7 the rest of the way while the team was going 61-34. He did miss a couple of August starts with a sore shoulder, but his 2.79 ERA is testament to his overall health.
So, what's the reason Hamels has averaged a little better than 12 wins in his eight full seasons and won more than 15 just once? Some is explained by the fact that he pitched (and is pitching) for some so-so teams, but he also was in the rotation for the most sustained period of success in franchise history. It's a mystery and there will always be something a little mysterious as to why the kid from San Diego was never able to fully hurdle the obstacles before him.
His place in the team's history is unquestioned, however. His career, like that of Jimmy Rollins, saw both the rise and fall of the Phillies. When he was taken in the first round of the 2002 amateur draft, the Phils' rotation that season was Randy Wolf, Vicente Padilla, Brandon Duckworth, Robert Person, Brett Myers and Joe Roa. The infield was Travis Lee, Marlon Anderson, Rollins and Scott Rolen.
That's a long time ago in baseball years, and the quick ascension of Hamels through the system helped take the Phillies from then to now, with all the excitement in between. But now is really now, and it's time to turn the page and trade in the car before the wheels fall off.
It is admittedly a tough page to turn, but the Phillies are in the predicament they find themselves at least partly because doing the tough things was always left for a tomorrow to be named later.