Like Jesse Chavez, Cole Hamels came to the Chicago Cubs at mid-season after a disappointing first half with the Rangers. Like Chavez, Hamels turned everything around with the Cubs, making himself one of the most valuable arms on the team by the end of the year. Like Chavez, Hamels is in his mid-30s and is a free agent when the World Series concludes.
And, like Chavez, Hamels has so enjoyed his time with the Cubs that he wants to stay. “Hopefully, I did everything I can to convince them that [retaining me] would be something that would be valuable,” Hamels told Patrick Mooney after the Wild Card Game. “This organization’s an amazing organization.”
Unlike Chavez, however, Hamels’ decision could be taken out of his hands. Thanks to the $20 million 2019 club option that came along with Hamels in the trade, the Cubs could unilaterally decide to hang onto the 34-year-old lefty if they are willing to foot the bill for next season.
Setting aside the financial considerations for a moment, there’s no question the Cubs would love to have Hamels back.
“Cole was such a breath of fresh air for us,” Theo Epstein said in his season-ending press conference yesterday. “He made an unbelievable impression. I think for a guy who has only been here for a couple months, he’s as universally respected in that room as anyone I’ve ever seen. He’s a pro’s pro and contributed tremendously on the field and off the field with a great, engaged, accountable, positive presence in that clubhouse – [someone] who really cares about his teammates and helped make them better by example and by discussion, too. He’s absolutely someone we’d love to have as part of the mix going forward.”
So, that’s that, right? Hamels wants to be with the Cubs, the Cubs “absolutely” want him back, and the Cubs hold an option for 2019. Boom. He’s back.
Well, it’s slightly more complicated than that.
In a normal situation, having a $20 million option on an effective pitcher with a $6 million buyout is a very easy decision: is the guy worth $14 million? Yes? Well, then pick up the option.
For the Cubs, though, the Rangers are covering that buyout *IF* the buyout is exercised. But if the Cubs want to pick up the option, it’s a full-freight decision: they must decide if Hamels is worth $20 million for 2019.
If you knew you were getting the guy who put up a 2.36 ERA (with good peripherals) over 76.1 innings and 12 starts after the trade, then the decision, again, would be very easy. Whatever the construction of your roster, that guy is worth retaining for $20 million – you figure out the rest later.
But Hamels did struggle mightily in the first half (and generally declined in production in his time with the Rangers) before a tweak to his delivery helped him get back some velocity with the Cubs (plus the general emotional lift of pitching in meaningful games). What if Hamels is actually – at age 35 next year – going to be more like a league-average pitcher? Is that guy worth $20 million? With the risk of downside? With the chance of upside?
Here’s where folks want to get cute and say, “Decline the option, he gets $6 million from the Rangers, then sign him to a one-year $15 million deal, so the Cubs pay less and Hamels gets more!”
But there are two problems with that idea. First, and this is probably the lesser consideration, it would certainly be a bit of a screw-job to the Rangers, and there are relationships to consider (especially between front offices that have obviously worked very well together in the past):
If the Cubs decline the option, in order to get remainder of cash from Rangers, then re-sign Hamels, I think there would be an issue in the Daniels-Epstein relationship. … If Cubs do pick up option, believe Rangers are off hook for $6 mm buyout. Interesting situation https://t.co/IAGad4cxXX
— Evan Grant (@Evan_P_Grant) October 3, 2018
The second, and more important reason the shenanigans won’t necessarily work, is that declining the option on Hamels makes him a free agent for the first time in his career. Don’t you think there’s a chance he’s going to want the opportunity to talk to a couple other teams before signing a ONE-year deal with the Cubs on favorable terms? I know that he liked his time here, but come on. For all the reasons you’d want the Cubs to keep him coming off the half-year he had, other teams would be out there happy to give him at least a two-year deal.
That is to say, there are really only a few possibilities realistically on the table for the Cubs if they want to keep Hamels:
- Pick up the option for $20 million for 2019.
- Try to sign Hamels to a reasonable multi-year deal before the option decision is due (five days after the World Series), so there is no buyout or option pick-up at all.
- Let the Rangers buy out the option, try to sign Hamels in free agency.
Given how good he was, and given the window the Cubs are in (and their plausible willingness to go over the luxury tax cap next year*), I would not see anything foolish in just picking up the option. Nor would I have a problem with the Cubs trying to get Hamels under contract for longer (either by way of an extension right now, or a reasonable offer in free agency). Yes, the Cubs are already going to have a TON of starting pitching options under team control heading into next year, but they have a chance to keep a guy who could be really good. Why mess around?
Hamels wants to come back. The Cubs want him back. Here’s hoping they can make it happen.
*(Hamels’ case presents a uniquely complicated luxury tax situation, because of the interplay between an in-season trade, an option, a buyout being paid by another team, and the way average annual value is calculated (your payroll for luxury tax purposes is calculated using the average annual value of contracts). That said, I believe the impact to the Cubs here is relatively simple: although the buyout on Hamels’ option was factored into the AAV the Rangers and Phillies were on the hook for in his original deal (because all guaranteed money is included), picking up the $20 million option for 2019 is treated more or less like a new one-year contract for AAV purposes. So, if the Cubs pick up the option, it costs them $20 million in actual money AND counts as $20 million in AAV for 2019 luxury tax purposes. I have researched this point, and I cannot find a reason why the Rangers offering to pay a buyout that wasn’t ultimately paid would impact Hamels’ AAV for 2019. I am open to correction on this point because this specific interplay is something I’ve seen addressed before.
This discussion, although in a footnote for now, is pretty darn important, because if you’re hoping the Cubs retain Hamels and then also go after a top-tier positional free agent, you better hope they’re willing to go way over the luxury tax cap. They may even need/want to get creative on a multi-year deal for Hamels so that they can get that AAV down.)