Springtime Storylines: Will the real Cole Hamels please stand up?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30
teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally
breaking down their chances for the 2010 season.  Next up: the defending NL Champs.

big question: Will the real Cole Hamels please stand up?

Hamels was otherworldly in the 2008 postseason and damn good in the 2007 and 2008 regular seasons. Last year: slightly less than average in ERA and opposing batters hitting .273 against him, which was a career high. However, there is much to suggest that this was more about bad luck than bad pitching.

Hamels’ strikeout and walk rates stayed at basically the same level in 2009 as they had been previously, he was giving up the same number of grounders and fly balls and batters weren’t swinging on first pitchers or anything like that more than they used to, which would have meant that his pitchers were fatter than they used to be. This all suggests that his struggles were more a function of extra flares, gorks, ground balls with eyes and a few more dying quails than he was used to as opposed to some loss of his mojo.

My guess: we see a nice bounceback season from Hamels, which will go a long way towards getting the Phillies back to the World Series, my impudent and biased predictions notwithstanding.

So what else is
going on?

  • Placido Polanco takes over at third after not playing there regularly since 2002.  He’ll also bat second, it seems, moving Shane Victorino down in the lineup.  Polanco will likely be fine at third base and lineup construction is overrated, but I’m getting one of those “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it vibes” about all of this. Breaking up Rollins-Victorino-Utley-Howard at the top of the order just feels wrong to me.
  • Brad Lidge was terrible last year and he’s back, coming off elbow surgery to boot. Scott Eyre, Clay Condrey and Chan Ho Park were pretty decent, and they’re gone. J.C. Romero is also coming off surgery. I think the bullpen is going to be a problem for this team, and it’s one of the reasons I picked the Braves to win the division.

  • If I had to bet serious money on anything in baseball in 2010, I’d bet it on Roy Halladay being an absolute beast. Predicting awards is folly, but he’s my preseason favorite for the NL Cy Young. As much as it pains me to admit it, the NL just ain’t the league the AL is, Halladay avoids what will be one of if not the best NL offenses in Philly, and he gets a lot of innings against the Mets and Nationals.  Set your DVR for all Roy Halladay starts this season.
  • Raul Ibanez hit .232/.326./448 in the second half last year.  Was it a function of the sports hernia for which he recently had surgery, or was that his true level after playing clearly above his head in the first half?  I think it’s the latter, and I think there will be concerns about his production all year.

So how
are they gonna do?

Don’t get me wrong: I think the Phillies are just about the best team in the NL and I’d be utterly shocked if they weren’t in it all season. My pick of the Braves is more about my optimism for that club than about me being down on Philly.

Still, I think there are enough questions about the pen, the back end of the rotation and a couple of places in the lineup that mindlessly writing them down as the division winners in March is, well, mindless. I think they’ll win a lot of ballgames and if they make the playoffs — which I think they will as a wild card — they’ll be favored to win the pennant based on the one-two punch of Halladay and Hamels and the fact that they’ll have one of the best players in the league in Chase Utley on their side.  I just don’t think they’ll be able to run away from the Braves and that due to fate, karma, juju, the whammy and a handful of other phenomena, they’ll fall just short in what could be the best race in baseball this year.

Second place in the NL East. Sub-prediction: commenters will ignore all my praise for the team, focus on the second place pick and call me a hater or something.

here for other Springtime Storylines

Tigers in discussions with Jordan Zimmermann

Jordan Zimmermann
AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Jon Morosi of FOX Sports reports that the Tigers are in discussions with free agent starter Jordan Zimmermann. His sources have told him that the talks have become “serious”.

Zimmermann, 29, has a career 3.32 ERA across parts of seven seasons in the majors. He finished fifth in National League Cy Young Award balloting in 2014, finishing with a 2.66 ERA and a 182/29 K/BB ratio over 199 2/3 innings.

Among starters who have amassed at least 1,000 innings since 2009, only Cliff Lee, Dan Haren, Madison Bumgarner, and Zack Greinke have compiled a better strikeout-to-walk ratio than Zimmermann’s 4.09. While he doesn’t have the star power of other free agents such as Greinke or David Price, the Tigers would certainly improve their rotation by bringing him on board.

Blue Jays still focused on upgrading their pitching

Marco Estrada
AP Photo/LM Otero

Having already added Jesse Chavez and J.A. Happ to the mix and re-signing Marco Estrada early in the offseason, Blue Jays interim GM Tony LaCava said the team will continue to pursue pitching upgrades, as Sportsnet’s Ben Nicholson-Smith reports. Nicholson-Smith added that LaCava declined to comment on free agent ace David Price. It is believed that the Jays will not pursue Price and other big-name free agent starting pitchers given their November activity.

The Jays re-signed Estrada to a two-year, $26 million deal on November 13, acquired Chavez from the Athletics in exchange for reliever Liam Hendriks on November 20 and signed Happ to a three-year, $36 million deal on Friday.

Nicholson-Smith notes in a column on Sportsnet that the Jays need to address the bullpen in particular. That is especially true after swapping Hendriks, who had a career-best 2.92 ERA out of the Jays’ bullpen in 2015, for a back-end starting pitcher.

Report: Jonathan Papelbon is “untradeable”

Jonathan Papelbon
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Jon Heyman of CBS Sports spoke to an anonymous baseball executive, who said that Nationals closer Jonathan Papelbon is “untradeable”. The Nationals are hoping to trade both Papelbon and the man he displaced, Drew Storen.

Papelbon has a poor reputation in baseball, particularly after a dugout altercation with superstar outfielder Bryce Harper. Focusing strictly on what he does on the field, Papelbon still gets the job done. The 35-year-old finished the last season with a combined 2.13 ERA, 24 saves, and a 56/12 K/BB ratio over 63 1/3 innings between the Phillies and Nationals.

The Nationals owe Papelbon $11 million for the 2016 season.

Minor league home run king Mike Hessman retires

NEW YORK - JULY 29:  Mike Hessman #19 of the New York Mets bats against the St. Louis Cardinals on July 29, 2010 at Citi Field in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. The Mets defeated the Cardinals 4-0.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper reports that corner infielder Mike Hessman has retired from professional baseball after 20 seasons. Hessman hit 433 home runs in the minor leagues, an all-time record. He broke Buzz Arlett’s record this past August and with style as #433 was a grand slam.

Hessman, 37, was selected in the 16th round of the 1996 draft by the Braves and remained with the organization through the 2004 season. He then went to the Tigers from 2005-09, the Mets in 2010, then drifted into the Astros and Reds’ farm systems before returning to the Tigers for the last two years.

Hessman took 250 plate appearances at the major league level, batting .188/.272/.422 with 14 home runs and 33 RBI.