News on Hamels turns things gloomy

Posted: March 08, 2014

CLEARWATER, Fla. - The long band of thunderstorms that came ashore from the Gulf of Mexico on Thursday morning brought tornado warnings and tight, swirling winds that bent the palm trees lining Bright House Field nearly sideways.

Baseball is about optimism, though, so the Yankees got on their bus from Tampa for the scheduled 1:05 p.m. game, and many of the Phillies got on another bus for Lakeland and a split-squad game against the Tigers.

Optimism split the doubleheader, with the game in Lakeland being rained out and the home game against New York finally slipping through a narrow window of better weather that opened nearly 90 minutes after the scheduled start. In all, it was a mostly damp and dreary afternoon, and it closed with the Yankees coming from behind to give the Phillies their seventh loss in eight spring-training games, 4-3.

None of that represented the gloomiest part of the day for the Phillies organization, however, as the team disclosed that its own sunny forecast for the return of Cole Hamels had clouded over yet again.

"My body kind of told me, 'Hey, you've got to take a step back, start back over. You're not ready to push it to the next level right at this moment,' " Hamels said.

The next level wasn't much, either. It was simply throwing live batting practice to hitters, a slight step up the ladder from the two light bullpen sessions he had previously thrown during spring training.

Tossing 35 pitches in the bullpen last Saturday "felt like a thousand," according to Hamels, and he has shut himself down until further notice. There is no updated timetable for his return. The previous hope that he could join the rotation in mid-April when the regular-season schedule finally requires a fifth starter is shot now.

"It affects us. But again, however long he's out, we have to play," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "People have to step up and perform. It's as simple as that."

It could be even simpler than that. It could be that this season, which is hanging by a tenuous thread as it is, will be getting off to a very rocky start.

The Phillies do have options in camp for another starter to add to an opening mix that will include Cliff Lee, A.J. Burnett, Kyle Kendrick, and Roberto Hernandez, but those options aren't anything special. Righthanders David Buchanan, Sean O'Sullivan, and Jeff Manship are among the candidates, and if he can ever get anyone out, Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez could join that group.

Amaro has said there is no chance the team would rush top prospect Jesse Biddle to fill the opening. That's understandable, and probably the safe approach, but it also might say something about how the organization views the season.

If the Phillies are going to do anything this year, they aren't going to do it with Jeff Manship or someone similar in the rotation. Manship, O'Sullivan, and Buchanan, all of whom were nonroster invitees to camp, have bounced around - and there's a reason for that. They are good enough to get close to the big leagues, but not good enough to stay long.

It would be ironic if the Phillies were able to keep their regular lineup together well enough to compete, but were held back because the rotation couldn't keep pace.

For now, until they have to revamp the forecast again, the Phils are going to stick with the assertion that Hamels will be healthy and effective this season. Perhaps a little later than expected, but healthy and effective, nonetheless.

"This is part of the rehab. This is part of what happens," Amaro said. "Sometimes, it doesn't go in a straight line. We just have to be patient with his rehab, that's all."

Which is exactly where it will be left until the next meaningful juncture. That could arrive in a week, when Hamels might be expected to try another bullpen session, or maybe a week after that when he is again scheduled to face a batter. We are a long way from a regular-season start for Hamels, however. The first week in May is probably the most optimistic one could be for that.

From one point of view, what would be the harm of using Biddle in the rotation once the schedule requires a fifth starter? If Hamels recovers and returns in May, Biddle could have the experience of two or three big-league starts behind him and a good idea of what he needs to work on when he returns to Lehigh Valley.

The possible upside, of course, is that Biddle proves himself ready for the major leagues and the Phillies have some real options when Hamels is able to join the team. In that case, the talk of contending would be more than just that.

The downside isn't much. If Biddle has a couple of bad starts and that's enough to ruin him, then how good is he, anyway?

So far, the Phils seem content to play it very conservatively, however. It is one of two things. Either they don't want to mess up the season, or they think the season is probably already messed up and they don't want Jesse Biddle anywhere near it.

That's a gloomy forecast, but, hey, it was that kind of day.


bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports

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