Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Pitching Pain Of Rebuilding


Filling Out The Rotation – If nobody is traded and everybody is healthy, Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg thinks four pitchers are locks to make the 2015 rotation. The foursome includes Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, Aaron Harang and Jerome Williams. That leaves David Buchanan, Chad Billingsley and Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez competing for the fifth spot. Buchanan is the favorite, based upon an encouraging rookie season (6-8, 3.75 ERA in 20 starts). Billingsley missed most of the past two seasons because of right elbow problems, so he probably will not be ready to join the rotation until late April. Then there is Gonzalez. The Phillies signed him to a three-year, $12 million contract in 2013 after he originally agreed to a six-year, $48 million deal. Questions about Gonzalez's health cost him $36 million, but the organization's concerns proved valid when he battled injury issues last season as a starter. Gonzalez eventually moved to the bullpen, where he pitched with some success. But he enters Spring Training getting another shot to prove himself in the rotation. "Expectations are for him to complete a full camp," Sandberg said, emphasizing Gonzalez's health history. "Seeing what he can do and seeing how he progresses as camp goes along. As of right now, we have him slated in the starting role, allowing him to build up his arm strength a little bit. Work on pitches as a starter. That's the goal right now." If Gonzalez can stay healthy and he has a great camp, he could edge Buchanan for that fifth spot. But as Sandberg said, Gonzalez has to stay healthy first.

Trade Talks – Cole Hamels is stuck in the middle. Hamels has said for months he does not want to spend the remaining prime years of his baseball career playing on a losing team. He sharpened his words Wednesday, when he told USA Today he wants to win and "and I know it's not going to happen here." He likely feels that way because the Phillies have said they are rebuilding and unlikely to compete again until 2017 or '18. But Hamels also appreciates his time in Philadelphia. The Phillies drafted him in 2002. He won a World Series in '08. He signed a six-year, $144 million contract extension in '12. He lives in the area. He appreciates the fans. Hamels wants to be honest, but he also does not want to sound ungrateful. He does not want to offend. So Hamels backed away from his harsh assessment in a sometimes-uncomfortable 25-minute news conference Saturday afternoon at Bright House Field. He answered questions about his desire to remain in Philadelphia with members of the Phillies front office seated nearby, including team chairman David Montgomery. Montgomery handed Hamels the $144 million contract a few years ago. "You have to be accountable for what you do," Hamels said. "You know, I can't, I guess, be liked by everybody. You know, that's not the goal. You're not going to be politically correct any time you ever say anything. I think everybody learns that. You're not going to appease everybody. So this is who I am. "For what it's worth, I've always tried to be very honest with people in general. I don't cue-card it. I don't have my cue cards up here giving you the straight-laced answers that I know a lot of people have been able to get away with." Cliff Lee, Jonathan Papelbon and Hamels each addressed reporters this week. In the past, each has indicated or said flatly they would like to play for a winner or play elsewhere. But the trio followed the good teammate script. They said they are happy to be in Philadelphia. They said they believe they can win here. "You can't count us out," Hamels said. "We all have the opportunity to prove people wrong." Hamels deflected questions about his desire to be traded, because expressing those desires does not benefit one of the most popular and successful pitchers in franchise history. "I've made my home in Philadelphia since the very beginning," Hamels said, when asked if he would welcome a trade. "This is where I'm fully committed." Hamels said his comments in USA Today were a continuation from a conversation in January. The latest comments came Tuesday. He said his feelings expressed in the story followed stories from the winter about how the Phillies won't win in the future. So are those his feelings today? "At this given moment, I'm a Phillie," Hamels said. So does he want to go somewhere where he can win? "Right now I know that as we start, I think we're 0-0," Hamels said. "I think everybody's in first place. I don't think any one of you guys have written anything about how we're going to compete and win our division. So it's something for us to take as a group and to go out there and prove to people the type of players that we are." So how did he react when Phillies president Pat Gillick said it would take a few years to complete the rebuilding process? "I have no control over a certain direction," Hamels said. "An organization, they have a bigger picture that they have to worry about. As a player, we really have to take the straight-and-narrow approach. We have a job to do, people are counting on us, and I think that's kind of what an organization, an upper management, has to worry about, is what players are going to be accountable, what direction can we go with what we have. I'm just one piece of the puzzle, and as long as I can go out and do what they expect, then I'm fulfilling my end of the bargain." Trading Hamels would speed up the rebuilding process, because he is the only Phillies veteran relatively young and still in his prime. Theoretically, the club could get a load of talent in return. But it will not be easy. Philadelphia still has the unsuccessful 2009 Cliff Lee trade with Seattle on its mind, so it must get something it loves in return. The Phillies can't miss. Hamels also is owed $96 million, which includes $22.5 million in salary each of the next four seasons, plus a $6 million buyout on a '19 club option worth $20 million. They want Hamels' new team to pay the entire contract, or most of it. Teams might balk if they plan to give the Phillies the prospects they want. Asked if he would require the club option to be picked up to waive his limited no-trade clause, Hamels said, "That's a family decision." Hamels is in a tough spot. He wants to play for a winner, but at the moment, he does not want to upset or alienate the organization or fan base. "I'm very fortunate to be in the position that I am," Hamels said. "To be that player that's been able to win a World Series for a very historical franchise, and to make my home in Philly and see what sports really do mean to Philly fans, it's been nice. And being able to go out and represent not only the organization, but the city of Philadelphia, has been an honor. And I think I'll remain to do so until I'm told that I can't."

