Prime-time pitcher

Posted: July 31, 2014

NEW YORK - Well, if that was the last time we will see Cole Hamels in a Phillies uniform, at least we saw him at his best. The feeling here is that it won't be, for a variety of reasons, most of all the price it would take to persuade Ruben Amaro Jr. and David Montgomery to part with a pitcher like the one who dominated the Mets for eight scoreless innings last night. It would take the perfect deal, and perfect deals do not often materialize in the hectic hours leading up to the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline.

But because the possibility exists - which both Hamels and his manager acknowledged in the wake of the Phillies' 6-0 win - we should at least offer a nod to what we witnessed last night. It was an extension of what we have witnessed over the last three to four seasons: a top-of-the-rotation starter at 23 years old, a World Series MVP at 24, just now reaching the peak of his prime.

At 30 years old, Roy Halladay had thrown 1,561 2/3 innings with a 3.63 ERA, 128 ERA+, 6.2 K/9, 2.2 BB/9 and 0.8 HR/9. At 30 years old, Cliff Lee had logged 1,196 2/3 innings with a 3.97 ERA, 109 ERA+, 6.8 K/9, 2.5 BB/9 and 1.0 HR/9.

At 30 years old, Cole Hamels has logged 1,727 innings with a 3.31 ERA, 124 ERA+, 8.6 K/9, 2.3 BB/9 and 1.0 HR/9.

Halladay and Lee logged their most dominant years from the ages of 31 to 34, and if Hamels does the same, well, look out, Cooperstown. He is striking out batters more often than he has in any season since his first one. But he is doing so without the home runs that used to plague him. The ground-ball rate that he carried into yesterday was the second-best of his career (0.95). He is mixing in a sinker with his straight four-seamer, changeup and cutter. You can see the results in the swings those pitches generate. Hamels has hitters on their heels, and he knows it. You can see it in his focus, in his rhythm, in his swagger. Hamels has become what the great ones are: methodical.

"Everything is just kind of feeling good enough to throw everything in every count and not fear certain results," said Hamels, who lowered his ERA to 2.55. "I think that just kind of puts all the momentum back on my side."

The thought of watching 4 or 5 years of this kind of dominance from afar is why it is hard to believe that the Phillies will end up pulling the trigger on a trade. And as of last night, there were no serious indications that it was the last we'd see of Hamels in a Phillies uniform. It's a shame that Phillies fans even have to consider the thought. But that is where this franchise is, and Hamels' current level of dominance raises the possibility that somebody might decide to answer the obscene price tag it would command. Given their current situation, the Phillies would not be able to afford to pass up such an offer. But, man, would it hurt.

Right now, though, the gang is here and it looks like it will be here, and that raises the possibility that these next 24 hours will be the most anticlimactic of the season. There is a good chance that Marlon Byrd will be dealt, thanks to market factors that significantly favor any team that can offer an everyday player with 25-home-run power. Antonio Bastardo has a good chance to be dealt as well. Otherwise, what you saw in last night's win could be what you get for the rest of the season.

That could also mean a few more weeks of trade talks. A.J. Burnett and Jonathan Papelbon will almost certainly go unclaimed if exposed to waivers, which would allow them to be dealt to any team (with the Phillies presumably picking up a significant amount of money in order to facilitate their departure and perhaps land a low-level prospect or two). If the Phillies expose Cliff Lee to waivers before he has a chance to reestablish some of the value that he lost during his 2 months on the DL (his first two starts left a lot to be desired), he too will likely go unclaimed.

In other words, the only players for whom tomorrow's 4 p.m. nonwaiver deadline is likely to have a significant effect are Byrd and Bastardo.

Unless somebody makes the Phillies an unprecedented offer for Hamels, their likely course is to keep him in the fold and reevaluate where they stand in the offseason. From their perspective, the ideal situation is for Lee to shake off the rust he showed in his first two starts off the disabled list and turn in four or five quality outings before Aug. 31, which is the last day he could be traded and still be eligible for the postseason for his new team.

The market for Lee would help determine the organization's wisest course with regard to Hamels. If Lee can fetch the club a couple of players it thinks can become key contributors at the major league level within the next couple of years, it might diminish the Phillies' willingness to part with a homegrown star who is still very much in his prime. And what a prime it is proving to be.

On Twitter: @ByDavidMurphy


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