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.”
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.