While we await official word that the Chicago Cubs have signed pitcher Jason Hammel to a reported one-year, $6 million deal with another $1 million possible in incentives, there are a handful of relevant bits to discuss …
- We’ve gone over the performance risks associated with Hammel – good years in 2009, 2010, and 2012, mixed with a down 2013 and a stinker in 2011 – but are there also health risks? Buster Olney says some teams were concerned about what they perceived to be a “heightened risk of an elbow injury”with Hammel. There were a ton of teams in on Hammel, and the Cubs reportedly got him on a deal that is perceived to be a good value. At the outset of the offseason, Olney said Hammel was looking for a three to four-year deal, so maybe there’s something to the injury concerns?
- Well, Hammel did miss time in 2013 with flexor mass tightness, and that’s a bundle of muscles in the forearm intimately associated with the elbow (and its precious ligaments and nerves). Nervousness, going forward, is understandable. Hammel came back from that injury, however, after rest and a cortisone injection (with an MRI and a Dr. James Andrews review mixed in). Presumably, he’s got a clean bill of health right now, but I suppose it’s fair to say he’s got a slightly higher risk profile than a starter who didn’t have a forearm injury the prior year. (Worth noting: he says he started feeling it in Spring Training last year, which could be a partial explanation for his down 2013 season. It’s also probably additional cause for concern, however slight.)
- Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs makes the easy comparison between the Hammel signing and last year’s nearly-identical one-year deal for Scott Feldman. From Sullivan’s take, you get the sense that, unlike with Feldman, where ability to translate stuff into performance was the primary risk, staying healthy (and pitching healthy) is the primary risk with Hammel. It seems likely that, if he’s getting no trouble from his arm, he can be very effective. Some of the superlatives in Sullivan’s piece are striking. (Example: “And in 2012, when Hammel was healthy, he was among the very best starters in baseball. Though he wasn’t throwing eight or nine innings every turn, he matched Doug Fister in ERA-, David Price in FIP-, and Adam Wainwright in xFIP-. Hammel was probably the best starter on an Orioles team that played in October.”)
- As for Hammel’s role with the Cubs, I think it’s worth pointing out that, yes, he is quite clearly being signed to be a starting pitcher (raising the possibility of a flip at the deadline), but should five other starters prove simply too valuable/good to not start, Hammel could be shifted to the bullpen for a time. Hammel pitched in the pen early in his career, then for a bit in Colorado, and then just a tiny bit last year with the Orioles. He’s not quite a classic “swing” guy, but it would seem he could fulfill that role if necessary.
- Under what circumstances would that be necessary? Well, keep in mind: even if we all agree that 2014 is a throwaway year, and we agree that flipping short-term assets for longer term pieces is an acceptable use of that throwaway year, there are conceivable benefits of using someone else in the rotation for a long-term benefit. For example, say Justin Grimm shows promise as a starter, but there isn’t a spot for him unless Hammel is bounced. Might giving Grimm a chance to become a quality middle-to-back-of-the-rotation candidate for the long-term be just as valuable as the small chance that Hammel pitches well and is flipped for something that has value in July?
- That said … I think it’s a mortal lock that Hammel, if healthy, starts the year in the rotation and is not moved out until he is traded or proves inexplicably ineffective. I don’t think the latter is likely. As I’ve said, I’m optimistic that Hammel could be a nice back-of-the-rotation piece for the Cubs in the first half (and another team in the second half). If it plays out that way, everybody wins.