Cole Hamels hits on the issues: Team chemistry

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Cole Hamels hits on the issues: Team chemistry

Cole Hamels sat down Monday with CSNPhilly.com for an extensive interview covering a wide range of topics. Here is the first part of our week-long series:

In five of his first six major league seasons, Cole Hamels experienced the thrill of postseason baseball.

But he and his Phillies teammates have spent the last two Octobers at home.

“It’s been miserable,” Hamels said Monday. “I don’t even want to watch the postseason. I want to be part of it.”

In two weeks, Hamels and his teammates will assemble in Clearwater, Fla., to begin their quest to return to the playoffs after two disappointing seasons, the last of which resulted in just 73 wins (the team’s fewest since 2000) and the firing of manager Charlie Manuel.

Want to feel old? Hamels turned 30 last month. And though he’s still younger than many of his teammates, he knows his baseball clock is ticking. He also knows the clock is ticking on this team and that management could concede to a rebuilding effort by midseason 2014 if the club is not in contention.

Hamels says he wants no part of that.

“It will probably be reiterated early in spring training and during the season that we really do have to make it because we don’t want to break it,” Hamels said.

In his first interview of the New Year, Hamels spoke with CSNPhilly.com about a number of topics Monday, including the team’s performance in 2013, clubhouse chemistry and the possibility of rebuilding.

Of course, this wasn’t the first time Hamels commented on these topics. He spoke about all three -- and not in positive tones -- in the December issue of Philadelphia magazine.

Hamels took on the issues again Monday.

In fact, he raised the issue of clubhouse chemistry.

The last two seasons “definitely caused some frustrations in the whole team morale,” Hamels said.

He mentioned the firing of Manuel, the number of injuries, and the losing as leading to frustrations and morale problems.

“You have a lot of guys coming in and out and we didn’t know how to handle it,” Hamels said. “I think that was kind of the case. A lot of us had been winning, a lot of us were new, and all we knew was winning, so it was a different sort of perspective for a lot of us that we had to deal with.”

Hamels was asked whether the chemistry issues were a matter of the players not liking each other or the players not liking losing.

“It was not liking losing,” he said. “I think we all get along very well and we’ve done it for numerous years, so I think it was just the losing and not knowing how to handle losing.

“I know that definitely shows a lot about your character when you get a bunch of guys together that aren’t used to losing. Things didn’t go well. So I think that’s something where we know what we have to do in taking the right steps in the right direction.

“I think spring training is going to be a lot more about us functioning as a group together and kind of bringing that camaraderie.”

Hamels was asked whether he believed addressing chemistry would be manager Ryne Sandberg’s first order of business this spring.

“I think so,” Hamels said. “He probably has a laundry list, which I think any guy would, but I think chemistry and getting everybody to get back [together] because we’ve been far apart because we haven’t been on the field. Now that we’re all on the same field, it’s almost like a reunion. We need to almost relearn how guys function and the cliques and what guys are talking about.

“We’re showing signs of it this offseason. Guys are staying more in touch this offseason and that will help.”

The Phillies finished third from the bottom in the NL with just 610 runs (3.77 per game) in 2013. That had some impact on Hamels as poor run support contributed to his career-high 14 losses.

Hamels was quoted in Philadelphia magazine as saying the team’s hitting “sucked.” It’s difficult to argue with that assessment, but still, one has to wonder whether Hamels might have to do some smoothing over with the hitters in spring training.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “I think a lot of the hitters understood that was not the only quote that was misinterpreted.

“I didn’t pitch well. The relievers weren’t doing a good job. I think we made the most errors we’ve made in a long time. So it was a whole team idea. I think we all understand what our job is and how we need to focus on making it better.

“So I think [teammates] know me pretty well that when things are talked about, they know the whole picture or what was said as opposed to just one thing. I’ve seen a lot of them recently -- they all didn’t think anything about it.”

Hamels seemed to second-guess management in the magazine article when he said you have to know when to start over. That was a reference to rebuilding, a concept the Phillies have stiff-armed.

In Monday’s interview, Hamels was asked if he believed it was time for the Phillies to rebuild.

“I don’t necessarily think so because we have our guys,” he said. “It’s kind of our last leg with a lot of us, so I think it’s a matter of having guys realize that this is the last couple moments of greatness that we have.

“We need to keep it going for as long as we possibly can. There is going to be a point where it does end, but make it on our time, not on somebody else’s time. Make it harder for their decision as opposed to us letting them make that decision a no-brain sort of idea.

“I think that’s where we are. We’re starting to come together to really understand that baseball doesn’t last forever for us individually, but it lasts forever for the city of Philadelphia and it lasts forever for these fans, so we have to make it that we’re something special for these fans.”

If the Phillies are playing poorly at midseason 2014, management could look to begin a rebuilding effort. That could mean several core players will be made available in trades. Could Hamels be one of them? Anything is possible, but management identified him as a player it wanted to build around when it signed him to a $144 million contract extension in July 2012. That could mean Hamels stays as a foundation piece of future clubs.

Cliff Lee, on the other hand, could be dealt if the Phillies falter in the first half of 2014.

Hamels doesn’t want to see that happen.

That’s why a quick start is important for this club.

“I know we’re very good at finishing strong, but at the same time you don’t want to be chasing,” Hamels said. “So we do [have to play well early] because I don’t want to be playing against Cliff Lee. He’s a tremendous pitcher. And I’d hate to be playing against some of the other guys on our team.

