February 28, 2012

Cole Hamels, all grown up.

Few Philadelphia athletes have ever gone from the Ritz to the rubble and back again quite like Cole Hamels.

Cole joined the Phillies in 2006 to massive fanfare; ranked by Baseball America as the team's top prospect, Hamels was expected to immediately assume the "ace" role that had been empty since Curt Schilling was traded in 2000.

And that he did, following up a so-so rookie season with a breakout 2007 that included 15 wins, an NL All-Star spot, massive praise for his changeup and the team's first National League East division title in what, back then, felt like forever.

This, of course, led to Cole's even more impressive 2008 regular season (142 ERA+) and utterly dominant postseason (1.80 ERA, 30 strikeouts to 9 walks, held hitters to a .190 batting average), which cemented the lefty as possibly the game's most talented young starter. The sky was the limit...until it all fell apart.

Maybe it was overuse (35 playoff innings plus 227.1 regular season innings in 2008) or all the post-championship hype (Daaaaaaavid Letterman!) but 2009 was, at best, some serious regression and, at worst, a minor disaster. The numbers (4.32 ERA, 97 ERA+, 1.286 WHIP) are what you'd expect from a fourth or fifth starter, not the league's next big thing.

And when Hamels imploded in the playoffs (7.58 ERA) and, in tandem with Brad Lidge, arguably cost the Phillies a repeat championship, the town certainly soured on him. Nobody with a brain was giving up on the 2008 NLCS and World Series MVP, but there were murmurs about the league figuring him out, about Cole possibly being a dreaded "flash in the pan." And more than a few baseball fans I knew up in Boston had started to harp on how "soft" Hamels was; carrying a dog in a backpack didn't help his cause in that regard.

But patience is a virtue that many Phillies fans suddenly had in spades after the 2008 World Series, and Cole soon made it obvious that our rational restraint had been justified. Hamels added a cutter in 2010, which helped him stabilize (133 ERA+), and he used that cutter to flat-out tyrannize in 2011 (11th in ERA+, third in WHIP, seventh in K/BB). He's become an unquestioned top-ten starting pitcher, and now that it's time for his big payday, he should be compensated accordingly.

Despite some murmuring that Hamels wouldn't settle for Jered Weaver money, all indications are that Cole and Ruben Amaro Jr. will finalize an extension sometime in 2012. A big-market team like the Phillies can't afford to let a young ace like Hamels walk, and Cole seems sincere in his desire to play out his career in red pinstripes.

If Cole wants Cliff Lee money, give it to him. Hamels has never had a season quite like Lee's Cy Young-winning turn in 2008, but Cole is 28 and Lee signed his massive deal at age 32. And if the contract's estimated length (6-7 years) is a concern, well, Hamels has started at least 28 games in each of the last five seasons, even in 2009 (when he probably should've taken some sort of a breather), and his 845.2 innings pitched since 2008 is 12th in all of baseball.

He's been durable, he's been dominant, he's been a class act and a contributor to the community. And he likes it in Philadelphia, which used to be rare but now is just nice to hear. He's gone from a boy to a man right before our eyes.

Get it done, Rube. This is a guy that most Phillies fans have grown up with, and he only appears to be getting better. Make it so that Cole Hamels sticks around for quite a long while.

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