A Conversation Surprisingly Worth Having: Should the Cubs Pick Up Cole Hamels’ 2019 Option?
As Cole Hamels has continued to dominate since coming to the Cubs, I’ve seen more and more folks discussing his club option for the 2019 season. Understandably so. I think it’s a very reasonable discussion to have and, depending on how the rest of the season plays out, it’s something to be considered.
That, alone, is a crazy thought given his performance in Texas the last two years, but he’s made actual mechanical changes that have improved his velocity and command, making his performance with the Cubs that followed slightly more “believable” (though, let’s be clear: he’s not going to be a sub-1.00 ERA guy for the next multiple years). The argument that this guy, even heading into his age 35 season, could be worth a whole lot of money for 2019 is a perfectly reasonable one to make.
But, before we get too close to the time when a decision actually has to be made, let’s make sure we’re all working on the best available information about that decision.
I’ve seen folks describing Hamels’ 2019 option – and the Rangers’ financial obligation thereto – in a variety of ways, though I had been operating under a particular set of assumptions since the day that trade went down: the Rangers would be paying the $6 million buyout on the 2019 option *IF* it’s bought out. If the Cubs want to keep Hamels for 2019, however, they can exercise the option at full freight: $20 million.
I suppose I hadn’t actually seen that dynamic reported explicitly – at the time of the trade, everyone was (understandably) just talking about the Rangers sending along $6 million for the buyout, because of course he was gonna be bought out. But now that Hamels is pitching like Justin Verlander’s better, left-handed brother, the mechanics of that option are under much more scrutiny.
To that end, some have described the decision on Hamels as a $14 million decision – the difference between the option rate and the buyout – for 2019. Normally, that would be the case, since you’d be on the hook for $6 million at a minimum. If that were the case, picking up the option would be an easier decision. But as multiple reports confirm, the Rangers are paying that buyout only if the option is actually bought out. As I’d been assuming, that means the decision for the Cubs is a full $20 million decision: do you want Hamels for 2019 for $20 million?
That could prove to be a very difficult decision. If Hamels pitches very well through the end of the season, I tend to think the Cubs will strongly consider picking up that option if for no other reason than having Hamels on a one-year, $20 million deal could be a very valuable contract to have. That is to say, if you make the decision in the abstract – is this guy worth this contract – it could prove a very easy decision.
But, of course, these decisions are not made in the abstract. There’s context here. There’s the context of the Cubs having upwards of eight capable starting options under control for next year already, albeit with varying degrees of risk (Yu Darvish, Jon Lester, Jose Quintana, Kyle Hendricks, Tyler Chatwood, Alec Mills, Mike Montgomery, and Drew Smyly). You don’t turn down a great player because of a glut, but it’s not like there is NO consideration there at all. These aren’t young guys with minor league options, either: of the nine guys we’re talking about, only Alec Mills could be optioned to the minor leagues next spring.
Then there’s the financial consideration. The Cubs are already going to be running a payroll that pushes up toward the luxury tax cap next year (which, fortunately, jumps up to $209 million), and if they go over that mark, not only will it start to cost them extra money, but it will have some baseball-related consequences. Again: you don’t turn down a great player on a contract you like for these reasons, alone, but they are factors to be considered.
All that said, I think all of these concerns can be easily addressed if the Cubs otherwise believe Hamels is worth bringing back. For one thing, a starting pitcher glut often ceases to look like one when guys show up to Spring Training and start throwing. And, worse case, if it’s still there, you trade a couple guys and go with a six-man rotation or something. You figure it out. If a guy is good enough to be in your front five or six, then you just figure out what to do with the rest.
On the payroll side of things, I’ve long targeted – mentally – the upcoming offseason as a year the Cubs might go over the luxury tax cap anyway. You’ve got a monster free agent class, escalating internal salaries, a competitive window to take advantage of, and climbing revenues (which could *really* explode by the end of 2019 with a new TV deal in place). I’m realistic about budgets, but if you want to keep a guy who can have such a significant impact on the rotation, then, again, you figure it out. You make it work. You commit.
So, in the end, I land where I started: it’s a surprise that this is now a very reasonable conversation to have, but that’s all it is right now. A conversation. Let’s see how the final month plays out, and then the postseason. The decision could be much more obvious, in one direction or the other, by then.
Of course, there’s also nothing precluding the sides from working out a different deal – multi-year, perhaps – but that, too, is a conversation that will necessarily come after the season.