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Why Hamels could be the NL East's most influential player


CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels relies on deception when he pitches. But his pitching coach Rich Dubee apparently is the opposite type. Dubee didn't hide a thing Thursday while discussing Hamels, and what Hamels needs to do better to get back to the form of his heroic 2008 season. Dubee was as direct as Hamels is deceptive.

In one of the most honest press conferences anyone will have this spring, Dubee said Thursday that it isn't just the technical aspect of Hamels' game that needs work. It's his emotional side, too. It isn't just the curveball that needs adjustment, though that is a main goal of the spring. It is his mound demeanor, as well.

Dubee went on at length about Hamels being too emotional and much too demonstrative last year, about how he sabotaged his season by over-emoting, over-reacting and over-reaching. "His approach wasn't very good last year,'' Dubee said, flat out. And his comments didn't end there. He went on.

"The big problem with Cole last year was he pitched with a lot of anger -- with himself mostly,'' Dubee said.

If the Phillies aren't angry, they are at least annoyed. As much as anyone, they don't like to see talent wasted. Dubee mentioned that Hamels' problems stem from the perfectionist in him. But the Phillies also have high standards for the 2008 World Series MVP. They expect a lot from him, as evidenced by the fact they didn't even think about trading him and instead flipped more established star Cliff Lee to Seattle on the day they traded for pitching superstar Roy Halladay to balance their books and keep their payroll to $140 million. And it's shown by Dubee's rather honest evaluation. Hamels was hardly terrible last season, but he didn't come close to expectations. Neither his nor theirs.

It's clear now, if it wasn't already, just how vital Hamels is to the Phillies' success this season. He is the single most key player in the N.L. East, and maybe the entire National League. If he returns to his 2008 form, when he went 14-10 with a 3.09 ERA in the regular season then posted a 1.80 ERA in leading Philadelphia to its World Series championship, the Phillies are probably unbeatable in their division. If he doesn't, if he repeats the 10-11 mark with 4.32 ERA of a year ago, not to mention the 7.58 postseason ERA that led to the very veteran Pedro Martinez surpassing him in the Phillies' rotation, it could well open the door for an upset within the division, and certainly within the league.

Dubee and the Phillies want Hamels back to being the guy from 2008, the one whose emotionless mound demeanor was as much of a plus as his devastating changeup. They want him to stop stomping around on the mound when a bloop hit hurts him, to stop snatching the ball in anger when he walks a batter or two.

Dubee said they have reminded Hamels frequently that he needs to stay calm, cool and composed and not to let small disappointments turn into devastations. Dubee said Hamels needs to "not get upset about flare base hits or by bases on balls ... he got upset about a lot.'' He believes the perfectionist in Hamels came out, and it hurt him. "He expects to pitch a no-hitter every game. When you have those expectations and it doesn't go that way, it's not good. When he wasn't able to attain that, he got upset with himself.''

Dubee revealed they have shown Hamels film of his misdeeds last year, the snapping of the balls and the stomping around the mound. Hamels, though, said he didn't need to watch it. "No,'' he said, "I was there.''

Whether he watched the tapes or not, Hamels said he understands what he needs to do. He needs not to take one bad pitch into the next, one bad break into another, one bloop hit into an inning of utter distraction. He has to recall that "it's not the end of the world when I don't make the pitch in the right spot.'' Even if he isn't watching the horror show of the films he's shown, it's apparent Hamels got the message.

Teams sources say they believe Hamels was "overwhelmed'' by all that went on, that while he didn't necessarily let the success go to his head, he did allow himself to become distracted. Hamels is a San Diego native and showed a California cool persona in 2008, but he winters now in Philly, and people around the team believe he let too many people get a piece of him in his adopted town the winter after the championship. It was all too much too soon.

Speaking of expectations, Hamels allowed, "I kind of let that get to me.''

As Dubee pointed out, Hamels went from fewer 200 minor-league innings total before 2008 to 254 1/3 pressure-packed major-league innings that season. And as another Phillie person pointed out, he also had a new three-year, $20.5 million contract, a new marriage and a new baby on the way. Hamels admitted to wanting to prove he was worthy of the new deal, even if in some ways he'd earned all of it with his '08 exploits.

Phillies people believe Hamels needed to relax this winter, and they believe he has done that. "I think what he needed was a breath of fresh air, to think about it, to change the results and to change his mound presence,'' Dubee said. Phillies people believe he got the message. "He took it to heart,'' Dubee said. "He could have gone home and sulked. And no, he didn't do that.''

If Hamels continues on the 2009 path, it doesn't hurt that the Phillies have Jamie Moyer and Halladay, two of the most perfect people to help straighten him out given their own resumes with spectacular success stories after stark failures. As Dubee pointed out, Halladay was once shipped all the way back to Class A ball to fix himself.

Such a drastic move isn't likely with Hamels. But he does need to get back to his old self. For his benefit, and his team's.

Hamels isn't the only player who could shape an entire division. Here is each division's swing player, the one guy who could impact an entire race.


Alfonso Soriano, Cubs

Soriano was just one of several Cubs to disappoint last year. But he is the one who carries the potential to turn things around for the team and help them unseat the favored Cardinals. His 2009 season of 20 home runs and a .241 average is patently unacceptable, and not just for someone with a $136-million, eight-year contract but for someone with his ability. He declined in every statistic last year, but despite missing a month after knee surgery, his strikeout total is the one number that increased, from 103 to 118. His season was that bad. But his ability to turn things around for the Cubs remains good.

