How (and How Long?) Does Cole Hamels Factor Into the Rangers Plans for 2018?


As Texas gets off to a rocky start to 2018, what should Rangers fans expect from Cole Hamels?

Since coming to Arlington in July of 2015, Cole Hamels has been, in many ways, everything that Rangers fans could have hoped for: a workhorse, top of the rotation pitcher, capable of working deep into games every time he takes the bump. With respect to a handful of Rangers greats (I see you, Charlie, Nolan, Bobby, Fergie, and hell, you too, Kenny), Texas hasn’t had a true ace in more than two decades (Aaron Sele won 18 games in 1999, but his ERA was almost 5).

The Yu Darvish signing in 2012 changed everything for Texas, but when he went down with Tommy John in 2015, Texas worked out a deal for Hamels and brought over a veteran with a track record not only of success, but of durability. In his career, Hamels has made 30 or more starts nine times in twelve seasons. The other three? 23, 28, and 24. For reference, Stephen Strasburg has started more than 24 games just four times in his career.

In 2016, Hamels’ first full season with Texas, the lefty went 15-5 with a 3.32 ERA, reaching the 200 innings pitched mark for the eighth time in his career. While none of his metrics would have blown the stats geeks out of the water, Hamels pitched right on par with his career averages, compiling his highest ERA+ since 2014.

2017, though, was a difficult season for the lefty, as he battled injuries and made just 24 starts — fewest since his rookie season in 2006. It was the first time in nearly ten seasons that he failed to hit 200 IP. Hamels finished the year with an 11-6 record, but, perhaps more telling, had a career-high 4.62 FIP, and a career-low 6.4 K/9. Simply put, while still effective, he allowed more contact, and struck out less batters, than at any point in his career.

Hamels has always been the type of pitcher who would be presumed to age well — he’s never relied on velocity or overpowering hitters, instead crafting his game around control and an immeasurable knowledge of pitching. Consider that his pitching mentors were guys like Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Jamie Moyer, and Roy Oswalt, it’s easier to see why Hamels has carved out the career that he has.

Even still, after a down 2017, there was some chirping around Arlington — was Hamels fading? Had the Rangers missed their opportunity with him, especially now that Darvish was traded? Is he still an ace? Was he ever?

So much of what makes Cole Hamels valuable is in the intangibles. He’s a leader, a proven winner, and an absolute bulldog. Some folks throw out the term “old school,” and, hey, they might have a point. The Rangers don’t have a long history of guys like Hamels, and his presence both on the field and in the clubhouse simply can’t be overstated.

Hamels is signed through 2018, with a team option for the 2020 season. (There is a vesting option that kicks in if he reaches 400 IP over the 2017 and 2018 seasons; however, given his shortened season last year, reaching that mark — some 252 IP — is just short of impossible.) With the Rangers 2018 season already in serious doubt, could fans be watching the final few months of Cole Hamels in Texas?

As painful as it is to think about, the lefty carries a hefty price tag for a team not contending to pay. Furthermore, his services would be in high demand for a playoff club come July (see: Verlander, Justin in 2017). As bare as the Rangers prospect cupboards are these days, certainly a Hamels trade could infuse some high-caliber talent, a la the Darvish/Calhoun trade just last season.

This question was already a merited one, and Saturday’s events provided an even more telling glimpse into Hamels future with the Rangers.

The Rangers want to do…what?

That’s right: bullpen abuser extraordinaire Jeff Banister is very seriously considering a six-man rotation for 2018.

Honestly, who can blame him, given his abundance of, well, old and/or reconstructed arms?

(Have you ever watched someone pull a cigarette out of an ashtray, light it, and try with all of their might to drag that last 0.0000023 grams of tobacco into their lungs? That was the Rangers this offseason, except instead of cigarettes, it’s over-the-hill pitchers, and instead of lungs, it’s, you know, a pitcher’s mound.)

On Saturday, Hamels clarified his thoughts on a six-man rotation:

"“It’s not part of baseball,” he told Jeff Wilson of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “I was brought up in the minor leagues on a five man, and that’s what I’m designed and conditioned for…[y]ou throw in the six-man, you might as well be in college — that’s what the college guys do, pitch once a week.”"

