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Going Baerga

Until next season unfolds, Phillies fans are going to gripe that GM Ruben Amaro lost his mind sending Cliff Lee out of town just four and a half months after he acquired him in the genius transaction of the 2009 season.

But before getting too hung up on this “Cliff Lee or Roy Halladay” debate, remember that the Phils won the World Series in ’08 without either pitching stud. The guy we really should be paying attention to is that “other” starting pitcher, Cole Hamels.

hamels

After leading the Phils to the title as their undeniable ace, Hamels laid a stink bomb in ’09. His performance—a 10-11 record with a 4.32 ERA during the regular season followed by 16 earned runs in 19 post-season innings—wasn’t just a valley point…it was self-inflicted. His elbow started aching during spring training before he had a chance to get in shape, and he never got his ace material on track.

If Hamels even sniffs the high standard he set previously, maybe the Phils take the Yanks. So the real burning question for the Phillies in 2010 has to be, “Will Cole Hamels return to form?

We’ve heard the stories about Cole being more of a party animal last winter than someone who was supposed to get his arsenal in gear for the coming season. “I pretty much didn’t fulfill my end of the bargain,” he admitted last April, “and get ready the way I should have.” If anything, he proved there’s no rest when it comes to sustaining success in the big leagues.

But Phillie fans should cross their fingers and hope that 2009 was his mulligan, because there’s a precedent in baseball for greatness being taken for granted, then suddenly disappearing forever. It’s happened over and over.eric_davis

Sometimes it’s due to the fate of injury. Eric Davis was baseball’s next superstar of superstars in the late ’80s, capable of hitting the long ball (37 bombs in ’87), stealing bases (80! in ’86), and catching fly balls (Gold Gloves in 1987, ’88, and ’89) with the best in the game. But it all crumbled quickly for Davis with a string of misfortune that started with the lacerated kidney he suffered while diving for a ball in the 1990 World Series.

Sometimes a player dooms himself with the lifestyle choices he makes. One young star from the early ’90s had a future so bright, he was called “baseball’s best-kept secret.” After batting .312 with 205 hits and 20 home runs as a 23-year-old second baseman, the Sporting News said Carlos Baerga was “close to being baseball’s best player.”

The next year, Baerga followed up with a .321/200/21 season, causing Hall of Famer Joe Morgan to chirp how rare it was for such a talent to come along at the second base position. At the time, the only other second baseman to put up that combination of numbers in a season was Rogers Hornsby.

baerga2

While experts had Baerga tagged as a future member of the 3,000-hit club, Indians GM John Hart shot up a warning flare, noting Baerga’s weight gain of 15 pounds. “I think Carlos is playing heavy right now,” Hart said. “He has the kind of body type that is going to make it difficult for him, unless he pays more attention to his conditioning.”

Unfortunately for Baerga and the Indians, Hart’s prophesy came true sooner than anyone could have imagined. The very next season, Baerga’s batting mechanics were shattered. The rocketing line drives off his bat turned into a smattering of pop-ups and weak groundouts. The Indians believed the 27-year-old Baerga, now a good 25 pounds overweight, lost it all—his desire, his skills, everything—and shipped him to the New York Mets.

Baerga’s career took an immediate dive into the sea of mediocrity, never to return to the promise of his early 20s. He played his last full season at 29 years old, and after touring the independent leagues trying to hook on to a major league roster, he played his last game at 36, one-thousand four-hundred and seventeen hits shy of 3,000.

courtesy of Pinnacle baseball cards

courtesy of Pinnacle baseball cards

According to ex-teammates and managers, Baerga fell too much in love with the celebrity of being a million-dollar athlete, becoming practically narcissistic in a whirlwind life of entourages, late-night bar hopping, and dancing the night away. “I think that, for whatever reason,” explained Indians manager Mike Hargrove, “Carlos just forgot how hard he had to work to become the player he was.”

It’s not like Hamels went Baerga on us last winter trying to live up to his “Hollywood” nickname. His ‘partying’ was more about the usual business that follows a world championship, with his time constantly beckoned with talk shows, commercial gigs, and mag shoots. He rarely said no.

But don’t hand him that comeback player of the year award just yet. If Cole were a consumer product, you’d definitely want to pay the extra bucks for the extended warranty. Not that he has a body structure that’s vulnerable to an early decline like the burgeoning Baerga. But with his fragile back, joints, and psyche, Hamels seems to require as much maintenance as a puddle jumper with 200,000 miles.

