Cole Hamels was supposed to be the Phillies' best chance at jump-starting their rebuild.
The haul Hamels could bring in a deal, if orchestrated correctly, would drastically decrease the time until Philadelphia is competitive again.
All the Phillies had to do was sit back, entertain offers for one of the top left-handed starters in the game, and pick the best one before baseball's non-waiver trade deadline July 31. Everyone from the Dodgers to the Cubs, the Red Sox to the Rangers, was inquiring.
Then, with the deadline approaching, Hamels went into what he describes as a "rut."
He had his two shortest starts of the season — the fewest innings he's thrown in a start since April 5, 2011 — giving up nine runs in 31/3 innings July 10 and then five runs in three innings Sunday. His ERA for those two games was 19.89, raising his season ERA almost a full run from 3.02 to 3.91.
But can just two poor back-to-back starts turn what may have been a franchise-altering return of top prospects into Hamels still being in Philadelphia come August 1?
The answer is no, and that's exactly what general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said Monday when asked if Hamels' last two outings have hindered the ability to trade him, or at least keep the Phillies from getting proper value for him. Amaro didn't expand, although he didn't really need to.
There's definitely a chance Hamels stays put, but if he does, it won't be because of those two subpar outings.
Track record: Scouts have been at many, if not all, of Hamels' games over the past few weeks but there's more to a lefty who is in the middle of his 10th major league season than two games. He has quite the track record and that's what Hamels pointed to when asked if he feels added pressure to perform in his next start.
Amaro agreed that Hamels' record speaks for itself.
For a refresher, he's finished eighth or better in the National League Cy Young voting four times, was named an NL All-Star three times, finished a season with an ERA higher than 3.60 just once since 2007 and was named World Series MVP in 2008 when the Phillies won it all.
Obviously, that World Series MVP 2008 doesn't mean much to a team wanting to trade for him now, but he still knows how to pitch, and he can do it better than most. Two July starts don't change that.
In the 14 starts before he hit that blip this year, he recorded a 2.64 ERA, struck out 101 batters, allowed just four home runs and the opposition was hitting.228 against him. And last year, again pitching for a team that was one of the worst in baseball, Hamels maintained focus and finished with a career-best 2.46 ERA. Only seven other pitchers in the game did better in 2014.
They insist he's healthy: So what the Phillies are selling is a 31-year-old who will likely come cheaper than comparable talent on the free-agent market for the next few years, since he's signed at $22.5 million a season through 2018 with a $20 million club option for 2019.
The only way the last two outings significantly hurt Hamels' trade value is if it appears he's injured. His velocity and mechanics looked normal, and both he and interim manager Pete Mackanin insist he's healthy, so it looks like no worries there.
Why is he struggling? Have all the rumors about being traded by the July 31 deadline become a distraction?
Hamels doesn't think so.
"Like I said all year, I've got to focus on what I've got to be able to do on a daily basis here," Hamels said. "Unfortunately what I've done in the last week and a half hasn't been up to my standards or to the expectations of many, and especially my teammates. You've got to grind away and take the next couple days to just get back to square one and go back out there on my next day."
Even though he denies the uncertainty is affecting him, it has to be hard for him to block out the constant talk and Amaro said it's certainly a possibility all the chatter could be affecting Hamels.
"He's a human being," Amaro said. "There's a lot of distractions. There's a lot of talk about him in particular. As we said before, these are human beings. Could it affect him? Sure. He could also just be going through a spell right now where he's not pitching his finest. He's still one of the best pitchers in baseball, I think. One of the best left-handed starters."
No need to panic: Hamels blamed his struggles on falling behind in counts, throwing pitches hitters are expecting and not keeping them down in the zone.
The timing of the mini-slump couldn't be worse, but there's no need to panic. Hamels could very well walk into Chicago this weekend and throw a shutout in his next start, quelling the worries. And even if he doesn't, there will still be a market for him, allowing the Phillies to complete a deal for several prospects if they choose to do so.