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jason hammel oriolesAmong the non-upper-tier pitching options available on the market right now, this was the guy we’ve been banging the drum about …

Ken Rosenthal reports that the Chicago Cubs have agreed to terms with free agent righty Jason Hammel, pending a physical. We’re still waiting to hear the terms of the agreement, which will go a long way to determining just how attractive the deal is.

Reported interest in Hammel for the Cubs goes back to early December, far before the Masahiro Tanaka madness, and before a great deal of the free agency sorting happened. Even then I was intrigued:

Hammel, 31, is a free agent for the first time after coming up with the Rays, spending a few mixed years in Colorado, and then pitching in Baltimore the past two seasons. It was a mixed bag in Baltimore, with an effective 2012 (3.43 ERA over 118 innings, 2.69 K/BB) and a down 2013 (4.97 ERA over 139.1 innings, 2.00 K/BB). Interestingly, the results weren’t all that flukey. Hammel was actually very good in 2012 (3.29 FIP, 22.9% K rate, relatively normal BABIP and HR/FB rate, and a 2.6 WAR in just 118 innings), and very bad in 2013 (4.93 FIP, 15.7% K rate, normal BABIP, slightly elevated HR/FB).

The biggest difference for Hammel in 2013? His groundball rate took a nosedive, from a very nice 53.2% in 2012 to just 40.1% in 2013. Couple that with the slight uptick in HR/FB rate (more fly balls, and more of ‘em going for homers), and you’ve got a guy who went from giving up 9 homers in 118 innings in 2012 to 22 in 139.1 innings the next year.

Why did it happen? Well, I’m not sure it if was intentional, but Hammel seemed to rely much more heavily on his four-seamer than his two-seamer last year, the latter of which can generate more groundballs for some pitchers. His velocity was down slightly, but not enough to account for the dramatic drop-off in performance. Could “fixing” him really be as simple as suggesting more two-seamers?

I won’t pretend to know the answer, but his history is an interesting study of up-and-down performance, without a lot of traditional good/bad luck indicators. It’s almost like sometimes he’s on, and sometimes he’s off. In any case, he projects to be a relatively average 2-win type pitcher next year, which is perfectly fine at the back of the rotation.

For the Cubs, who knows? Maybe Chris Bosio works some magic, Hammel’s groundball rate (and strikeout rate) tick back up, and he becomes this year’s Scott Feldman on a one-year prove-it deal (with a midseason trade).

So, again, among the mid-or-lower-tier starting options, Hammel was probably my favorite. Good on the Cubs for getting him, assuming Rosenthal’s report is accurate and there are no issues with the physical.

To be sure, Hammel isn’t exactly an apples-to-apples fall-back from Tanaka, who wound up signing with the Yankees. Instead, Hammel is a back-of-the-rotation, small-investment, innings-eating guy. With 2014 looking like another season treading water, getting someone like Hammel on a short-term, cheap deal is an “appropriate” move, if not a sexy one.

Presumably, Hammel slots right into the rotation, which currently features Jeff Samardzija, Travis Wood and Edwin Jackson as a clear-cut front three. Jake Arrieta is an odds-on favorite for the next spot, so adding Hammel nominally bumps someone from the Chris Rusin/Carlos Villanueva/Justin Grimm group into a depth role (with the other two). That said, there’s always competition in the Spring, plus the possibility of injuries or trades – or other signings, though I’d tentatively expect the Cubs to be done at this point with starting pitchers. With a full 40-man, someone will have to get the boot to accommodate Hammel when the deal is finalized.

In the end, the reaction here is more of an approving nod than a tickled smile. This is a good move. It’s the right move. Wry-smile-thumbs-up.

UPDATE: Jeff Passan hears, as expected, that it’ll be a one-year deal in the $6 million range. That’s a solid value for a guy like this (Scott Feldman was one-year, $6 million; Scott Baker was one-year, $5.5 million; Carlos Villanueva was two-years, $10 million). Barely any risk, and, as we saw with Feldman, some nice potential for flipping.

UPDATE 2: Jon Heyman says it is indeed one year and $6 million, plus up to $1 million in incentives (presumably tied to games started). My approving nod continues, as this is pretty much the low end of what Hammel was expected to get (earlier in the offseason, two years seemed possible).

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