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. … I think I was very 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 in the postseason to deliver two solid starts against the Yankees 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, while the Orioles were building a winning chemistry for the first time in 15 years. 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."
If his evolution as a pitcher had to be attributed to one tangible change, it clearly was the incorporation of a two-seam fastball into his pitching reportoire. Teammate Nick Markakis can attest to that from personal experience.
"I faced him before,'' Markakis said. "I faced him with Tampa and I can tell you the difference. Now, all the difference in the world is that two-seamer. With Tampa, he threw hard, but it was kind of on the same plane. It didn't really change. It was straight.
"The biggest thing is his location. He puts the ball where he wants it with good velocity and sink. As big as he is, as a hitter, it's tough to get on top of the ball and drive the ball. Now, with that two-seamer working to go along with his curveball and changeup, he's come a long way since the last time I faced him, and that's good for us."
Hammel is a humble, soft-spoken guy who is quick to defer credit for his success. He has given a lot of it to Wieters, who helped him gain confidence in the two-seam fastball early in the season, but Wieters says that it was pretty obvious from the start of spring training last year that Hammel was going to be a high-quality addition to the Orioles rotation. Now, with Hammel's right knee repaired, rehabbed and ready for a full season, Wieters believes he's on the verge of bigger things.
"I think so,'' Wieters said. "I realized from the first time I caught him in spring last year what kind of stuff the guy has. He's a guy who, right out the gate, was showing four plus pitches that I really felt would play in any league. His stuff only was the beginning. We really didn't know what kind of makeup he had until you realize what kind of competitor he is, then you put it with the stuff and it matches up to have a really good pitcher."
Now it's just a matter of continuing to build the strength in that knee and and build on the progress he made last season. Hammel said he was particularly encouraged that he was able to come right back after his knee surgery last fall and pitch with the same velocity and command. If he pitches well this spring, he's got a pretty good chance to be the Opening Day starter, but he also learned last year not to get ahead of himself.
"Spring training, you're supposed to be ready and never take anything for granted,'' he said. "I'm not going to assume I'm in the rotation but I always work that way. I know that I'm healthy now and the experience I've gained over the last few years — learning basically how to pitch — will allow me to work on some things and be confident I'll make the squad and pick up things from other guys. We've got other guys here who have more time in than me. I'm still in a learning phases, but definitely know what to do now."
He also knows he's not the only one with some unfinished business.
"As a collective group we left some things on the table,'' he said. "We improved last year but we didn't get to where we wanted to be."