Cubs cut Jason Hammel loose and begin working on team that will defend World Series title

Cubs cut Jason Hammel loose and begin working on team that will defend World Series title

Jason Hammel – a 15-game winner who couldn’t make a playoff roster on this loaded World Series team – will now become one of the best starting pitchers on the open market after the Cubs declined their $12 million option for next season.

Hammel will receive a $2 million buyout as the Cubs bet on lefty Mike Montgomery and their ability to find more creative pitching solutions. After a playoff run into early November, Theo Epstein’s front office is now focusing on 2017.

Even as fans lined up outside Wrigleyville Sports on Sunday morning to buy championship gear and wrote messages in chalk on Wrigley Field’s bricks walls facing Sheffield and Waveland (“We Did Not Suck 2016”).

Just before his “Saturday Night Live” appearance with Anthony Rizzo, David Ross and Bill Murray, the Major League Baseball Players Association sent out a press release adding Dexter Fowler to the list of free agents who are about to hit the open market. By Monday afternoon, the Cubs will have formally made Fowler the $17.2 million qualifying offer, the “he gone” ending for the “you go, we go” leadoff guy.

Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell and Javier Baez already went to Disney World. Even Epstein will have to slow down his bender with the general manager meetings taking place this week in Scottsdale, Arizona.

“We would not have been in a position to win the World Series without Jason’s terrific performance during the regular season,” Epstein said in a statement the team released Sunday. “While Jason is healthy and primed to have another effective season in 2017, we have decided to consider other internal and external options for our starting rotation next year.

“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.”

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If not Montgomery, who saved that Game 7 World Series win over the Cleveland Indians, the Cubs could take a longer look at Rob Zastryzny and hope he lives up to the left-handed Kyle Hendricks comparison one National League scout made this year. Or reinvest Hammel’s money elsewhere and lean on the pitching infrastructure that helped Hendricks win the ERA title and transform Jake Arrieta into a Cy Young Award winner.

Hammel more than lived up to his end of the bargain as a Cub (33-22, 3.59 ERA, 1.143 WHIP). He first delivered as a sign-and-flip guy packaged with Jeff Samardzija in the 2014 Fourth of July blockbuster trade that yielded a future All-Star shortstop (Russell) from the Oakland A’s.

Hammel took a discount to return and play where he felt he would be most successful. And for $20 million across the last two years, he made 61 starts and accounted for more than 335 innings, performing at an All-Star level in the first half of each season.

All those attributes could have made Hammel an attractive trade chip.

“When we agreed with Jason on this two-year contract back at the 2014 winter meetings,” Epstein said, “the option was included with the intent that it would be exercised if Jason was going to be a Cub in 2017. The intent was never to exercise the option and then trade Jason, so we will not consider that path.

“Instead, Jason will have the opportunity to enter free agency coming off an outstanding season and the ability to choose his next club. Meanwhile, the organization gains some flexibility and the opportunity to use a rotation spot to develop a younger, long-term starting pitcher.

“We would certainly be open to Jason rejoining the organization in the future. But even if that never happens, we will always consider him a Cub and be thankful for his role in delivering a World Series championship to the people of Chicago.”

There is no more “Wait Until Next Year” after the franchise won its first World Series in 108 years. It is time for Epstein’s group to finish building the team that will defend that title. 

Anthony Rizzo on his miraculous return to Cubs: 'I love this team'

Anthony Rizzo on his miraculous return to Cubs: 'I love this team'

The story could not have followed a more perfect trajectory:

Injured star (Anthony Rizzo) makes a miraculous recovery, hits a big home run in a huge game and helps will his team to victory.

Except for the last part. 

After suffering a nasty-looking ankle injury in Sunday's game, Rizzo was announced as the Cubs' leadoff hitter and first baseman about 20 minutes before first pitch Thursday night and hit a game-tying homer in his second trip to the plate.

It was the only offense the Cubs were able to muster against Jack Flaherty, but they pulled off an epic comeback in the ninth inning — with Javy Baez scoring the game-tying run in his first action since Sept. 1.

That was quickly erased with Matt Carpenter's go-ahead homer off Craig Kimbrel in the top of the 10th inning and the Cardinals went on to win 5-4 and bury the Cubs 4 games back in the division.

But nobody's pointing the finger at Rizzo, who has spent the last four days in a walking boot and was unable to even put weight on his right ankle up until Wednesday, when he retired his snack-filled scooter. 

Joe Maddon was planning on being without one of his most important players until the moment Rizzo was out in left field, running and jumping on the grass

Rizzo didn't even know he was going to be able to play until that moment, either.

"You get the questions of waiting a couple more days, but we don't have a couple more days," Rizzo said. "We gotta win now. And I love this team. ... I love playing. That's what I want to do. It's what I love doing — playing baseball, especially for this team that we're fighting at Wrigley Field in late September to go to the playoffs and that's where all the magic happens."

He exited the game after the fifth inning and immediately went back into the training room to continue treatment. He received a cortisone shot Monday and otherwise has been religiously following the "RICE" treatment plan (rest, ice, compression, elevation), with help from the Cubs medical staff at the ballpark and his wife — "Nurse Emily" — at home.

"I kept saying, 'this ankle doesn't stand a chance,'" Rizzo said. "It's still obviously sore, but it was good enough to play."

