CLEARWATER, Fla. - Cole Hamels does not look at Cliff Lee and see himself - not yet anyway. He does not watch Lee have a soft catch with bullpen coach Rod Nichols, as Lee did Wednesday morning, and worry that he, too, will someday feel a twinge in his left elbow that tells him his career is in jeopardy. Lee is Lee, 36 years old, the twilight coming faster for him, and Hamels is Hamels, 31 and moving through his annual rite of preseason preparation without trouble. He has no time or inclination to wonder when he will begin to break down like his teammate has.
"We're playing a game in a small window, and you want to maximize that window of time for as long as you can - and especially to play it at the highest level," Hamels said Wednesday after throwing three innings in the Phillies' 3-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates.
"There's always going to be scrutiny, always the sort of [statisticians] who are going to throw out the types of numbers of when guys are going to be at their best and when guys are going to be at their worst. But it's a matter of us trying to disprove those or going out and being comfortable with who we are and confident what we do on and off the field is going to allow us to still be out there and be at the highest competitive level as long as we possibly can."
That is all the Phillies want or need from Hamels this season: to be comfortable, confident, and to pitch at a high enough level that his market value doesn't sink the way Lee's has. Hamels is the most important healthy athlete in Philadelphia, and his importance has less to do with his performance for the Phillies this season than it does the prospective return he might bring in a trade.
That Lee is injured, will try to pitch through the injury, and may resort to season-ending and career-threatening surgery does not and should not lower Hamels' value or ratchet up the Phillies' desperation to deal him. Nothing changes for Ruben Amaro Jr. here. You wait for the market to materialize, and then wait some more, maybe to the final minutes before the non-waiver trade deadline, for the best offer.
The rest is simple: hoping that Hamels remains as durable as he has been throughout his nine years with the Phillies. He has made at least 30 starts in each of the last seven seasons, recovering from a biceps injury last spring to compile a 2.46 earned-run average and a 1.14 WHIP over 204 innings. He knows his body, knows what he has to do to stay right, and has always demanded of the franchise and himself every available advantage and tool.
Remember 2007, when Hamels complained that he might have averted a stint on the disabled list had the Phillies provided him access to a chiropractor? The episode fed the perception that he was a prima donna, but Hamels has long since validated his care and concern over the instrument of his excellence.
"Throwing a baseball is not natural, so there's always going to be some sort of aches and pains that go with it," he said. "It's just a matter of how you treat it and how you prepare for it to try to minimize the strains and pulls and torque that you're putting on the joints and the muscles and the ligaments and tendons that you have in your body, and then how you address those. But I think you always have to evolve. That's first and foremost. If you're not willing to evolve, it could shorten your career. . . .
"You just have to really be smart. It's another game you have to play, besides the one you have to play out on the field."
These days, of course, the games aren't really games. They're practice. They're part of the preparation. Hamels gave up two hits, including a two-run home run to Jordy Mercer on a fat 3-2 fastball in the third inning. He threw 46 pitches. It was utterly unremarkable. It was perfect.
"He basically got his work in," manager Ryne Sandberg said. "He's fine." That is all the Phillies want or need from Cole Hamels. That is all he wants to see in himself.