Can he dominate again? With age still on his side, I like his chances, but only if he learned from the most important lesson of his awful ’09 season: Talent can take a ballplayer only so far. It’s up to the athlete to sweat out the rest.

12 comments to Going Baerga

  • Thank you Joe Goetz for asking me the question that led to this post.

  • Joe Goetz

    John – Thanks for the thoughts on Cole Hamels. Another fantastic article from the Baseball Engineer! I love the historical context and perfect example of how quickly things can change for a player. I like Cole’s chances this year as well. Keep up the great work! Looking forward to the book!

  • Scott Unterbrink

    Great article, I love the title! I think Cole has a bounce back year in 2010. It’s just a question of what round you’re going to pick him in so I can do it 1 round before you!
    With the HOF announcements coming up in January who do you think gets in this year? Is Robby Alomar a 1st ballot HOfer? Why can’t a pitcher with the 3rd highers K total and the 21st highest # of wins and a 1.2 WHIP get into the HOF? Where’s the love for Bert Blyleven???
    Have a great holiday!

  • Thank you Joe and Scott.
    Scott, you do have a way of causing the most “damn, I was just gonna pick him” groans in our drafts. I think Robby gets hurt by that expectorating incident, as far as first ballots are concerned. The trends say Bert and the Hawk are due to break through the door this year. Their votes have been creeping up in that direction, and there’s no other sure-fire choice.

  • Vince Palladino

    Great job John. No doubt he’s better prepared for 2010, he has a new baby, no time to run around with the Baerga types. One question, what is Joe Goetz doing up at 4:14 am?

  • Dave Stefano

    Like Scott mentioned, I thought the title was awesome. What was he thinking with that Pinnacle baseball card? That speaks volumes to his career. It’s a disgrace Blyleven isnt in, Robby not in first ballot, why is Rizzuto in and not Bowa? Bowa leads him in every category except RINGS

  • Yeah, but Bowa could never say “annnnnnnnnnnnd, Mel Haw will be the baddah” like the Scooter.

  • Scott Unterbrink

    I agree Blyleven and the Hawk make it this year. Blyleven should have been in by now. Why isn’t Richie Allen in? He’s comparable to Hank Greenberg & Chuck Klein. Is it his off filed issues? 1848 hits, 351 Hrs and 1,119 RBI certainly are deserving.

  • I think those Allen totals are actually part of the problem for him–little low for immortality. At some point you’ve got to leave the bubble guys on the bubble…not that the BBWAA has been totally adherent to this. If the threshold keeps falling,it’s gonna wind up hitting Mario Mendoza on the head. And we wouldn’t want that.

  • Scott Unterbrink

    I agree they are a little low but Blyleven gets penalized for pitching to long and guys like Allen and Albert Belle get penalized for not playing long enough. Allen (12yrs avg 28 HR per year)and Belle (10yrs avg 37 HR per yr) make me wonder if Ryan Howard eventually will make it?

  • Maybe we need a HOF post.

    Should Howard get in at least 8-10 productive years (like he’s been), he’ll probably get measured against the Kiner, who had a very short career, but got elected in last eligible year by one vote.

    Allen, Belle, and Rice get caught up in that “how many dominant years did they really have” measure. Belle (who I don’t think is eligible any longer) had a more consistent string of strong years, but probably lost points because of short career (obviously) but also the era he played and trick-or-treaters he tried to run over. Allen only played 6 yrs >130 games.

    IMHo, a HOF’er has to sparkle in light no matter what angle you hold their career. If you have to bend your brain weighing the decision, the candidate probably doesn’t deserve.

  • Maybe you should open up the HOF discussion. I was looking up what constitutes a HOF’er.
    On the Cooperstown website…
    The Hall of Fame’s mission is to preserve the sport’s history, honor excellence within the game and make a connection between the generations of people who enjoy baseball. Likewise the institution functions as three entities under one roof with a museum, the actual Hall of Fame and a research library. With these parts working together the Museum is committed to fulfilling its mission by: (and then it lists how it maintains the site).

    I also don’t agree with talk,”is he a first ballot HOF?” If he’s a HOF’er, he’s a HOF’er PERIOD. We should be asking… Did he dominate his era? Did he bring baseball to another level? Is he a legend in his time? Numbers get distorted through time. Some players are lucky enough to pad the numbers. Sure longevity is a part of it, like Nolan, but guys get in just because the hit the “magical” numbers.