Cole Hamels knows Phillies have much to prove

Posted: January 29, 2013

WHILE THEIR division rivals have produced more attention-grabbing headlines, the Phillies took care of their most important piece of offseason business while baseball was still in season.

Six months ago this week, the Phils signed Cole Hamels to a 6-year, $144 million contract. It was a deal that kept Hamels from hitting the free-agent market and possibly leaving for a richer pasture, which would have made this winter an unconditional disaster for Ruben Amaro Jr. and company.

But there were Hamels and Amaro, together, at the 109th annual sports writers dinner on Monday night at the Crowne Plaza in Cherry Hill. Technically, Hamels was with his wife, Heidi, as the couple's Hamels Foundation earned them the Humanitarian Award.

When the Phils flock south to Clearwater, Fla., in the next 2 weeks, however, Amaro will put his faith in Hamels and the rest of his top-heavy rotation as his team looks to rebound from a forgettable 2012 season.

Roy Halladay's health is paramount and people will expect more from Cliff Lee, who was fine in 2012 if you ignore the individual wins stat. But it's the youngest member of that ace trio, Hamels, whose career is still headed upward.

In the shadow of the Braves adding a pair of Uptons and the Nationals upgrading both their rotation and bullpen, Hamels was asked if the Phillies can once against be a dominant team in the division if the starting pitching trio stays healthy in 2013.

"When we play well, good things happen," Hamels said. "And I think that's why we are where we are in our careers."

Halladay and Lee have three Cy Young awards between them and Hamels probably should be the most popular athlete in Philadelphia as the guy who won a World Series MVP in 2008 and signed the aforementioned contract extension to stay in red pinstripes and ignore the temptations of free agency.

Star power, they have. But whether they can replicate their 2011 season, when they led the Phils to a franchise-best 102 wins, won't be known until the season gets under way in a little over 2 months.

Last season, Halladay showed signs that he wasn't quite right in spring training and finally succumbed to a right-shoulder ailment in late May. He missed close to 2 months.

The Phils were 15-27 in that span without Halladay, going from a 25-24 team to 40-51, and never recovered. They finished 81-81.

With an offense that's still relying on the aging, veteran, injury-plagued core of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins, the Phils can't afford for Halladay, Lee or Hamels to miss that much time again. Halladay has thrown two bullpens in Clearwater already.

Hamels, who is headed to Clearwater next week, has thrown three on his own with a fourth scheduled for Tuesday morning.

Earlier this month, a report surfaced from that Hamels had experienced shoulder soreness earlier this offseason, and that he had been shut down for a couple of weeks. But when asked about it on Monday, Hamels acted as if the early offseason setback never happened.

"I don't even know what it was about . . . I've been healthy," Hamels said. "I haven't felt anything of that sort. I haven't picked up the paper or anything, so I didn't know anything about it. That's the honest truth."

Hamels said he did have some soreness at the end of the season, "just the typical wear and tear you kind of get."

"Once the season ended - it was kind of nice the season ended - I felt good," Hamels said. "I got on the same program I've been on and everything has been working out really well."

As long as Hamels continues on an upward, healthy path for the next 2 months, the only intriguing storyline in his spring-training story will be whether he is named the Opening Day starter for the first time in his career.

Regardless, when the games begin in April, the Phils will be underdogs for the first time since Hamels' first full major league season in 2007.

"Sometimes you're going to have ups and downs," Hamels said of the underdog status. "You have to try to get it back and that's ultimately where the saying comes from. You get in an underdog sort of category . . . I think that's kind of where we are. A lot of people are always going to wonder, but I think it's going to be a nervous tendency because people know how strong we can be. As long as we have fun with it, get ready and prepare, ultimately I think we'll be all right."

But according to Hamels, the Phils have to be all right from the get-go. The division is just too talented to attempt to repeat the 2007 and 2008 heroics of catching teams from behind.

"We just have a lot to prove," Hamels said. "I think ultimately we can't take the back seat and hope that we can coast through. We really have to go after it from the very beginning and not really hope we can play catch-up. These teams now, they're a lot better, the players are a lot better in the league, and they're not going to allow you to really catch up."

For Hamels, 2012 is in the rearview mirror and not really worth a last glance as he drives toward what he hopes will be a fruitful 2013.

"We didn't win," Hamels said. "The other teams were ahead of us. We have a lot to improve on and we have a lot that we have to do to get back to being a winning team. And that's up to the players. Ultimately, we have to stay healthy and play the game we know we're capable of doing."

On Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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