Given the way Jason Hammel returned to the Chicago Cubs on what was an extremely affordable two-year contract, just a few month removed from the Cubs sending him to the Oakland A’s in trade, it’s clear that there was always a little bit more to their relationship than a simple employee-employer situation. That was underscored yesterday when, in declining Hammel’s club option for 2017, the Cubs took the unusual step of offering a full statement from president Theo Epstein on the decision.
We could go back and forth debating the merits of the decision based on Hammel’s performance the last two years and projections for 2017, but if you take the Cubs at their word that they were never going to be willing to shop Hammel in trade if he didn’t look to be making the big league rotation in 2017, then the decision to decline the option becomes much easier.
Indeed, while I could still make an argument that Hammel is worth $12 million as a 6th starter for a team like the Cubs, I like this analysis from Corrine Landrey at FanGraphs, which, among other things, underscores the idea that having a spot in the rotation available for the Cubs to figure out in 2017 what they have for 2018 and beyond is key. Epstein himself alluded to that fact in the statement, if not outright saying it explicitly: “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.” It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where, had the Cubs kept Hammel, they may have given 60% of their starts to pitchers who would be free agents after the season (Hammel, Jake Arrieta, and John Lackey).
The time to start figuring out what’s what in the rotation in 2018 and beyond is right now, and the only available proving ground is the 2017 season. It’s a bit of an awkward thing for a team with repeat World Series aspirations, but it is important to continue thinking long term (so long as it doesn’t seriously harm this near-term window).
Interestingly, Jesse Rogers reports an additional wrinkle to all of this: he was told by a source that the Cubs actually asked Hammel if he wanted to hit free agency, or if he wanted to stick with the Cubs on the $12 million option. In essence, that would be like converting the club option into a player option.
If that’s really how this played out (again, against the backdrop of the Cubs needing to think long term), it reflects very well on the Cubs. I should point out, though, that I assume such a conversation would occur with some frank talk about where Hammel projected to stand in the rotation pecking order (in other words, if the Cubs were telling Hammel he’d definitely have a spot in the rotation, maybe he wouldn’t be all that eager to head out into free agency – again, these are just my guesses/assumptions/thinking-out-loud).
With Hammel now gone, the Cubs’ rotation projects to be the obvious front four (Lester, Arrieta, Hendricks, Lackey), with a competition for the fifth starter spot that includes, among others, Mike Montgomery and Rob Zastryzny. I’ve made no secret about how intriguing Montgomery could be as a starter, so that’s where the default presumption should fall for now. But I also expect the Cubs to explore the controllable starting pitcher trade market this offseason.
Best of luck to Hammel this offseason. It’s a weak market, so it’s not at all difficult to imagine him having several suitors. Although I don’t know for sure that he’ll top the extra $10 million he’d have received if the option were picked up, but I do think he’s got a very good shot. And, from a purely financial perspective, it was probably worth him taking a shot.
Hammel was solid for the Cubs for two and a half years, and, at times, was much more than that. He was a big part of some of the Cubs’ best years in recent memory, and his efforts will be remembered fondly.