Predictably, many Rangers fans have brought out their tar and feathers for Hamels. These are the “just do your job” people; the “quit crying you’re a millionaire” people. It’s easy to forget (or be impossibly oblivious) to the work that these guys have put in to get where they are today, and also to the impossibly high standards they hold themselves to. (This is where the armchair managers really expose their ignorance.)

What to make of the “shut up and pitch” crowd?

Is there something to be said about ballplayers today being, say, coddled? Or perhaps, dare we say, even babied?

I mean, I guess so? But what does that really mean? Everybody wants to act like Goose Gossage is the elder statesman on the matter, when, really, if I were a player in my 30’s, I’d want to give myself the best chance at a high quality of life during, and after, baseball.

I’m also sure that Christy Mathewson or Tom Glavine, or even Max Scherzer, or hell, even Ubaldo freaking Jimenez or any of the other 500+ pitchers (Hamels included) who put in more innings than Gossage might think he was a coddled baby with his career average of 82 innings pitched per season, and this conversation could go on and on and on forever, each person seeing whose pee stream is the longest. Spare me.

Something tells me, if the Rangers six-man rotation were, say, a promising six arms, Hamels might have had a response more in-line with fellow Rangers Doug Fister and Mike Minor. If this were the Nationals adding Jake Arrieta and throwing out Scherzer, Strasburg, Roark, Gonzalez, and Ross along with the bearded one, things might make more sense. All six of those guys are a legit chance to win, every single time.

I’m not saying Hamels would be thrilled — just as I doubt Scherzer or Strasburg or any ace with an established pedigree would be — but a pro’s pro like Hamels would likely see a great opportunity for the upcoming season.

Sadly, though, it’s not that. It’s actually very, very far from it.

“It” is some mashup of Hamels, Martin Perez, Bartolo Colon, Fister, Tim Lincecum, Minor, Matt Bush, Jesse Chavez, Matt Moore, and Preston Claiborne. Maybe Austin Bibens-Dirkx (who every Ranger fan should love and root for)? Maybe Chan Ho Park? Ryan Drese, anybody? Hell, call up Nolan while we’re at it — everybody knows that guy could probably still hit 90.

Who — honestly, who???— in their right mind could blame a guy whose been an ace his entire career for not wanting to share in his starts with five or six or fifteen other pitchers who, frankly speaking, aren’t all that effective anymore?

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At what point do we call a spade a spade? Matt Moore hasn’t had an ERA+ over 100, or an ERA under 4, since 2014. Think about that. And the Rangers are giving him $9,000,000 this year? I’ll be rooting like absolute hell for the guy every fifth (or sixth) day, but I’m also trying to be honest, here. Baseball is just such a brutally honest game. It’ll just break you down, feelings be damned.

200 IP is a benchmark for effective pitchers. It might not have been, a century ago, but in today’s game, it’s an impressive feat, and a huge measure of both a pitcher’s ability and their durability.

Hamels is as durable a pitcher as MLB has seen since he broke in in 2006, and the truth is, he’s creeping closer to a Hall of Fame case. Innings pitched will certainly be considered when his name comes up, and that career average of 222 IP per season will go a long way in whether or not he gets the call. Surely he doesn’t want to cut into that number by way of a six-man rotation gone wrong.

We’re talking about a 34-year-old World Series MVP with four top ten Cy Young Award finishes. A guy who is eager to win a World Series, and, surely, also very aware of his baseball mortality. After a difficult offseason of watching the Rangers do very little to contend in 2018, certainly the last thing that that Cole Hamels could have hoped to hear was that his starts would be getting cut into.

Of course, people have reason to wonder if Hamels wants out of Texas. While Banister said nothing is written in stone re: the rotation, certainly a six-man staff would do damage to Hamels’ relationship to the Rangers. Plain and simple, 200 innings of Cole Hamels in 2018 is better for the Rangers, and for Cole Hamels, than 160 innings (or less, if he is in fact dealt).

Please, Rangers, let’s not ruin our standing with the best pitcher on our staff. Without him, things look even more bleak for the Rangers than they already appear to be. While he might not be the same guy he was in 2012, Cole Hamels is far  from being finished in MLB. His numbers support that, across the board.

Next: Can Bartolo Colon bring sexy back to Texas?

And, to be sure, he’s the best arm the Rangers have in their rotation by a country mile, and an arm they are fully counting on in 2018.

That is, while they still have him.