The possibility that the Chicago Cubs could reunite with Jason Hammel in 2015 dates quite a ways back. Far back. Like, before he was traded back.
In June, Hammel was already saying that if he were traded, he’d be interested in coming back after the season *and* he knew the Cubs would be interested, too. We hear fluffy quotes like this all the time about post-trade reunions (see, for example, Jon Lester and the Red Sox, discussed this morning), but you rarely hear them before the guy is traded and with so much confidence that both sides would want to get back together.
It’s no surprise, then, that after Hammel was traded, he was a frequent topic of discussion as a possible target for the Cubs in free agency. Theo Epstein has said that, in an ideal world, the Cubs would add a front-of-the-rotation starter as well as a second, quality starter this offseason. Is Hammel the favorite to be that second starter?
Well, considering not only those previous Hammel comments (and how clearly well he fit in with the Cubs’ organization and pitching structure), but also the potential for value, I’d say he has to be right up there.
And, what do you know, Bruce Levine reports that, together with meetings with Russell Martin (and his reps) and Jon Lester’s reps, the Cubs have already met with Jason Hammel’s reps. Moreover, in reports on the opening the GM Meetings, each of Mark Gonzales, Patrick Mooney, and Jesse Rogers all mentioned Hammel explicitly as a possible Cubs target. Indeed, per Gonzales, Hammel’s agent has already indicated that there’s mutual interest there, which is language that also pops up in Mooney’s and Rogers’ pieces.
So, then, it sounds like Hammel’s confidence all the way back in June that there would be mutual interest in a return was pretty prescient.
Setting aside that interest, how interesting is Hammel, 32, as the Cubs’ preferred second tier choice? Well, I could make an argument for Brandon McCarthy and Francisco Liriano, but I can make a strong one for Hammel, as well (note that all three probably come with injury concerns, McCarthy will probably be paid the most, and Liriano comes with a lost draft pick).
The argument for Hammel would go something like this:
- You don’t want to put too much stock in small samples, but, whatever the Cubs and Hammel were doing together last season clearly worked with aplomb: 2.98 ERA, 3.19 FIP, 3.21 xFIP over 108.2 innings. 24.2% K rate, 5.4% BB rate. The BABIP was a little low, the LOB% was a little high, and the HR/FB ratio was a touch lower than you’d expect. But none were so out of whack as to explain away his excellent performance overall (hence the nice FIP and xFIP).
- After going to the A’s, Hammel’s numbers regressed a bit, but the biggest change was a HR/FB ratio that rocketed up to 15.3% – a figure that is almost always unsustainably high (10% is about average). Further, if you knock out his first four starts with the A’s (ugly stuff), his ERA/FIP/xFIP line with the A’s was 2.49/4.36/3.77. I know, I know. Everyone looks good if you cut out their bad starts. But, hey, maybe he needed a couple weeks to adjust to the trade. Or something.
- Speaking of post-trade explanations for things, Hammel’s slider and curveball usage dropped quite a bit after the trade (his sinker usage dipped a tiny bit, too), in favor of more four-seamers (Brooks). Batters weren’t doing diddly-poop against his slider and curve last year, but were having some success against his four-seamer. Whether the A’s made a conscious decision to change his mix, or whether Hammel’s arm was wearing down from the breaking stuff late, I can’t say for sure. But it’s clear that his mix was slightly different – and less effective – after going to the A’s. Maybe if he comes back to the Cubs, something clicks again.
- Prior to coming to the Cubs, Hammel was always an effective starter when healthy. He even mixed in some excellent years, and, just last year (2013), he was the Orioles’ Opening Day starter.
- To the extent it matters, Hammel also has experience with Joe Maddon, as Hammel’s first three years in the big leagues coincided with Maddon’s first three years as a manager in Tampa Bay.
- Perhaps there’s a chance that the feelings between Hammel and the Cubs are so positive that he takes a better deal, relatively speaking, than the Cubs could get from other second tier options. No, I don’t think Hammel is going to shave a year or $10 million off his demand just because it’s the Cubs, but maybe the sides find it easier to come to a mutually-agreeable figure. Hammel is projected by most to get a three-year deal worth about $27 to $30 million. To me, he’s easily worth that.
In the end, it is going to come down to the contract. In terms of the pitcher, I’d be very happy to see the Cubs get Hammel as their second tier target this offseason, certainly over riskier options like Justin Masterson or Jake Peavy. But without knowing for sure what kind of deal we’re talking about – and what kind of deal for guys like McCarthy and Liriano, who are also right up there – it’s hard to rank these guys. Value, after all, is relative.
That said, perhaps the right approach, given all of those bullets above, is to target Hammel first and aggressively. If you can get him on a deal that you feel really provides value, then pull the trigger early. If not, you see what else is out there. The Cubs have employed this strategy with other mid-tier starters in recent years, so maybe they’ll do it again. Maybe they’re already trying, given the reported meeting between Hammel’s agent and the Cubs.