Rizzo walked into and out of the Cubs press conference room without the boot and said he felt "good" and was hoping to play Friday, though he admitted he would be smart and let the team know if he was unable to suit up.

Quite the turnaround from a guy who stood at his locker Monday afternoon with his right knee bent and resting on the scooter (which did not yet have tassels or a horn or snacks at that point) and the Robocop-like boot on his ankle. 

"Honestly, when I told you guys [Monday] 'I'll let you know in a few days,' I did not think in a few days I'd be doing this," he said. "I had a positive mindset — 'It's gonna take me three days. Watch, it's gonna take me three days.' And everyone was just kinda like, 'no way.' I believed I was healthy and I am."

Still, even with the made-for-Hollywood return, the Cubs will wake up Friday morning out of a playoff spot for the first time since April 30. 

Thursday could've been an epic, season-altering comeback, but instead the Cubs are forced to find a way to move on after another gut-punch.

At least they now have Rizzo, Baez and Kimbrel back in the fold, even if they're not all 100 percent.

"It's just all hands on deck," Rizzo said. "We have to win and I think guys want to win and are pushing themselves. Everyone is banged up this time of the year, so it's just mind over matter, really."

Cubs playoff race: Cardinals deliver a devastating gut punch


Cubs playoff race: Cardinals deliver a devastating gut punch

Each game of the final week-and-a-half of the season holds enormous ramifications for the National League playoff race.

The Cubs missed a golden opportunity to make up more ground in the hunt for October against the Reds, losing both Tuesday and Wednesday night. However, they still woke up Thursday morning in control of their own destiny with seven of their final 10 games coming against the division-leading St. Louis Cardinals.

That still wasn't enough to jumpstart the Cubs, as they lost 5-4 to the Cardinals in 10 innings Thursday evening to fall 4 games back in the NL Central with only nine games remaining.

The Cubs have now lost three straight games at Wrigley Field, where they've typically been lights-out this season. It was only the second time all season they lost three games in a row at home.

Quick thoughts

—That one hurts. Big time.

The Cubs offense couldn't do much against Jack Flaherty all night, but broke through with a wild rally in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game and send it into extra innings. 

The 3-run inning had Wrigley rocking as 39,524 fans were on Cloud 9, thinking they were on the verge of the biggest win of the season.

Then Matt Carpenter happened. 

He drilled the first pitch he saw from Craig Kimbrel into the center field bleachers for a go-ahead homer and an absolutely devastating gut punch to the Cubs.

—It was a story ripped right from Hollywood — Anthony Rizzo returning from a badly sprained right ankle to enter the starting lineup just 20 minutes before first pitch

Rizzo was wearing a huge boot on his right foot and had to use a scooter to get around Wrigley Field the last couple days, yet was out in left field Thursday evening in full uniform, running and jumping around on his ankle.

Oh yeah, and he also homered, tying the game with a blast into the left-field bleachers in his second at-bat.

Somehow, all that wasn't enough to spark his teammates until the ninth inning. Rizzo eventually left the game in the sixth inning after his third at-bat, with Ian Happ taking over at first. It remains to be seen if Rizzo will be able to play at all the rest of this series, but the Cubs lineup certainly needs him.

—This is the first time the Cardinals have won a game at Wrigley Field since Sept. 29 of last season. They were swept in both of their previous trips to "The Friendly Confines" this season.

It's also the worst start Kyle Hendricks has had against the Redbirds in more than two years:

Hendricks entered the game with the best home ERA in baseball and had allowed only 1 run and 19 baserunners in 23 innings against the Cardinals this season, but wound up charged with all 4 runs on 8 hits in 5.1 innings.

The Cubs felt really good about their chances to start this series off on the right foot behind their home ace, even with Flaherty going on the other side.

But things don't always play out according to plan, which might as well be the tagline for the 2019 Cubs season.

—Flaherty is a legit stud and going to be a serious problem for the Cubs over the next few seasons.

He's been on a Jake Arrieta circa 2015 run since the All-Star Break, entering play Thursday with a 1.05 ERA and 99 strikeouts in 77.1 second-half innings. He continued that trend by allowing only 3 hits and a run in 8 strong innings, striking out 8 Cubs.

Brewers update

The Brewers beat the Padres 5-1 in Milwaukee, so they leapfrog the Cubs for the second Wild-Card spot. 

They welcome the hapless Pirates into town Friday and get to finish their season playing another pair of teams with losing records (Reds, Rockies) on the road.

Nationals update

Washington did not play Thursday, so the Brewers moved to 1 game behind the Nationals for the top Wild-Card spot. The Cubs are now 2 games behind the Nationals.

One of the saving graces for the Cubs is the fact that they have a tough remaining schedule — five against the Phillies (including a doubleheader next Tuesday) and three against the Indians to end the season.

But the Nats do get to head to Miami this weekend to take on the Marlins, owners of the worst record in the NL.

What's next?

The Cubs and Cardinals have a quick turnaround as they play again Friday afternoon at 1:20. It'll be Alec Mills pitching for the Cubs against St. Louis' Michael Wacha. 

The Cubs still have life left in this season, but they are now out of a playoff spot for the first time in months and need to turn things around in a hurry. They essentially have to win each of the next three games at Wrigley this weekend to even have a shot at chasing down the Cardinals in the division.