Hamels setback the kind of bad news Phillies don't need

Posted: March 07, 2014

LAKELAND, Fla. - Twenty-four days from today, in Arlington, Texas, two teams will take the field as living testaments to the importance of roster depth. In the home dugout, the Rangers, their rotation missing two of its top three starters, Matt Harrison recovering from back stiffness, Derek Holland on the DL with a knee injury. In the visitor's dugout, a team whose trials and tribulations increased yesterday with the news that lefthander Cole Hamels had hit a bump in his road to recovery from biceps tendinitis. They are calling it arm fatigue, and they are saying it won't send them running for the panic room. This is about having Hamels healthy "for the long haul," manager Ryne Sandberg said.

The problem is, the long haul can get short in an awful hurry in major league baseball. Sandberg knows this, just as he knew the Phillies were Man on Wire when they arrived at spring training with Kyle Kendrick as their No. 3 starter. At A.J. Burnett's introductory news conference last month, Sandberg was a few "Hallelujahs" shy of a tent revival. While there is much we do not know about the new manager, 7 months have imparted a few truths:

1) He has a sharp, analytical mind.

2) He demands excellence.

3) He is about as hands-on as a manager can be.

4) He possesses a cold, borderline scary, competitiveness that is common among most of the great ones.

All of this adds up to a very interesting month at Bright House Field. Before yesterday, when Hamels was unable to make his scheduled appearance in live batting practice, the Phillies had hoped that they would avoid the need to find a replacement for him. With 2 off days in their first two trips through the rotation, the Phillies can pitch their top four starters on normal rest until April 13, when they are at home against the Marlins. By that point, the thinking went, Hamels might be ready to return from the soreness that set his throwing program back a couple of weeks. Yesterday's development erased that prospect.

"We are not putting any timelines on it," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said, but he did not dispute the notion that his No. 2 is now a longshot to pitch in a major league game in the month of April.

Until Hamels returns, the Phillies are where they were before they signed Burnett, a situation so dire that their escape from it catapulted their manager into what appeared to be a natural state of ecstasy. And, keep in mind, when the Phillies signed Burnett, prospective starters Jonathan Pettibone and Ethan Martin had yet to go down with shoulder injuries, and there was still some hope that Cuban righty Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez would suddenly become the pitcher who was touted last summer in some national media stories as being ready to help a playoff team by the end of 2013.

Yet as Sandberg stood in a cement hallway outside the visitor's clubhouse at Joker Marchant Stadium yesterday and listed some of the players now competing for a spot in his rotation, he did not mention Pettibone, or Martin, or Gonzalez. Pettibone is progressing, Amaro said, but he sounds like an unrealistic option for April. Martin is in the middle of a 3-week shutdown.

Gonzalez, who was scheduled to pitch against the Tigers before yesterday's game was rained out, remains a huge unknown. In his Grapefruit League debut against the Yankees, he flashed a plus curveball and a splitter that could be a devastating out pitch with improved consistency. But Gonzalez was unable to locate his fastball, and his mechanics made you understand why teams had such concerns about his elbow. It's early, Sandberg and Amaro said time and time again yesterday. Nobody has publicly ruled out an Opening Day roster spot. Asked specifically about him, Sandberg said he is in the same category as everybody else, capable of using the next 3 weeks to convince the coaching staff he is their best option. At this point, though, Gonzalez looks like a pitcher who needs a steady dose of action to smooth his delivery and regain whatever muscle memory was lost during his 2-year odyssey from Cuba to the majors.

In the meantime, the Phillies will continue to evaluate the options at their disposal. One month ago, David Buchanan hadn't even been invited to spring training, but the 24-year-old righty showed a very good cutter against the Yankees on Saturday and seems unafraid to throw his fastball in the strike zone. Perhaps most impressive has been 29-year-old righty Jeff Manship, whose ability to keep his fastball down in the zone consistently has garnered him notice. He is an interesting case, because he has 42 big-league relief appearances and 10 starts of wholly unimpressive results: a 6.42 ERA, 5.7 K/9, 3.4 BB/9, 1.3 HR/9. But his stuff did not look representative of that sample during his bullpen sessions, and since Grapefruit League play began, he has retired 10 of 12 batters, five via strikeout. Maybe Manship is the kind of break the Phillies desperately need.

Ryan Vogelsong was a 33-year-old with a 5.86 ERA in 315 big-league innings when he picked up Cy Young votes in 2011, starting 28 games for the Giants and finishing with a 2.71 ERA, 7.0 K/9, 3.1 BB/9 and 0.8 HR/9. Colby Lewis was a 30-year-old with a 6.71 ERA in 217 1/3 big-league innings when it finally clicked for him in Texas in 2010 (3.72 ERA, 8.8 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, 0.9 HR/9 in 32 starts).

There could be other options, including some of whom could be out of them with other teams. None of them will be close enough to the caliber of Hamels to consider the Phillies' current position as anything short of precarious.

Email: dmurphy@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @ByDavidMurphy

Blog: ph.ly/HighCheese

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