ATLANTA -- Had the Braves opened as scheduled, Cole Hamels would have missed two months of the regular season. For the long-delayed opening day, he believes he'll be ready. Big difference.
The Braves were willing to pay $18 million for one season of Hamels' services. They wouldn't have spent nearly so much for an aging pitcher had they known said pitcher would aggravate a shoulder in January. He missed all of spring training, such as it was. Owing to COVID-19, every MLB player missed everything from March 13 through the end of June.
Those 3 1/2 months gave Hamels time to heal. On Friday, Day 1 of non-spring training, he threw a bullpen session at Truist Park -- 35 pitches, give or take -- and offered this pronouncement via Zoom: "The shoulder feels great."
Then: "Now it's just building up endurance, the thing we normally take care of in spring training, since this is the spring training I never had."
Having Hamels -- whose pro-rated salary is $6.7 million -- available when this irregular season begins in three weeks would be no small thing. Three weeks of hurried July preparation won't equate to the seven weeks of a normal spring. Starting pitchers won't be expected to go six or seven innings. Said Braves manager Brian Snitker: "I don't know that anybody is going to be ready to go five."
This figures to benefit a team that has extra starters, who can be redeployed as fourth-to-sixth-inning relievers. Hamels gives the Braves a starter they wouldn't have had in March/April/May. This is no small thing. At something approaching his best, he can still be a big deal.
Yes, he's 36. His last excellent season was in 2016, his first full year with Texas after Philadelphia traded him at the 2015 deadline. But he still strikes people out, and he can still pitch. As a Cub, his ERA on the Fourth of July last season was 2.98. Then his shoulder started hurting. He missed all of July. He returned in August. In none of his four September starts did he complete five innings.
The Braves thought his shoulder was OK, or at least better. It was until it wasn't. He tweaked it in a January workout. After baseball's hiatus he did four/five FaceTime training sessions a week. "We stretched out my rehab process," he said. "We added about 45 extra days because we weren't in a rush."
Hamels said he needs three "starts" of some sort over the next three weeks. He also conceded: "I don't even know what that's going to look like. I guess it might be against my own guys, which is always a kind of difficult thing to do. If I can throw roughly 50 to 60 pitches in a game environment, I'll be good to go."
Then again, he hasn't seen a live batter in a while. Then again, no pitcher has.