Bob Ford: Phillies and Hamels both want long-term deal

Posted: January 18, 2012

The way the Phillies want to tell it, Tuesday's signing of Cole Hamels to a one-year, $15 million contract was mostly procedural, just a brief financial waystation before the pitcher is locked up to a long-term contract during spring training.

The stopgap deal was a means to avoid the messy business of arbitration, which would have yielded much the same result, and to avoid in the process the necessity of saying to an arbitrator a bunch of stuff that Hamels would rather not hear.

It's a dumb system and the players almost always win anyway, unless they get spectacularly poor advice, so there's not much in it for the team except the possibility that that player will have his feelings hurt and hold a grudge somewhere down the line.

The Phillies sidestep arbitration whenever possible, which they also did on Tuesday with utility man Wilson Valdez, although with much less at stake. Outfielder Hunter Pence and the Phillies did not arrive at a new contract, so both sides did exchange proposed one-year salaries. The two sides can still reach an agreement before the February arbitration hearing, but this doesn't seem as scary a prospect either way because: (a) Pence went through arbitration with the Astros a year ago and knows the drill, and (b) he's about as sensitive as a ballpeen hammer.

Hamels has to be, and should be, handled a little differently. The biggest reason is that Hamels, more than any player on the roster, represents the best chance of quality future production for many seasons to come. If there is a Phillies player you are more certain will still be performing at an elite level in five or more years, please point him out. Time's up. There's isn't one.

The question isn't whether the Phils want to sign Hamels to a long-term contract, or whether Hamels wants that himself. Both sides want the same thing. They just have to figure out the small matter of the exact length and terms of the contract.

At the moment, Roy Halladay is entering the second year of a four-year contract (if he achieves very reachable vesting options for the fourth year) that pays him an average of $20 million per season. Cliff Lee is entering the second year of a five-year contract that pays him an average of $24 million per season.

It could be argued that Hamels has not quite reached that level yet, but it is hard to argue that he isn't closing in on it rapidly. Hamels was 14-9 with a 2.79 earned-run average in 2011, the lowest ERA of his career. He added an effective cutter to complement his fastball-changeup repertoire and became the first Phillies pitcher to record 10 or more wins in five straight seasons since Steve Carlton.

Hamels accomplished all that while also maturing on the mound, limiting his displays of frustration, and dealing with pretty dreadful run support all season. The Phils scored two runs or less in 16 of his 31 starts. When they scored three runs or more, he was 10-0. (By comparison, the Phils scored two runs or less in only 10 of Lee's 32 starts, and in only seven of Halladay's 32 starts.)

Hamels, who turned 28 in December, is just entering what should be the absolute prime of his career, a stretch that, if he remains healthy, should last another six or seven years. Again by comparison, Lee will be 34 in August, and Halladay 35 in May.

That is what we know about Hamels. What we don't know is whether he would accept a four-year deal at somewhere around $18 million to $20 million per season, or if he prefers the security of a contract like the seven-year deal CC Sabathia signed with the Yankees before the 2009 season.

If that is the case, the Phillies have to decide if they will go there. It wasn't that long ago the Phillies were philosophically opposed to giving pitchers more than three-year deals. They have drifted upward from that barrier in order to land Halladay and Lee, and it would be interesting to see if Hamels - their best hope for the extended future - can change the philosophy further.

Of course, if that is his stated desire, Hamels could also be talked into a shorter deal for a higher annual salary. It's what they like to call negotiating.

The Phillies have to weigh all that. They have to consider that Hamels had surgery after last season to remove loose bodies from the elbow of his pitching arm and to repair a hernia injury. He isn't a fragile player - having averaged 32 starts and 211 innings in the last four seasons - but all the calculations go into the mix.

When they are done weighing and calculating, the Phillies better decide to sign Cole Hamels, whatever it takes. If he walks into free agency after the 2012 season, the team's future walks out the door with him. That would be the worst miscalculation of all.


Contact columnist Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com or 215-854-5842, read his blog at www.philly.com/postpatterns, and recent columns at www.philly.com/bobford

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