San Francisco Giants starter Barry Zito delivers a pitch against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PRESSWIRE

Hamels Wants Seven Years... And Your Kidney

Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Cole Hamels (35) pitches against the San Diego Padres at Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies defeated the Padres, 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-US PRESSWIRE

The talent of Cole Hamels is no secret. He is one of the best pitchers in baseball. And after the 2012 season, he will be a free agent, entering 2013 at 29 years old.

That would be his prime, boys and girls.

On Tuesday came confirmation of what many had assumed would be the case as the Phils began contract extension negotiations with Hamels and his agent, John Boggs, this spring.

Cole Hamels wants a seven-year contract.

And, he’d like a real life light saber. And a pet cougar. And the city of Prague.

Here’s the bottom line. If Hamels hits free agency, the Los Angeles Dodgers, or some other team desperate for the best starting pitcher on the free agent market, will pony up seven years in order to land him.

The pet cougar, I’m less sure about.

The Phillies have never given a pitcher a contract that long. In fact, the five-year deal Cliff Lee signed was a dramatic shift in organizational philosophy. Not even Roy Halladay could land a deal longer than three years when the two sides were negotiating.

So would the Phillies really consider signing Hamels to a seven year deal? And, should they?

The way I see it, there are four reasons to give Hamels his seven year contract.

First, there’s his age. At the end of a seven-year contract, Hamels will be 35. While that sounds old, consider that Halladay is 35 right now, and Lee is 33. By the time Lee’s contract is up, he’ll be 37. So, signing Hamels to a seven-year deal will only make Hamels as old as Halladay is right now, and much younger than Lee will be at the end of his deal. And both those guys are still pitching OK.

Second, there’s Hamels’ health. Hamels has only been on the disabled list three times, and each time those ailments resolved themselves, with no apparent lingering issues. He’s as healthy as a 28-year-old pitcher can be, and has proven to be very durable over the years, pitching over 200 innings in three out of the last four years.

Third, there’s Hamels’ stuff. Right now, his ability is at its absolute peak. His fastball still sits in the mid-90s, his change-up is one of the greatest swing-and-miss pitches in baseball, his cutter is devastating on righties, and his curveball is a serviceable fourth pitch that keeps hitters honest. He is always among the league leaders in strikeouts, almost never walks a batter, and his mental approach to the game has improved dramatically since 2009. And because he’s a fastball-changeup-cutter pitcher, his stuff should hold up well as he ages.

Fourth, there’s Hamels’ resume. Cole’s 2008 postseason is already the stuff of legend. And, aside from a disastrous 2009 playoffs, he’s been the most consistent playoff performer in the starting rotation. He pitches best in big games and is playoff-tested. If the Phillies were to play a Game 1 in a playoff series right now, are you absolutely sure you wouldn’t want Hamels starting that game?

On paper, signing Cole to a seven year deal is a slam dunk.

Unfortunately, there is one huge reason NOT to do it. These kinds of contracts for starting pitchers almost never work out.

As chronicled in multiple places already on Tuesday, only four pitchers have ever been given contracts longer than six years. Of those four, only C.C. Sabbathia’s deal has been worth the time and money. The others, Kevin Brown, Mike Hampton and Barry Zito, all left the team that signed them wishing they hadn’t.

The fact is, with pitchers, you just never know. It’s precisely why the Phils have never, until Cliff Lee, given any hurler a deal longer than three years. Most of the time, the risks far outweigh the benefits.

But Hamels is home grown. He’s won a championship. He’s durable and just entering his prime.

And, perhaps most importantly, someone WILL give him what he’s looking for.

If the Phillies are sure they want to allocate funds to Cole Hamels and not a big-time bat like David Wright or Josh Hamilton (should either player be made available at the end of the season), then they should be willing to pony up the years.

The hope is that Boggs, Hamels and Amaro can work out a deal for six years with a vesting option for a seventh. That seems like a fair compromise, if Hamels really wants to stay.

But you have to wonder, given the state of the Phils’ offense and the rapidly closing window for a championship, how badly does Cole want to stay? If he suspects that another team is going to give him seven years, would he be willing to risk injury and hit the free agent market? Hamels doesn’t have to compromise at all. The only reason to compromise would be to protect himself from injury or if he really loved playing in this city.

And frankly, the fan reaction to Hamels over the years hasn’t exactly been rosy.

The Phillies need bats. But they also need an ace of the staff for when Halladay and Lee are no longer here. Hamels is young enough that he will still be young for just about the entire duration of a deal.

For my money, if there was an impact bat on the market, I’d allocate that money for offense, not Cole. However, I don’t think that player is going to be out there.

Therefore, I think the Phillies should re-sign Hamels, and I think they should give him the seven years, if he’s not willing to compromise.

Will they do it? At the end of the day, I think they will. But the longer this drags out, and the closer this gets to the end of the season and the risk for injury lessens, the Phillies lose leverage.

The Phils have to get a deal done by the All-Star Game, or it’s not going to happen.

My guess is it will, to the tune of six years, with a vesting option for a seventh, at $130 million.

If it does, cross your fingers and pretend we never uttered the words “Barry Zito.”

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