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Brandon Webb, Diamondbacks

Webb recently got back on a mound after 10 months off it following summer shoulder surgery, and he gives the Diamondbacks the potential to match any team's rotation in their pitching-strong division -- if he's sound. Arizona judged that his $8.5-million option was worth the gamble, and understandably so. At his best, he's Cy Young-quality. And there is hope he will be at his best soon. "He's right where he needs to be,'' Diamondbacks GM Josh Byrnes said by phone. "He feels good, and he's exactly where we expected.''


Curtis Granderson, Yankees

He comes to the Bronx off what was in many ways a disappointing season for him, and he's being counted on to replace popular and productive Johnny Damon amid whispers about his declining defense and struggles hitting left-handers. On top of that, Granderson will be asked to duplicate what Damon did on the field and in the clubhouse, which was substantial .The Yankees don't believe the defense is a real issue for Granderson, but the .183 batting average vs. lefties is irrefutable. He's a talented guy who's been considered a fine center fielder, a powerful hitter (he hit 20 of 30 home runs on the road last year, and his homer total should be enhanced by a season in Yankee Stadium) and a big plus in the clubhouse. But the Bronx isn't Detroit. He came up with the Tigers while they were ascending from the ashes and never faced the kind of attention he's going to see this year.


Orlando Hudson, Twins

There were whispers about his declining range and even about a lessening ability catch up with a great fastball that arose as potential explanations for Dodgers manager Joe Torre going with Ronnie Belliard over Hudson throughout the late part of the season and the playoffs. But though it took a long time to get a contract, Hudson wound up with a $5-million deal from the small-market Twins, whose scouts are as good as anyone's and who are aiming for a boffo season in their first year in their new stadium. Hudson should easily outdo whatever combination of Brendan Harris, Matt Tolbert and Nick Punto he's replacing. And on the surface, he appears to be the perfect addition to a lineup that's strong in the middle but could use another table setter to go with rising star Denard Span. This is a division where the Twins, Tigers or White Sox could win, and Hudson could have plenty to say about it.


Brandon Wood, Angels

We've been hearing a lot about Wood for a lot of years. But he's been having a lot of difficulty cracking their lineup, as he's struggled offensively in limited opportunities. He has 74 strikeouts in 224 big-league at-bats, with only seven walks and seven home runs. But the defection of Chone Figgins to the rival Mariners has finally created the real opening Wood needs at third base. Some are going to suggest the revamped Mariners are the favorites to steal the division. But the Angels still have plenty going or them, including possibly Wood, whose big power gives him the potential to be another Troy Glaus. His delayed ascension, though, leaves a bit of room to wonder whether he might become the next Dallas MacPherson instead.

• Rod Barajas was having trouble finding a job for a while, but now it appears there's a mini bidding war going on, with the Mets still favored over the Rangers to land the veteran catcher, thanks to greater opportunity there. The price tag could surpass $1 million now. The Rangers have some worry over Jarrod Saltlamacchia, so they haven't given up hope yet. Jose Molina looks like a fallback possibility for Texas, though not for the Mets, who are more in need of a starting catcher, not yet another backup backstop.

• Some Mets people preferred Yorvit Torrealba, but his grievance against the Mets may have complicated things before he signed with the Padres for $1.25 million guaranteed. The deal the Mets discussed would have accounted for the grievance. But ultimately, the Mets will probably pay less than their Torrealba deal to land Barajas if he comes.

• Russell Branyan appears to still be deciding on one-year offers between the Indians and Rays.

• Eric Gagne could be a decent story going back to the Dodgers. Though the man who inspired "Game Over,'' is understandably considered a long shot to make a dent at this point. He received a $500,000 salary if he makes the clubs (plus $500,000 extra in incentives).

• Execs continue to believe the arbitration process is a crapshoot. Many have expressed the belief that Corey Hart should have lost his case while B.J. Upton should have won. It's those kind of unexpected results that encourage settlements, so it's not all bad.

• One NL exec said he believes Phil Hughes is the obvious choice to start over Joba Chamberlain -- though the Yankees are calling it an equal battle for the No. 5 starters job. "Joba is an adrenaline guy. Hughes has a better repertoire and gameplan,'' the exec said.

• The Mariners have received more praise than anyone for their offseason moves (including from me), but some competing execs still wonder whether they have enough firepower to compete in the AL. "Good defense isn't going to do it against the Yankees and Red Sox,'' one AL exec opined. That exec said the Mariners overachieved last year and predicted they'll be lucky to play .500 ball this year.

• Not only is Webb a key for the D-backs, so is returning lineup staple Conor Jackson. "He gives us something we don't have, a high average hitter and on-base guy,'' GM Byrnes said.

• The Indians' expected promotions of Mark Shapiro and Chris Antonetti at season's end, which were announced Thursday, was in the works for awhile, ever since Antonetti began turning down several other GM opportunities elsewhere. The job is not an easy one now, though, with the city in an economic tailspin, funds to spend extremely scarce and LeBron James by far the dominant sports figure in town.