Hamels Reaffirms Commitment – What is Cole Hamels supposed to say? That he doesn't want to be here? Zero chance of that. Hamels' feelings for the Phillies run too deep. For the City of Philadelphia, too. He has come to love the place. "I've made my home in Philadelphia since the very beginning," Hamels said. "This is where I'm fully committed." Hamels is sensitive to his teammates, too, and he wants to make sure they know he's all in with them as long as he's still here. "My job is to be accountable for what the expectations that are put on me," Hamels said. "I only have one direction and one position, and that's to be able to go pitch and go win ballgames. That's all I can really do." So he will dance around the questions about the future, say what he's supposed to say and allow the thing to play itself out. Hamels already knows. He just has to. At some point this season, the Phillies almost certainly are going to trade him to a contender for some young talent. When that happens, both sides will be better off. The Phillies, in a full rebuilding move, will replenish their stock of young players. And Hamels will have another shot at the postseason. In a perfect world, it would have happened months ago, and both Hamels and Philadelphia would have a clearer picture of the future. So far, though, Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. hasn't gotten an offer he's comfortable taking. Amaro sees Hamels as the definition of a No. 1 starter. In the last five seasons, Hamels has averaged 213 innings and 204 strikeouts. Among all National League starters, only Clayton Kershaw has more innings, strikeouts and quality starts. Hamels is also only 31 years old, and he is under contract for four more seasons at the relatively reasonable price of $23.5 million a year. Because of those factors, some have wondered if Amaro is asking too high a price for Hamels. "The perception is that we're overreaching," Phillies president Pat Gillick said. "I don't think we are. I think we're trying to be fair." Amaro is piecing together a complicated puzzle. He has already acquired pitching by trading Jimmy Rollins, Marlon Byrd and Antonio Bastardo. "We feel better than we did three months ago," Amaro said. "But you can never be satisfied. That's a constant battle." And he will listen on Hamels, Jonathan Papelbon, Ryan Howard and Cliff Lee. Injuries and/or salary make Papelbon, Howard and Lee less appealing than Hamels. It's Hamels who could bring the kind of young talent that could help the Phillies turn a corner. That said, the club doesn't intend to completely blow up the roster. As it deals away veterans, it wants enough talent in return to help remain respectable. "We want to rebuild, but we don't want to be embarrassing," Gillick said. "I don't think we want to embarrass the fans. We don't want to be embarrassed when we go on the field. Consequently, we have to put as good a product as we can on the field, and at the same time try to do what we have to do to get back to being competitive." On Saturday, Hamels met with reporters and essentially said he's fully committed to the Phillies as long as he's here. "I think you guys have seen how I play, the type of character that I have when I step out onto the field," Hamels said. "Go out there and be the best that you can, because at some point it's all going to end. So you at least want to know that you left everything out on the field." Rather than dwell on the possibility of being traded, Hamels said he will attempt to focus on preparing for his 10th big league season and nothing more. He's proud of what he has been part of, including five straight division championships, two NL pennants and especially being part of the team that won the World Series in 2008. Hamels was quoted by USA Today this week as saying the Phillies had no chance of winning in the near future. He would not deny those quotes on Saturday. Nor would he repeat them. "At this given moment, I'm a Phillie," Hamels said. "All I can do is get ready for the season. No matter ... the name on my chest, I have a job to do and I have to be accountable for it." As for the larger direction of the organization, Hamels understands. "An organization, they have a bigger picture that they have to worry about," Hamels said. "As a player, we really have to take the straight-and-narrow approach. We have a job to do, people are counting on us. I'm just one piece of the puzzle, and as long as I can go out and do what they expect, then I'm fulfilling my end of the bargain."

