An aging starting pitcher sizes up as a possible KC Royals salvage project.
There was a time, which doesn’t seem that long ago, when Cole Hamels was one of the elite major league starting pitchers. Topping Jamie Moyer, Adam Eaton and Kyle Kendrick with a 15-5 record in 2007, he became Philadelphia’s top hurler in just his sophomore season. He won 14 games to help the Phillies to the 2008 National League pennant, then went a perfect 4-0 in the postseason and won the NLCS and World Series MVP awards. As the three-year, $20.5 million deal he earned proved, he was the kind of pitcher the KC Royals coveted but couldn’t, or wouldn’t, sign.
Hamels and the Phils stayed together for six more full seasons before a trade deadline deal sent him to Texas in 2015. But before he became a Ranger, he won 76 more games for Philly, and earned a six-year, $144 million contract in 2016.
The move to Texas and the American League didn’t slow the lefthander down—he went 7-1 for the Rangers after the trade, earned his fourth All-Star selection with his second 15-5 record the next year, and was 11-6 in 2017. Texas, though, sent him to the Cubs (who Hamels no-hit in his last game with Philadelphia) a few days before the midsummer trade deadline. He was 4-3 for Chicago (9-12 for the year), then went 7-7 in 2019.
That .500 record wasn’t without reason or cause. Sailing along with a 6-2, 2.92 ERA record, Hamels suffered a left oblique injury in late June, then won only once and lost five times (with an ERA well over 5.00) after returning in August. The Cubs unsurprisingly passed on giving him a qualifying offer at season’s end, making him a free agent for the first time in his career.
The Braves signed Hamels to an $18 million, one-season contract for 2020, but injury struck again. Triceps tendinitis, then left shoulder fatigue, forced him to the Injured List for most of the season; he pitched just once, surrendering three runs on three hits in 3.1 innings against Baltimore in September. It was his first day back from the tendinitis, and he returned to the IL a few days later.
So what does that make Hamels? A free agent, obviously, and a natural for one of the reclamation projects Kansas City General Manager Dayton Moore always seems to relish.
Moore’s forays into such salvage operations are legend. He picks up former pitching stars on the cheap, signing them to inexpensive minor league contracts with non-roster spring training invitations and typically low-million dollar payoffs if they make it to Kansas City. Ex-Royal setup man and closer Wade Davis and former KC starter Ervin Santana are Moore’s latest projects, signed this winter in hopes they can revive their good careers. Moore hit the jackpot with last year’s acquisitions of Greg Holland and Trevor Rosenthal.
Hamels is still on the market and, although he’s likely looking elsewhere, he meets the criteria for another Moore rescue attempt. At 37, there’s more baseball behind Hamels than ahead of him; it’s been a few seasons since he had a Hamels-like season (11-6 in 2017), and he’s looking for a place to rebound from injury.
Hamels doesn’t, of course, represent a long-term solution for the KC Royals. His age stands in the way of a multi-year deal and the club has too many young pitchers bursting with talent and promise who will soon join the similarly-situated Brady Singer and Kris Bubic in Kansas City.
But he can be useful to the club if he performs. Questions surround fellow southpaw Danny Duffy, who could end up in the bullpen or traded before 2021 ends; pitching well, Hamels might fill any void Duffy leaves in the rotation. And he’d have instant credibility with Kansas City’s youngsters, who he could help veterans Duffy and Mike Minor guide and watch over.
His age, and the little time he most likely has remaining in the majors, suggest Hamels probably seeks a solid contender, which the Royals aren’t quite ready to be. But he’s unemployed with a week to go before spring training starts, suggesting great offers aren’t on his table.
If he hasn’t already, perhaps Dayton Moore should seek a conversation with Hamels. There may not be much to lose, but a good bit to gain for an important season.
Cole Hamels presents a classic Kansas City reclamation project possibility. The KC Royals should look into it.