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Friday, March 7, 2014
Hamels sits, but no panic yet in Philly

By Bill Baer

Phillies fans were already cautiously approaching a new baseball season when spring training began in mid-February. They know, as the pundits have repeatedly pointed out, that the team is old and worn down with its best days in the rear-view mirror. According to Bovada, the Phillies are tied with the Blue Jays at 33-to-1 to win the World Series. PECOTA, from Baseball Prospectus, projects the Phillies to win 77 games. Fans are just hoping for good health and competitive baseball; they don't expect a championship.

One shoe dropped early in the spring when we learned that starter Cole Hamels wouldn't be ready for Opening Day due to biceps tendinitis. Reports estimated Hamels would miss one or two starts to begin the regular season, but it wasn't a huge deal for the Phillies as they could hide his absence by using a four-man rotation with off days on April 3 and 8.

The other shoe dropped Thursday: Hamels' arm is fatigued and as a result the team won't have him throw off a mound for another week. This puts him even further behind schedule and he likely won't make his 2014 debut until May. Missing one or two starts is no big deal, but four or five -- or more -- is a big blow to a team already thin on starting pitching depth.

Thankfully, the Phillies signed A.J. Burnett in February to a one-year, $15 million deal with two different options for 2015 -- a $7.5 million player option or a $15 million mutual option. Burnett turned his career around with the Pirates over the last two seasons thanks to his rediscovery of a two-seam fastball to induce more groundballs, and the Pirates using batted-ball data to optimally shift their defense. If his time in Pittsburgh is any indication, he'll be just fine in the No. 2 slot behind Cliff Lee.

It's what’s behind Lee and Burnett, and Kyle Kendrick, that is the real concern for the Phillies. GM Ruben Amaro signed Roberto Hernandez (formerly Fausto Carmona) to a one-year, $4.5 million deal after he posted a 4.89 ERA with the Rays last season. Amaro recently credited his new analytics department for the signing, which ostensibly looked at his 3.60 xFIP and 21 percent home run rate on fly balls and suggested improvement is likely. But Hernandez has a career 4.67 ERA and he has had only one great season (2007) and one good season (2010) in his career.

Hernandez would have fit in the No. 5 spot, but with Hamels gone, he moves up. The fifth spot is now a complete wild card. It might eventually go to Jonathan Pettibone, who is battling shoulder inflammation. He hopes to be ready by Opening Day, or at least once the Phillies move back to a five-man rotation, but nothing is guaranteed. The fifth spot could go to recent international signee Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, but the Phillies have been less than enthused with what they have seen from him thus far. New pitching coach Bob McClure recently said of Gonzalez's progress, "This may take a few months, I'm not really sure yet."

The more likely scenario is that the Phillies round out their rotation picking from a pool of non-roster invitees: David Buchanan, Jeff Manship, Sean O’Sullivan and Mario Hollands.

Buchanan is a 24-year-old right-hander who spent last season between Double-A Reading and Triple-A Lehigh Valley. He posted an aggregate 4.40 ERA with an unimpressive 5.7 K/9. Manship, a former Twin and Rockie, has a career 6.42 ERA with a career 5.7 K/9 and a 3.4 BB/9, which makes him much too reliable on his defense. O'Sullivan has a career 5.89 ERA with an even worse 4.2 K/9 and a 3.6 BB/9.

Hollands may be the most intriguing candidate of the bunch. Now 25, the lefty spent the past season between Single-A Clearwater and Double-A Reading, finishing with a 2.86 ERA with a 7.8 K/9 and a 2.2 BB/9. The strikeout rate would fall against major league competition, but he has the best control of the group.

It would be shocking if the Phillies decided to further extend their franchise record-high payroll -- and give up a draft pick -- to sign free agent Ervin Santana, but Amaro has given every indication he built his roster to be competitive, not to tank for draft-pick position next season. While the likelihood is small that Santana ends up in Phillies red, it isn't at zero percent.

No matter what option the Phillies choose, though, it will taste bad going down. Few pitchers can step into Hamels' shoes. Phillies fans are used to the taste, though, of watching a key player succumb to the injury bug. If there is a silver lining, it's that Hamels' latest setback is fatigue and not something structural. The best-case scenario is that Hamels uses the extra time to get back to 100 percent and reclaims his title as one of the game's five best left-handed starters. That would make the Phillies, who signed him to a six-year, $144 million contract extension in 2012, breathe a huge sigh of relief.