In a move that came as a bit of a surprise, the Cubs made Jason Hammel a free agent by declining his $12 million option* for 2017. I say it’s a surprise because many of us had believed the team would retain him and then look to trade him as a viable mid-rotation starter in what is shaping up to be very soft pitching market. Then again, I don’t think any of us were privy to the handshake arrangement in place when Hammel agreed to return to Chicago a couple years ago.
Here’s the official statement from Theo Epstein, so have a look and we’ll unpack afterwards.
First, I want to thank Jason for all of his contributions in his almost three seasons as a Cub. He was an effective, reliable starter the entire time he was a Cub, and this year he was an integral part of one of the best rotations in club history. We would not have been in a position to win the World Series without Jason’s terrific performance during the regular season. Jason and his family have been outstanding members of our organization and our community, and we are proud of their time with and impact on the Cubs.
While Jason is healthy and primed to have another effective season in 2017, we have decided to consider other internal and external options for our starting rotation next year.Our hope is that by giving a starting opportunity to some younger pitchers under multiple years of club control, we can unearth a starter who will help us not only in 2017 but also in 2018 and beyond.
When we agreed with Jason on this two-year contract back at the 2014 winter meetings, the option was included with the intent that it would be exercised if Jason was going to be a Cub in 2017. The intent was never to exercise the option and then trade Jason, so we will not consider that path. Instead, Jason will have the opportunity to enter free agency coming off an outstanding season and the ability to choose his next club. Meanwhile, the organization gains some flexibility and the opportunity to use a rotation spot to develop a younger, long-term starting pitcher [emphasis mine].
We wish the Hammels nothing but the absolute best moving forward. We would certainly be open to Jason rejoining the organization in the future, but even if that never happens we will always consider him a Cub and be thankful for his role in delivering a World Series championship to the people of Chicago.
We knew that Hammel was one of Epstein’s first calls, if not the first call, in the free agency period in question. Trading him to Oakland wasn’t easy for either the Cubs or Hammel, whose wife was pregnant at the time of the deal. He had really settled in nicely in Chicago and his return in the offseason following the trade made for a feel-good story that worked out well for everyone involved. Given his inconsistent performance and absence from this year’s playoff roster, however, it was clear that the righty was not in the cards moving forward.
Hammel’s contract was written with a vesting option that would have made 2017 mutual had he eclipsed 200 innings pitched this season. When it became obvious he wouldn’t be triggering his half of that choice, I theorized that he’d be kept and flipped or even just kept and kept. Were the Cubs motivated by nothing more than immediate value in terms of the business of baseball, I believe one of those two things (probably a trade) would have occurred. Lucky for Hammel, and for fans, that wasn’t the case.
Loyalty fell out of the pro sports lexicon a while ago, but it appears as though the Cubs are trying to bring it back. By making good on their word to either buy him out or retain him, and not flip him, the organization makes itself look even better to free agents. We’ve already seen several players accept smaller offers in order to have a better shot at a title, and now we’re talking about a team that has indeed won a world championship and remains poised to contend for more. Add in a front office that honors its word and treats players as men and not simply commodities and you’ve got MLB’s version of Disney World.
As great as that is, though, it really doesn’t mean a thing when it comes to next season’s rotation. The starting pitching market is so bad — how bad is it? — that Jason Hammel is probably a top-five option. He might even be top three. I don’t mean that as an indictment of Hammel, who would have been a really solid third starter for pretty much any other team in baseball. He’s just not the type of guy you’d expect to help set the market. In that case, wouldn’t it have made sense for the Cubs to keep him?
Maybe, but they’ve obviously got other plans. The first of those is Mike Montgomery, who was acquired this season as a cost-controlled lefty who has experience in both the rotation and the pen. His results as a starter were mediocre at best, hence the move to a relief role, but he’s young enough to turn that around. With Chris Bosio’s tutelage and the vaunted Cubs defense behind him, Montgomery could well become a rotation mainstay for years to come.
But if we know anything about this front office, it’s that they’re not going to take the future for granted. Remember, these guys spent big to rent Aroldis Chapman when they already had Hector Rondon closing games for them. That means they’ll probably be active in exploring trades for young, cost-controlled starters, which means trading away a player or three.
At the top of the list of guys the Cubs will be looking to move is Jorge Soler, or so I believe. Joe Maddon couldn’t really trust the big Cuban in the field or at the plate in the playoffs and he’ll essentially be the team’s fifth outfielder in 2017. With Kyle Schwarber healthy and Jason Heyward going nowhere, Soler can’t be painted into a corner. And with Javy Baez emerging as the best defensive second baseman in the league, Ben Zobrist figures to be more of a mainstay in the outfield as well.
Even with his sub-optimal performance down the stretch and a concerning injury history, Soler could be an enticing option for an AL team. But he alone isn’t nearly enough to pry loose a solid starter, which is why the Cubs would need to include a prospect or two in any potential deal. Third baseman Jeimer Candelario is all kinds of blocked for the foreseeable future and makes sense as a piece (hey, didn’t you start this out writing about how this org treats people as people?), though he probably doesn’t add enough to make a real splash. Might that mean Ian Happ, who doesn’t have a spot at second base or the outfield?
I’m not big on speculation or trade proposals, just thinking out loud in terms of who the Cubs have who could get the right deal done. If that seems like a pretty big sacrifice to make just to fill out the back of the rotation, consider that Jake Arrieta is likely gone after 2017. He is on record as saying that he wants seven years and somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 million — that’s what aces get — in a new contract. That was before his performance fell off a bit, though, and we’re talking about a guy who’ll turn 32 a month prior to the 2018 season. That’s why I can’t imagine the Cubs coming anywhere near those numbers, but someone might be willing to flirt with them.
That said, the front office might want to hedge their bets and go after someone who can help to fill out a rotation that will headlined by Kyle Hendricks and an aging Jon Lester and that will be without Arrieta (presumably) and John Lackey (definitely) after next season. While the general failure to develop starting pitchers has been a perceived shortcoming of the farm system over the past few seasons, there should be a few prospects who’ll be ready to step up in the coming years. Dylan Cease, Oscar de la Cruz, and Trevor Clifton are all names to watch for, along with 2016 top draft pick, Thomas Hatch.
None of them will prevent the Cubs from making a move should the right opportunity present itself, but they’re enough of an insurance policy to prevent an overspend. Not that those of you who’ve finally stopped bringing up Edwin Jackson and Ian Stewart are really worried about such a thing.
Wow, that turned into quite a bit more than I’d originally planned for. Thanks for sticking around, I’m sure you’re both feeling way smarter now. As in, “Man, Evan is dumb and I know so much more about these things than him.” Or, you know, maybe you actually agree with some of what I said. Either way, it’s gonna be kinda weird to move from the euphoria of the World Series into the hot stove and Winter Meetings and so forth.
Oh, and Cubs Convention. Man, that is going to be flippin’ crazy.
*I had been operating under the assumption that it was a $10 million option if picked up, but it appears as though it may indeed have been $12M. Not that that would have impacted things, just wanted to try to clear that up after seeing the light following a Twitter convo.