As an exercise in creative thinking, I thought it'd be fun to imagine one of San Diego's sons, Cole Hamels, who is Petco Park's ERA leader, pitching for the Padres starting in 2013. I ran the idea by a club executive from outside the National League West and asked the pitcher's agent, John Boggs, where the Hamels negotiations stand with the Phillies.
Did I say creative thinking? I meant to say, hallucinogenic thinking. The vision of the Padres paying any player the money Hamels could command, say, $120 million, is as dreamy as John Lennon's girl with kaleidoscope eyes. The franchise's record player contract, to Jake Peavy, was for $52 million. It wasn't money well spent.
Hamels, 28, will not reach free agency next fall if the Phillies extend a contract that will pay him $15 million this year. Hamels says he loves pitching for the Phillies, for whom he was MVP of the 2008 NLCS and World Series.
Boggs, whose travels in Florida next month will take him to Philadelphia's camp, told this blog Hamels will remain focused on baseball, deal or no deal. "The real plan is to concentrate on Cole," he said, "and the business side of it will take care of itself."
Per our creative exercise, let's assume Hamels becomes a free agent in November. Should the Padres go after him?
"I've heard of crazier ideas," the major league exec said.
Probably the Padres would be outbid. They'd need Hamels to accept a hometown discount, as another lefty and Southern California native, C.J. Wilson, did this winter when he passed on extra millions from the Marlins to sign with the Angels.
Hamels rooted for the Padres until he turned pro and still spends parts of his winters in San Diego visiting with family, but nostalgia and kinship alone wouldn't be enough. He'd have to view Petco National Park as an arm-saver. He'd have to think baseball's best pitcher's park would allow him to throw fewer pitches, notably breaking balls, as he moves through his 30s. Owner of the third-best strikeout-to-walk ratio among active pitchers, Hamels could envision daring more hitters to swat his fastballs and changeups into Petco's dead air and, ultimately, the glove of center fielder Cameron Maybin. He could recall his five outings at Petco, where he has compiled a 1.23 ERA, the lowest of any pitcher to make five starts there.
What Hamels also would have to anticipate about Petco is that Padres teams and Padres fans would liven up the place, which hasn't been home to a single Padres victory in the postseason.
"Nobody goes to Padres games,'' Hamels said this week, as quoted by Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com. "Why would I want to go where fans only support the team from the third inning to the sixth inning? I'd rather play where fans are excited about the games.''
Even though Philadelphia's ballpark favors hitters, Hamels' career ERA of 3.39 ranks 10th among active starters. Large, loud crowds are the norm in Philadelphia, giving Hamels and teammates a welcome adrenaline boost in an attrition sport. (On the flip side, Hamels was booed in Philly early last season.)
With Hamels, the Padres would have a 29-year-old ace hardened by the City of Tough Love and several postseasons. By 2013 they expect to have several young, inexpensive No. 3-caliber starters available for work and in reserve. Although their farm system is ranked as baseball's best by ESPN's Keith Law, the Padres may not have a potential ace above prospect Joe Ross, who is 18 years old and entering his first full season.
"San Diego has a lot of starting pitching but not a No.1," the major league exec said. "And they'll need a horse to compete in that division. Hamels would be a great fit there."
The mind-stretcher is, of course, how would the Padres pencil out a Hamels contract, which could far exceed $100 million?
A starting point would be the pending 20-year deal with Fox Sports San Diego that could approach $1 billion in total economic value. Even then, the Padres would have to assume that signing Hamels would spur attendance-driven revenues.
"I'm a big fan of getting ahead of the revenues to create revenues," said the major league executive. "It takes balls to do that, but a lot of times it pays off."
The downside is spelled out in four letters -- R-I-S-K -- because even if the Padres raised their payroll to $80 million, a number that CEO Jeff Moorad first floated in 2009, Hamels still could cost a quarter of the total.
"The biggest opponent to (pursuing Hamels) is that very few teams win with giving that high of a percentage to one player," the executive said. "An injury or loss in velocity, and they'd be really hurting."
The ideal time to acquire Hamels would have been in the 2002 draft. Instead, the Padres deemed the former Rancho Bernardo High star too risky for a seven-figure bonus because of an arm injury suffered off the baseball field. To their credit, the Phillies trusted their scouts, among them Jim Fregosi Jr., who recommend Hamels for the 17th selection of the first round. Four picks earlier, the Padres drafted Khalil Greene, who provided strong returns on the $1.5 million signing bonus.
The Phillies showed that you can take the boy out of San Diego and have great results, but all these years later, not all of San Diego has been taken out of the boy. Last season, Hamels pitched for several weeks despite a nasty case of poison oak that had him itching from foot to torso, the price for wearing flip flops and shorts while hiking in the Midwest woods on a fishing trip with Phillies teammate Roy Oswalt. The scratching and burning didn't prevent Hamels from posting a career-best 2.79 ERA and finishing fifth in the Cy Young vote.
Boggs said that Hamels, who is building property in Missouri near where his wife grew up, returns to San Diego for part of every offseason to spend time with family members. He'd see a lot more of them if he signed with the Padres, but if the Padres are to employ a pitcher of Hamels' caliber, he most likely will emerge from their farm system.