CLEARWATER, Fla. - Roy Halladay viewed yesterday's start against the New York Yankees as a chance to recalibrate his body and mind to the feel of a ball game. In his first spring training appearance, Halladay simply wanted to make sure his arm felt healthy after a five-month hiatus from competition. He was interested in how precise his pitches would be, and eager to practice converting anxious adrenaline into productive energy.
Halladay's two-inning blip was successful by all of those measures, and it featured the bonus of impressive results. The Phillies' new ace struck out three, did not allow a hit, and threw 21 of his 24 pitches for strikes. But spring training is about practice and preparation, and Halladay's brief dominance - mostly against hitters who had participated only in batting practice since last autumn - was not overly meaningful, particularly since Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira remained in Tampa. The men on the field are easing back into game shape, not playing to win.
The insignificance of results early in the Grapefruit League season should also be kept in mind when Cole Hamels makes his 2010 debut this afternoon in Dunedin, Fla., against the Toronto Blue Jays. Hamels' spring training is extremely important to his season, and his season is vital to the ultimate evaluation of the Cliff Lee trade. But hits, walks, runs and other statistics of summer relevance are not the best indicators of pitching performance in March. Though the Halladay/Hamels era quietly begins this week, we must wait to learn how that potentially dynamic pair will perform.
Make no mistake: It is vital for the Phils and their general manager that Hamels and Halladay become a dominant duo this year. The organization's view that Hamels will rediscover his mojo and successfully add to his repertoire led it to decide against renting Lee for one more season.
Whether or not the Phils and Lee would have been able to agree on a contract extension, the team could have decided to pay its World Series wizard the $9 million owed to him in 2010 before he becomes a free agent. GM Ruben Amaro Jr. might have worried about replenishing his farm system another time. He might have fielded a team of Yankee-esque excess.
He decided against that partially because of budget, publicly because of the need to acquire prospects after sacrificing so many in the trades to acquire Lee and Halladay, and largely because he and his staff still believe in Hamels. They still consider the lefthander's change-up to be among the best in baseball, along with that of New York's Johan Santana and San Francisco's Tim Lincecum. They have seen Hamels, at age 24, find and maintain a strong-minded focus during the postseason, and they think he can do it again at age 26. They guess that Halladay/Hamels will be good enough to make the world forget about the vanished chance of Halladay/Lee.
We have already glimpsed in Halladay the qualities that made him so appealing to the Phillies. It will likely take an injury to derail a summerlong breeze through the National League. Even yesterday, he displayed the command and focus worthy of a midseason game.
Hamels is still learning, and we should expect his spring results to lag behind Halladay's. At 32 years old, Halladay is in the sweet spot of his prime. He has passed through the trial-and-error phase of his career, conquered the hard realities of struggle after early success, learned all of his pitches long ago. He has refined his off-season and spring-training routines. (He even carries a binder documenting the details of his games and workouts for the last several years.)
Hamels, a victim of his own sudden success, is still honing those routines. Yes, he has a World Series MVP award already, but he won that before mastering any pitches other than a fastball and change-up. He also won it before learning how to remain in throwing shape during the off-season. After 2008, Hamels continued his cardio and weight training exercises but did not regularly throw a baseball. Seeing how that approach caused elbow problems in spring training, he decided to play long toss nearly every day this winter.
With a healthier arm than he had last year, Hamels can focus today on improving his curveball, and tinkering with a cutter and sinker. He has 31/2 weeks to decide which of those pitches to add for the regular season, so he plans to mix them in liberally. He will surely fail to execute at times, and will probably allow some runs. If that happens, though, it will be evidence of a calculated attempt to learn and enjoy a better season, not proof of a premature decline.