MIAMI - Placido Polanco has seen enough horses to qualify as the Dominican Robert Redford. During his days in the American League Central, Polanco shared a clubhouse with up-and-coming Tigers ace Justin Verlander while also squaring off against Indians lefthander CC Sabathia. Earlier in his career, he faced pitchers like John Smoltz and Randy Johnson.
All of them are big, strong, power pitchers whose physical presence on the mound was almost as intimidating as their electric stuff. All of them look capable of both striking you out and throwing you through a bar window. They have facial hair, not jawlines. They rely not on sizzle, but on Sizzler.
They are horses, and the mound is their trough.
Which brings us, and Polanco, to the skinny fellow sitting across the room staring at his iPad. His numbers match up with every one of those aforementioned pitchers. He has won a World Series MVP, he has been selected for two All-Star Games, and he is one of the top contenders for this year's National League Cy Young Award. He hasn't visited the disabled list in 4 years. Yet few people seem to include him in the ultimate class of pitchers: horse-hood.
Maybe it is because he looks more like a pole vaulter than a pitcher. Maybe it is because he looks more like Tom Cruise than Tom Seaver. Maybe it is because he owns a Kindle.
Whatever the rationale, Polanco does not subscribe.
"If that's what you want to call it, then he's a horse," the third baseman said. "He's up there."
True, he has to jump around in the shower just to get wet. But, Polanco said, "There are skinny horses out there."
Here's another thing about horses: They cost money. A lot of money. And while the Phillies are riding Cole Hamels for the bargain price of $9.5 million this season, in just a few months he will become very, very expensive. The general public might not think of Hamels as a horse. Heck, he's never made an Opening Day start. But that has more to do with the talent around him than his actual worth.
But when you look at the numbers he has compiled before his 28th birthday, you begin to see exactly where he stands.
Take, for example, the 17 pitchers in the integration era who have pitched at least 1,000 innings with at least 1,000 strikeouts and an ERA under 3.50 in the first six seasons of their careers. Hamels is one of them. The others? Tom Seaver, Bert Blyleven, Roger Clemens, Fergie Jenkins, Dwight Gooden, Don Sutton, Jake Peavy, Frank Tanana, Brandon Webb, Bob Veale, Felix Hernandez, Luis Tiant, Fernando Valenzuela, Juan Marichal, Roy Oswalt and Don Drysdale.
Included in that group are six Hall of Famers, two possible Hall of Famers and two current pitchers whose careers have been derailed by injury. All were regarded as horses at one point or another.
"I put him in there, definitely," manager Charlie Manuel said. "I think he's definitely in there. He ranks right up there with the top lefthanders in baseball."
Well, guess what the top lefthanders in baseball get paid?
If you are Sabathia: $161 million over 7 years.
If you are Johan Santana: $137.5 million over 6 years.
If you are Cliff Lee: $120 million over 5 years.
And guess how Hamels' resume compares to those of Sabathia, Santana and Lee at the time they signed their megadeals? Very, very favorably.
While Hamels cannot become a free agent until after the 2012 season, he will be able to file for arbitration after this season, if he and the Phillies do not agree on a contract before then. When general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. signed his World Series star to a 3-year, $20.5 million deal after the 2008 season, he did so because such a structure would provide the club flexibility to re-evaluate Hamels down the road. The Phillies had always been hesitant to hand out contracts longer than 3 years, particularly to pitchers. Hamels was coming off his first season of 200-plus innings, as well as his first season that did not include a trip to the disabled list.
As it turns out, the structure of the deal appears to have worked in Hamels' favor (assuming he stays healthy the rest of the season).
This year, his base salary is $1 million more than the Phillies are paying Joe Blanton and $2.5 million less than the Dodgers are paying Hiroki Kuroda. But not for long.
The Phillies did not buy out any of Hamels' free-agent years. In fact, they did not even buy out all of his arbitration years, which means they will have to work out his 2012 compensation even though he cannot become a free agent for another year.
The Phillies essentially have three options. They can agree on a long-term deal like the one they gave to Lee or the Yankees gave to Sabathia. They can agree on a 1-year deal for 2012. Or they can head to arbitration.
