SARASOTA, Fla. — Baltimore Orioles Manager Buck Showalter pondered the question and then deftly evaded it.
Just how good do you think right-hander Jason Hammel has a chance to be?
Instead of answering, he reflected back on the deal last February that brought Hammel to the Orioles along with reliever Matt Lindstrom for veteran starter Jeremy Guthrie — a deal that was heavily criticized at the time for being one-sided in favor of the Colorado Rockies.
“If I’d known then what I know now,” Showalter said, “who knows what we would have given up for him.”
The only thing anybody really knew about Hammel when he got here was that he was a big, rangy guy who threw hard and seemed to have a lot of untapped potential. What the Orioles found out in a hurry was that he had figured some things out during his final season with the Rockies and was ready to pop.
“One thing I’ve found through the years, you’re not any smarter than anybody else,’’ Showalter said. “You’re going to find what they already knew, supposedly. We had a lot of reasons for making that deal, and I didn’t realize how good he was.”
How could he? Hammel was 34-45 with a 4.99 career ERA in parts of six seasons with the Rockies and Tampa Bay Rays. Whatever he did to turn things around on his way out of Denver, it obviously wasn’t enough to prevent the Rockies from dealing him along with a pretty good middle reliever for a guy (Guthrie) who was one of the losingest pitchers in the major leagues over the previous five years.
Hammel didn’t know what to expect either, but he sensed that he had turned a corner the previous September and he immediately felt comfortable working with pitching coach Rick Adair and catcher Matt Wieters.
“I think I was on track,’’ Hammel said this week. “Rick helped me a lot. Having [Wieters] behind the plate makes it so much easier. Any time you don’t have to think as a pitcher, it’s going to make you better and he thinks for me. There’s definitely other things — the defense that we had last year, J.J. [Hardy] behind me saved me a lot of balls, everybody really — but I knew good things were ahead coming over here and I still think that we have a lot farther to go.”
Of course, it wasn’t all good. He got off to a very strong start only to have his season cut in half when his cranky right knee flared up in July and required surgery to remove loose cartilage. He returned to pitch twice late in the season before being shut down again, but came back to deliver two solid starts in the American League Division Series.
His regular season record — 8-6, 3.43 ERA — reflects that missed time, but it doesn’t come close to telling the whole story. Hammel was the de facto ace of the staff during the first half. His performance in the postseason, matched against Yankees ace CC Sabathia in Games 1 and 5, only confirmed what everyone in the O’s clubhouse already knew.
“Ham had a big year for us,’’ Showalter said. “He competed and matched up against some really good pitchers and kept us in games. Good teammate. It’s really picky to find a dent there, other than he had some physical issues. He fought his way back. A lot of guys might have just mailed it in. He wanted to get back and pitch again.”