“It’s ultimately up to us to make it happen.”

Phillies officially sign outfielder Michael Saunders, DFA Severino Gonzalez

Phillies officially sign outfielder Michael Saunders, DFA Severino Gonzalez

The Phillies on Thursday officially announced the signing of outfielder Michael Saunders to a one-year deal with a club option for 2018. 

According to Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, Saunders will make $9 million this season with the Phillies and the club option for 2018 will be worth $11 million with escalators potentially pushing it to $14 million.

Saunders, 30, is the left-handed hitting outfield bat the Phils were seeking. He hit 24 home runs for the Blue Jays last season in his walk year, making the AL All-Star team before slumping in the second half.

Saunders hit .298/.372/.551 with 16 homers in 82 games for the Blue Jays before the All-Star break, then hit .178/.282/.357 with eight homers in 58 games after.

He had a good year against same-handed pitching, hitting .275 with a .927 OPS and eight homers against lefties. 

He'll likely start in right field for the Phillies, with Odubel Herrera in center and Howie Kendrick in left (see Phils' projected lineup).

It was important to Phillies GM Matt Klentak that the player he signed to fill the spot in the outfield was not going to block young outfielders like Roman Quinn, Nick Williams and others.

On a one-year deal, Saunders came relatively cheap to the Phils, lingering in free agency as other hitters found contracts. In the middle of last summer, Saunders seemed poised for a multi-year contract like the four-year, $52 million deal Josh Reddick signed with the Astros. His second half cost him some money.

To make room on the 40-man roster for Saunders, the Phillies designated right-hander Severino Gonzalez for assignment.

Tommy Joseph focused on earning first base job, taking more walks

Tommy Joseph focused on earning first base job, taking more walks

There was no better story of personal triumph on the Phillies' roster than Tommy Joseph in 2016.

Dumped from the 40-man roster and passed over by 29 other teams on the waiver wire and in the Rule 5 draft in 2015, he reported to minor-league camp with his career on the line last spring.

Two months later, thanks to good health and a molten bat, Joseph's career began to spike upward.

But 4½ months in the big leagues and the promise of a starting job in the majors in 2017 hasn't changed Joseph's outlook or the mindset he will take into spring training camp next month.

He's still going to scrap and claw for everything, just like he did a year ago when he was fighting for his baseball life after a series of concussions put his career in jeopardy.

"I'm preparing the same way I did last winter," Joseph said during an offseason stop at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday.

"The job is not given to me. I still have to win it. I'm not going to walk in and have it. Obviously, it's mine to take and I plan on going in and winning the job."

Joseph, 25, earned a significant slice of the starting first base job last year. But with Ryan Howard, the last piece of the 2008 World Series team, gone, Joseph has a chance to stake an even greater claim to the position in 2017 and establish himself as a serious building block in the Phillies' rebuild.

"Tommy came out of nowhere last year," manager Pete Mackanin said. "There's something to be excited about there. He was off the map and he did enough to warrant a real strong look this year. And hopefully, he can improve and take baby steps toward being a final product."

Joseph pushed himself to the majors and cut into Howard's playing time last season by hitting .347 with six homers, 17 RBIs and a .981 OPS in 27 games at Triple A. He came to the majors in mid-May and hit .257 with 21 homers and 47 RBIs in 107 games. In the fall, Joseph briefly played winter ball in the Dominican Republic, but right wrist tendinitis, now fully healed, cut the stint short.

Joseph's good showing at the plate in 2016 was partly the result of his finding good health. As he recovered from a fifth concussion in the summer of 2015, it was discovered that he had a series of ocular problems. They were addressed through therapy and ... well, it's amazing what a hitter can do when he can see the ball.

This year, Joseph will look to improve in the field. The converted catcher is looking to add quickness around the first base bag and that starts with better footwork. At the urging of bench coach/infield instructor Larry Bowa, Joseph has been jumping rope and doing box drills all winter.

Joseph also wants to improve his approach and mindset at the plate. Though he wants to drive the ball like his size — 235 pounds — and position dictate, he wants to improve his on-base percentage and thus his OPS, on-base plus slugging percentage.

Joseph struck out 75 times and walked just 22 times in 347 plate appearances in 2016 and his on-base percentage was just .308. But over the final month of the season, he made an effort to be more selective at the plate and he recorded a .327 batting average and .406 on-base percentage (while slugging .618) over the final 23 games of the season. He struck out 10 times but walked seven over that span.

"My whole career has been a battle when it comes to walking," Joseph said. "I started to listen and read more what veterans around the league were saying about on-base percentage and OPS. Slugging is important on the corners, but there are times you have to take your walks. It's relevant because the best players in the game have a high OPS."

Joseph needs to improve in this area for a couple of reasons. First, the front office is intent on building a long-term lineup around players who control the strike zone, i.e., those who don't chase bad pitches. And second, the Phils have a legitimate run-producing first base prospect in Rhys Hoskins set to take his game to Triple A in 2017.

Joseph knows all of this and takes nothing for granted.

"The only difference this year will be I'm on the big-league side in spring training, but everything still has to be earned," he said.

The Phillies ranked last in the majors — or "last in the world," as Mackanin said — with just 610 runs scored in 2016. The offseason additions of Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders should help run production. So, too, should expected improvements from Maikel Franco and Joseph, two players who have the chance to be long-term building blocks.

"We've got guys at the big-league level that I choose to think are going to get better," Mackanin said. "Tommy Joseph is a perfect example."