Even if Hamels goes to arbitration, he should end up among the top-paid pitchers in the game next season. While a player's arbitration salary is supposed to depend heavily on his service time - Hamels will have over 5 years - special exceptions can be made for players who can demonstrate production that has far exceeded that of their peers. Ryan Howard successfully made this argument after the 2007 season and was awarded a then-record $10 million in his first season of eligibility. Tim Lincecum would have made the same argument after the 2009 season. Instead, he and the Giants agreed on a 2-year deal that paid him $9 million in 2010 and $13 million in 2011.
Considering that Lincecum filed for $13 million as a first-time arb-eligible player after 2009 and Blanton filed for $10.25 million last season with the same service time that Hamels will have, Hamels would have every right to expect a hefty raise just based on precedent. But he also could argue that his accomplishments far exceed those of normal fourth-time arb-eligible pitchers, and that he has made a significant contribution toward the massive revenue increases the Phillies have seen over the last 3 years. Those factors, he could argue, entitle him to a slice of the pie that is equivalent to the one enjoyed by other pitchers of his stature. Bare minimum, the Phillies could expect Hamels to file for a salary of $15 million to $17 million, and if he filed at $20 million he could make a damn good case for it. That would leave the Phillies with the possibility of paying Hamels a huge salary for 2012 without any guarantee that he remains in Philadelphia beyond that time.
Still, the Phillies have some leverage - probably not as much as they envisioned when they structured Hamels' current deal, but enough that they might not have to offer him Sabathia money to re-sign. The year-and-a-half that stands between Hamels and free agency might not sound like a long time, but for a starting pitcher, particularly one who seems to be a magnet for comebackers, it can feel like an eternity. A year-and-a-half is plenty of time to suffer an injury that limits earning potential. Hamels knows that, and you can bet his agent knows that.
But that worry, and the leverage it provides the Phillies, decreases with every healthy day that passes. If he finishes this season healthy, it decreases dramatically. The salary he would receive through arbitration, along with the earnings he has already banked, will set up him and his future generations for life. At that point, playing out the 2012 season and hitting the market might seem like a risk worth taking.
In other words, there is good chance that Hamels will only get more expensive as time passes. On the open market, he could reasonably expect a deal in the neighborhood of the ones Lee and Sabathia signed. He is the same age as Sabathia when he signed his contract with the Yankees, and his numbers thus far are better than Sabathia's were at the time of the deal:
Hamels, 3.40; Sabathia, 3.66
Hamels, 8.5; Sabathia, 7.6
Hamels, 2.3; Sabathia, 2.8
Hamels, 1.150; Sabathia, 1.244
Hamels has made 87 fewer starts and logged 590 fewer innings than Sabathia had. But if he stays healthy through next season, his workload will be similar to the one that Lee had logged when he signed with the Phillies. Except Hamels will be 4 years younger.
Of course, Hamels is not on the open market, and the Phillies should expect some concessions in exchange for the guaranteed earnings they would provide in any long-term deal. On the other hand, they shouldn't expect to sign him on the cheap. Because that is not the way the business of baseball is structured. And as much as Hamels appears to enjoy playing for the Phillies and living in the Philadelphia area, he is also well aware that he has provided the Phillies with far more value than they have provided him. For a player, free agency is a way to recoup the earnings he did not receive during the early part of his career because of the limits placed upon him by baseball's service-time structure.
The Phillies did not go beyond 5 years for Lee, Halladay or Howard, and they will probably be hesitant to do so for Hamels, despite the fact that he is at least 4 years younger than all of them. Beyond that, it is difficult to forecast what type of deal will appeal to both sides. Would Hamels be open to a deal similar to the 5-year, $120 million contract Lee signed? Such a contract would run through the age of 32. Would the Phillies be willing to offer anything beyond the 5-year, $91.5 million deal that Carlos Zambrano signed with the Cubs a couple of years ago?
The Phillies can fit either salary into their payroll, assuming it does not decrease from this season, and still have a reasonable amount of money to spend on their other needs, namely leftfield, shortstop and the bullpen. In fact, with the trajectory of their offense over the last few seasons, they almost have to fit such a salary in their payroll and hitch their success to three dominant starters.
The key point is that Hamels has become a bona fide No. 1 starter, whether you rely on statistics or testimonials or your own eyes. He is durable. He is dominant. And he is just now entering his prime. Hamels has every right to expect a salary commensurate with those characteristics.
For the Phillies, providing him with that salary as part of a long-term contract is a risk. But the way Hamels has performed through four-plus seasons, not providing him with it might be a bigger one.
For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at www.philly.com/HighCheese.
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