Coming off their worst season since 2000, the Phillies need just about everything to go right in order to contend in the NL East. Their slim chances for doing so have taken a hit with the news of Cole Hamels' latest bout of shoulder fatigue, putting him far enough behind schedule that he will likely start the year on the disabled list.
Back on Feb. 12, Hamels revealed that he was behind in his throwing program due to biceps tendonitis. At the time, the 30-year-old southpaw said he had experienced discomfort around Thanksgiving, at which point he and the Phillies' medical staff decided to delay the start of his throwing program — which typically begins on Dec. 1 — one month, and that he was eight-to-10 days away from throwing his first bullpen session. The same day Hamels' woes were revealed, news of the team signing A.J. Burnett broke.
Prior to Thursday's news, team officials said that they expected Hamels to miss no more than two starts in April, and Hamels had reported "tremendous progress" in his recovery from the tendonitis. But after throwing three bullpen sessions — the most recent of which was a 35-pitch effort this past Saturday — Hamels reported that while he's not experiencing pain, his arm feels "fatigued out," scuttling plans for him to progress to facing live hitters for the first time this spring. From MLB.com's Todd Zolecki:
"I know nothing has gone wrong," Hamels said about his shoulder. "Trying to get in the best possible shape that I can [get] in sort of a rushed, competitive atmosphere, something's going to not want to push it a little more so it prevents the injury. Ultimately my body is telling me, 'Hey, slow it down a little bit and start over in a certain way so that you can prevent injury but build up for the long haul.'"
Arm fatigue is hardly uncommon for pitchers during spring training; many, if not most, report going through a "dead arm" period at some point as they ramp up their pitch counts. Fatigue is the body's way of warning against further overuse, which is when the real threat of injuries increases. In the meantime, no MRI or injections are planned for Hamels; the prognosis is rest, even if that means that he won't be available in April. Given that the three-time All-Star is owed a minimum of $118.5 million through 2018, the team's priority is protecting their investment for the long term.
Amid the Phillies' 73-89 finish in 2013 — their first below .500 since they went 65-97 in 2000 — Hamels endured a frustrating season. He made 33 starts and struck out 202 hitters in 220 innings, but his 3.60 ERA was his highest since 2009. Throw out a pair of drubbings in his first two starts and his mark was a more characteristic 3.22 the rest of the way. Thanks to a stretch of poor run support — 2.9 runs per game through his first 16 starts — he carried a 2-11 record into late June. Despite ranking seventh in the league in pitcher Wins Above Replacement (4.6) — his fourth straight year in the top-10 — as well as fourth in innings and sixth in strikeouts, he finished the year with a lopsided 8-14 record.
Hamels has been one of the game's best and most durable pitchers in recent years. He's made at least 31 starts in six straight seasons, topping 200 innings five times in that span while serving just one stint on the disabled list for shoulder inflammation in August 2011. Elbow inflammation in the spring of 2009 prevented him from making his first appearance until the team's fourth game of the season; that was the year he fell short of 200 innings (he finished with 193 2/3) and wound up with a career-worst 4.32 ERA. Coming off a world championship, the team did return to the World Series, but Hamels was cuffed for a 7.58 ERA in four postseason starts, failing to make a single quality start or even pitch into the seventh inning.
With Roy Halladay having retired, whatever hopes the Phillies have for contending rest on the arms of Hamels, Burnett and Cliff Lee leading the way; without Hamels, the rotation appears to be somewhat threadbare. If the season opened today, Kyle Kendrick and Roberto "Fausto" Hernandez would be the third and fourth starters behind Lee and Burnett, but Jonathan Pettibone (who made 18 starts as a rookie last year) is dealing with shoulder inflammation, Ethan Martin (eight starts as a rookie) has a strained shoulder capsule and triceps, and Cuban defector Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez doesn't appear to be ready to pitch in the majors. The team doesn't need a fifth starter until April 14, but they're already down to the likes of Jeff Manship (5.62 career ERA), Sean O'Sullivan (5.89 career ERA) or some even less proven commodity. In other words, don't be surprised if general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. is minding the waiver wire this month.