Paging Dr. Hamels
This spring has found thankfully less talk about the greatest pitching prospect who has ever existed in the history of Major League baseball, but today at least two stories have hit the wire, including an excellent profile/recap by the always reliable Jim Salisbury. In it, he takes a look at the long and winding road of Cole Hamels, yet de-emphasizes the young lefthander's potential in favor of getting inside the mind of the 22-year-old.
While most fans who know about Hamels have heard the legend -- how he struck out Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez in '04 spring training with that nasty changeup of his -- what they don't know what is going through that reputed 10-cent head of his the last two years, when he broke his pitching hand in a bar fight and dealt with a never-ending array of back problems. Somewhat surprisingly, Hamels admits to not taking his talent seriously enough the past two seasons - not stretching, not taking care of his body, not working:
"I've taken a lot of things for granted," the tall, slender lefthander said. "I was a player who got by year to year on talent. But talent only takes you so far. Talent stops when you injure yourself.
"The fact of the matter is, I've learned you actually have to work to be successful at this game. I've learned it the hard way, but in order to be a better person and player, sometimes you have to learn the hard way."
The question this season, besides the obvious one about his health, is "has he actually learned and what will be the result?" For someone who has exhibited a lax conditioning ethic, a lot of work lies ahead and a attitude adjustment is essential. Is Hamels the type of player -- the type of person, really -- who will shake off the ghosts of promise past and begin the regiment that propels him from being a double-A part-time mystical presense to an every fifth day Major League pitcher and beyond, to stardom? From the Phillies standpoint, the love affair has cooled somewhat since the acquisistions of the dynamic duo in the Thome trade. As Salibury wisely point out, for the first time, Hamels is in danger of sinking on the minor league future stars depth chart. He now has all the motivation a player should need to take care and take advantage.
Elsewhere, the health issue is examined and the revelations are a little bit disturbing. As is probably public knowledge, Hamels lost the second half of 2005 to a significant back injury. Initially, the club thought he had a routine back spasms, then maybe a stress fracture in his lower back. Finally, the diagnosis a "transverse process," a bulging disk that is pressing on a spinal nerve in his lower back. Sound painful and chronic, neither of which make any of the least bit optimistic about the stud's story. In fact, the kid is trying everything now to get into the best possible physical condition: physical therapy, vitamins, even a decompression chamber designed to relieve the stress on his spine. Hamels has his work cut out for him this season.
In all likelyhood, because of lowered expectations and hieightened caution, an injury free season could buy Hamels a ticket to the Majors for the September call-ups. It wouldn't be the Rookie of the Year scenario that Hamels posited recently, but realistically, it would be an early Christmas miracle.