As the rumors have grown nearly uniform in both their character and volume, and as the Cubs front office all but confirms them, we have to reckon with the highly possible reality that the Cubs will proceed through the rest of the offseason very judiciously about how and where they commit their limited additional dollars.
That creeping reality, however, is set against an almost completely incongruous wallpaper: if the Cubs knew they had so little money with which to maneuver this offseason, why in the world did they commit a whopping $20 million to Cole Hamels by picking up his option?
Sure, Hamels was great with them in the second half, and sure he’s a very valuable veteran presence who could be solid again in 2019, but the Cubs already had SEVEN big league starting pitchers under control at the time (Lester, Hendricks, Darvish, Quintana, Montgomery, Chatwood, Smyly). Surely Hamels would be a financial luxury at that point, right? That $20 million could have gone a long way to making HUGE upgrades in the bullpen or adding a truly impactful bat. Surely those were greater needs going into 2019, right?
So how do we reconcile these seemingly incompatible words and actions?
Well, I think I can come up with some explanations. Let’s try on five of them:
1. Money is not actually tight, everything is a smokescreen, rainbows and gumdrops are falling from the sky.
We have no reason, at present, to believe this is actually the case. But, since it would resolve the incompatibility in words and actions, it is one of the possible explanations.
2. Money is tight, but it’s not so much about the luxury tax in 2019, it’s about the long-term concerns.
Much of the expectation that the Cubs could blow through the top luxury tax tier in 2019 and beyond is predicated on a few assumptions that might not necessarily be true: (a) what if the TV deal after 2019 is not looking like it’s going to be as certain or enormous as hoped? (b) what if the spending restrictions attached to the original sale of the Cubs that could be lifted after 2019 are not really going to make much of an impact? (c) what if there’s broader league-wide concerns about the state of labor in the game after last offseason, and teams are reluctant to sign monster long-term deals that go past the expiration of the current CBA after 2021?
If this were true, then picking up the Hamels option wouldn’t really be an issue, nor would signing some short-term free agents to decent deals. We’ll see if things play out that way. The Cubs could certainly make some decent moves this offseason to impact the current competitive window without signing the guys who’ll require 8 to 10-year deals, but it would require some really aggressive short-term spending on impact bullpen arms and guys like Josh Donaldson or A.J. Pollock or Andrew McCutchen.
3. The Cubs simply think Hamels is just worth way too much as a veteran/performer/asset to risk letting him go to free agency, even if that meant skimping elsewhere.
Under this explanation, it’s not really about the money or the fit or anything other than an organizational decision that they love the crap out of Hamels, believed he was going to get a bigger, better deal elsewhere in free agency, so they decided to take advantage of their one opportunity to guarantee they could keep him.
4. The Cubs have specific plans for the rotation that they knew they could effectuate after retaining Hamels.
We would have already seen part of this explanation in action with the trade of Drew Smyly to the Rangers in conjunction with the Hamels option pick-up. But for this explanation to really, really totally fill the gaps, I’m talking about the Cubs having to know they were going to trade Mike Montgomery (for value) and/or were going to be able to move Tyler Chatwood (to save payroll space). And if that were a plan the Cubs knew they could roll out, then they better hang onto Hamels so they could have a full and effective rotation, and also still have a little quality depth.
5. The Cubs have serious concerns about the rest of the rotation, but nobody’s gonna say boo about it publicly.
This is the one that I fear is both the most realistic explanation for picking up the Hamels option, and also the most terrifying. No one knows the projections for the Cubs’ rotation better than the Cubs front office, and if they were deeply concerned about the ages of their starters, the possible declines shown by a few over the past three years, the unreliability of some, and the health of Yu Darvish, then they’d have a VERY good reason to hang onto Cole Hamels.
In other words, this explanation is the most straightforward baseball explanation: the Cubs perceived their own needs heading into 2019 fundamentally differently than outsiders did.
None of us would have called the rotation a clear “need” heading into the offseason, but the Cubs sure might have. The rotation wasn’t the flaw in the 2018 season for the Cubs, but it also doesn’t necessarily have the same internal buoyancy for bounce-back that the lineup does.
If we’re honest with ourselves, it’s really not that hard to see where there could have been concerns. Jon Lester is getting long in the tooth, and while he still finds a way to get the results, they are starting to trend down, as are his peripherals. Jose Quintana had a very Quintana-like second half, but it’s certainly possible that he, too, is already naturally declining. Yu Darvish is coming off of a lost season and an elbow clean-up procedure. There’s no way you can be certain of what you might get. Kyle Hendricks has been steadily very good, but even he’s had fits of time when he’s lost it – and if any more of that velocity goes, his margin for error gets smaller and smaller. Mike Montgomery has shown flashes of success as a starter, but not necessarily at a guaranteed level, and he’s also very valuable in the bullpen. And Tyler Chatwood is coming off one of the wildest seasons in recorded history, so you pretty much have to proceed on the assumption he will give you nothing.
So, then. Do I think all of the worst versions of these guys will actually happen next year? Nah. But could the Cubs roll the dice on some of it happening, and then getting caught with their pants down when they had a chance to hang onto Hamels before he hit the market?
In the end, there may be a combination of explanations here at play. The Cubs really like so much about what Hamels brings to this roster, both in the rotation and in the clubhouse. Why let him get away if you can afford to hang onto him? From there, then, you recognize that you might have to do some other things to address the lineup, but – for roster-crunch, and Addison Russell suspension reasons – that was probably already true anyway.
The Cubs probably made the right in-the-moment decision hanging onto Hamels, even at a very steep cost. Of course, we won’t really know if they were right to do it until the rest of the offseason, and then the 2019 season, play out. Should the Cubs continue to evince an intent not to spend aggressively this offseason in supplementation of a very competitive window, however, the decision to retain Hamels is going to keep coming back up. I reckon I’ll point to the plausible uncertainty in the rotation as the primary driver of the decision, but I also reckon I won’t totally able to shout down the folks who are frustrated about the overall allocation of funds.