Hollands Looking To Improve – Mario Hollands is no longer one of the relative unknowns entering Phillies camp. Hollands is a favorite to win a bullpen job following a mostly successful rookie season, when the 26-year-old left-hander surprised people and made the Opening Day roster. He went 2-2 with a 4.40 ERA in 50 appearances, but he finished the season on the disabled list with an injured left elbow. An offseason of rest has him back on track and ready to compete. Left-hander Jake Diekman is a lock to make the bullpen. Rule 5 Draft pick Andy Oliver also is in camp, but other lefties in Spring Training seem destined to open the season in the Minor Leagues. "I'm not assuming anything," Hollands said Saturday morning at Bright House Field. "I'm pretending like it's last year and I'm trying to make the team out of camp. Nothing has been given to me. Nothing was given to me last year, and I don't assume a spot is going to be given to me this year." Hollands entered Spring Training last year in midseason form following a lengthy stint in winter ball in Venezuela. "If I wasn't season-ready coming from Venezuela, I don't think I would have made the team," Hollands said. Hollands went 1-1 with a 2.10 ERA in 32 appearances through June 28. He got hit in his right knee by a line drive on July 2, which forced him to leave the game. He had a 15.26 ERA in eight appearances that month before posting a 2.89 ERA in his final 10 appearances. Hollands' elbow injury forced him to miss the last month of the season. "I wasn't happy with that rough stretch where I was getting hit around a little bit," Hollands said. "I doubted some of my stuff a little bit. But I think I did OK. I could definitely improve. I learned a lot." The learning never stops for Hollands. He earned an associate of arts degree in merchandise marketing at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles in December. He previously earned a bachelor's in sociology from UC-Santa Barbara. Hollands hopes to intern in the offseason, perhaps in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco or Philadelphia. "I might be the only person in here with two degrees," Hollands said. "It gave me something to do in the fall, because I couldn't golf or really do any upper-body workouts because of the elbow." Hollands said the elbow feels fine. He has thrown about a half-dozen bullpen sessions already. "A little nervous," Hollands said about entering camp, "just because I haven't seen a batter in a while. Besides that, it's nice getting to throw a little bit more."

The Phillies will look to rebound this season from a 73-89 record last year. While uncertainty abounds, there is little question that the franchise is in rebuild mode based on the moves and statements that have been made during the offseason. The only question that remains is whether or not the young and veteran talent on the team can work together to disprove Gillick’s predictions either this year or next.

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