When he retires, Cole Hamels plans to get away from baseball. He's got kids to raise and businesses to run and life to live. That doesn't preclude him from playing fantasy GM now and again, constructing in his mind the sort of team he would build were he in charge.
He knows one thing: There's no way he'd ever give a pitcher the six-year, $144 million contract the Philadelphia Phillies minted him Wednesday.
"I would give big money, but not for long years," Hamels said during a late-May conversation about the frailty of pitchers. "I'd only give three or four years, but I'd give 'em $25 or $30 million."
And were a team to have offered him that?
"I'd laugh," Hamels said. "Just because that's the way the market's gone."
The market is crazy, of course, guaranteeing hundreds of millions of dollars every season to stockpile a body part that is liable to break at any moment. The arm is fickle, and the Phillies' adherence to it – among Hamels, Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Jonathan Papelbon, they have guaranteed $374 million to pitchers on their staff – grows more dangerous by the deal.
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That never stops the Phillies, who have turned into the Yankees of the National League with their propensity to spend massive sums on aging players. From the 2013 season on, they owe Ryan Howard $105 million for his age 33-36 seasons, Lee $87.5 million for age 34-36, Papelbon $39 million for age 32-34 and Jimmy Rollins $22 million for age 34-35.
Paying a player like Hamels, ostensibly in his prime, certainly is more accepted and didn't prompt much outrage. In the context of the market, it wasn't at all egregious, perhaps because the market tends to ignore the long and ignoble history of onerous pitching contracts. For every CC Sabathia, who has played up to his deal early on, there are Mike Hampton and Barry Zito and even Johan Santana, whose shoulder gave. Hamels is right: Anything past four years is pushing it, longer than five is nuts and beyond six is heresy, and yet teams are compelled to pay because premium guys want years in addition to dollars, and history tells us somebody will give it to them.
"So many times, they get the money after their prime," Hamels said. "They're getting paid for what they did."
Here is what Hamels has done: put up an ERA 25 percent better than the league for almost seven seasons, win nearly 60 percent of his decisions, strike out almost a batter an inning and carry the Phillies to a World Series. Hamels was a meme before memes were cool.
Since his debut May 12, 2006, 10 guys have started more games than his 199. Nine have thrown more than his 1,295 innings. A dozen have posted a better strikeout rate than him. Sixteen have a greater walk rate. He's not the best in any one category. He's just elite in a lot, and that's why the Phillies gave him the second-most money for any pitcher – and, if he triggers a $20 million option for the 2019 season, the most.
To guarantee the option, Hamels must throw 200 innings in 2018, 400 between 2017-18 and not end the 2018 season on the disabled list with an elbow or shoulder injury. Think about that: Language about Hamels' arm falling apart is in a contract in which the Phillies are guaranteeing him $144 million no matter what happens to said left arm.
It could go tomorrow.
It could go his next start.
It could go any time.
And even Hamels thinks it's going to.
"I've tried to keep the workload up high, because there's going to be a time when I can't," he said. "My body's going to rebel one day, so I might as well throw before it does."
He might be wrong. Cole Hamels might be one of those freaks who's blessed with the genetic makeup, work ethic and mechanical smoothness to keep his arm and its surrounding support system strong and lessen the stress on the two most important joints in his body enough that neither gives. It happens. Greg Maddux did it. Same with Randy Johnson. A few others. Most don't. Not even close.
And so the odometer on Hamels' arm goes up by the start, and the Phillies can do nothing but pray. Because, like Hamels said, "you don't know how long (any arm is) going to do well."
If his stops functioning and he needs something to do, maybe he should reconsider leaving the game. Cole Hamels, baseball's newest hundred-millionaire, seems to recognize a lot better than his bosses just how crazy that is.
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