Cubs

Inside Jason Hammel’s free-agent odyssey from Cubs to Royals

Inside Jason Hammel’s free-agent odyssey from Cubs to Royals

SURPRISE, Ariz. – Amid the whirlwind of the Cubs winning their first World Series title in 108 years, a Grant Park rally that may or may not have been one of the biggest gatherings in history and those championship parties, team president Theo Epstein met with pitcher Jason Hammel in his Southport Corridor home. 

A $10 billion industry doesn’t stop. Epstein and Hammel are essentially neighbors with young kids around the same age. Both sides had to separate personal feelings and make calculated decisions. Two days after the parade down Lake Shore Drive and Michigan Avenue, the Cubs issued a press release saying they had declined Hammel’s 2017 option, paying a $2 million buyout rather than commit $12 million to a fifth starter.

The assumption: Hammel would cash in as a 15-game winner in an extremely weak market for starting pitchers. The reality…

“I’ve learned that free agency pretty much sucks if you’re not one of the top two at every position,” Hammel said. “It’s really tough. The game is definitely changing in the way teams (are) going young.

“Unless you’re one of the top names, it might be a tough ride and you’re going to have to wait it out.”

Standing in front of his locker at Surprise Stadium on Wednesday morning, Hammel made it clear that he’s happy how it worked out in the end with the 2015 World Series champs. But it took cutting ties with his longtime agency, Octagon, and switching to ACES, going through another round of medical examinations to prove he’s healthy and the Kansas City Royals needing another pitcher after Yordano Ventura died in a car crash in the Dominican Republic.

The Royals didn’t finalize Hammel’s two-year, $16 million deal until Feb. 8, a long, stressful wait that didn’t match up with some of the initial spin that the Cubs did him a favor (when they could have picked up the option and tried to trade him).

“I love how people were saying it was a choice, because it really wasn’t,” Hammel said. “It was either basically pitch out of the bullpen or not have a job. Because of the way the rotation was planning out, they said they had to get younger. And then you bring in Montgomery, who was a starter all through the minors. My take was they were probably trying to see what they had in Mike.  

“I wanted to stay a Cub. But at this stage of my career, I’m not ready to pitch out of the bullpen.”

Still, Hammel “felt like it was going to be a good situation,” underestimating the impact of not making his last start in the regular season (right elbow tightness) and getting left off the roster in all three playoff rounds. 

“For whatever reason, people thought I was hurt,” Hammel said. “Looking at it with 20/20 hindsight, you can see exactly how it could all add up to me maybe being hurt.”

The read here is that Hammel also had to deal with perception issues – given his second-half fades and the way manager Joe Maddon repeatedly pulled him early from games. The Cubs are auditioning pitchers in the Cactus League – Eddie Butler threw two innings during a 7-3 win over the Royals – and hoping to find some answers for 2018 and beyond.

“I felt like the body of work spoke for itself,” Hammel said. “I do understand with that rotation – Jake (Arrieta’s) a free agent next year and (John) Lackey’s contract is up – if they (bring me back but) don’t extend me, they lose three out of their five starters.

“It might be a tough place to fill in-house. I know they got plenty of capable arms in the minors, but to continue on with what they’ve built for five years, you think you’d want to make some type of investment there.

“I felt like I had proven myself over and over and over again for three years there. It is what it is. It’s the business side of baseball. And I’m very happy that I’m over here with these guys.”

After getting flipped to the Oakland A’s as part of the Jeff Samardzija/Addison Russell trade on the Fourth of July 2014, Hammel actually took a discount to return to the Cubs, accepting two years and $20 million guaranteed. A strong pitching infrastructure supported Hammel (32-22, 3.59 ERA as a Cub) while a sturdy, reliable rotation helped a young, emerging team win 200 games across the last two seasons.

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“I loved my time as a Cub,” said Hammel, who’s keeping that house in Lakeview. “Who knows? Maybe I finish out there in the bullpen at the end (of my career). I don’t hold grudges. I’m certainly not going to burn a bridge.

“We won the World Series. And now I get to go try and do it with another team that’s very capable of doing it.”   

Willson Contreras’ trade value just spiked, thanks to White Sox signing Yasmani Grandal

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USA TODAY

Willson Contreras’ trade value just spiked, thanks to White Sox signing Yasmani Grandal

This is the best thing the White Sox have done for the Cubs in years.

The White Sox made a big splash in free agency Thursday, signing catcher Yasmani Grandal to a four-year, $73 million contract. Grandal joins the South Siders from the Brewers, where he played an integral role in Milwaukee making a second-straight postseason appearance in 2019.

Grandal led qualified catchers in on-base percentage (.380) last season, also posting career highs in home runs (28) and RBIs (77). He’s also an excellent pitch framer, tying for fourth in RszC (runs saved by catcher framing) among all catchers with 9.

Milwaukee’s payroll reached a franchise high $122.5 million in 2019 and their farm system (No. 29 in MLB, per Baseball America) is lacking. How they replace Grandal’s production is a major question mark, which in turn is a win for the Cubs this offseason.

But besides plucking him from the NL Central, the White Sox signing Grandal early in the offseason helps the Cubs, who have important decisions of their own to make.

Although Cubs president Theo Epstein said to take any trade rumors with a “mouthful of salt,” multiple teams believe catcher Willson Contreras is available for trade. The Cubs need to retool their roster and replenish a farm system that has been depleted in recent seasons from numerous “win now” trades.

The Cubs and White Sox made the notorious José Quintana trade in July 2017, but it’s unlikely the two would have matched up for a Contreras trade. The Cubs need young assets; trading away young assets is the last thing the White Sox want to do as their championship window opens.

So, Grandal landed with a team that was unlikely to be involved in any potential Contreras trade talks. Grandal was the best free agent catcher; Contreras is the best catcher that can be had in a trade.

Other teams interested in Grandal — such as the Reds — can no longer turn to him in free agency. The Rays have made addressing the catcher spot this winter a priority, but they have one of MLB’s lowest payrolls each season. Signing Grandal wasn’t going to happen, but Tampa Bay has the farm system (No. 2 in baseball, per MLB.com) to make a big trade.

Contreras is the best catcher available — for the right price, obviously — so the ball is in the Cubs court. They don’t get better by dealing their two-time All-Star backstop, but Contreras’ trade value is high. With Grandal off the market, it just got even higher.

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Cubs add four players to 40-man roster ahead of Rule 5 Draft, including top prospect Miguel Amaya

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MiLB

Cubs add four players to 40-man roster ahead of Rule 5 Draft, including top prospect Miguel Amaya

In preparation for next month’s Rule 5 Draft, the Cubs have added four players to their 40-man roster. 

Wednesday, the Cubs selected the contracts of right-hander Tyson Miller and infielder Zack Short from Triple-A Iowa and right-hander Manuel Rodriguez and catcher Miguel Amaya from Single-A Myrtle Beach. The Cubs 40-man roster now stands at 36 players.

The Rule 5 Draft is Dec. 12 at the Winter Meetings. Teams can “draft” players from other organizations if that player is not on a 40-man roster and also matches one of the following criteria:

-If the player was signed when they were 19 or older, they must have at least four years of professional baseball experience

OR

-If the player was signed when they were 18, they must have at least five years of professional baseball experience.

Miller is a fourth-round draft pick from 2016. He went 7-8 with a 4.35 ERA in 26 starts between Double-A Tennessee and Iowa in 2019. The 24-year-old was much better with Tennessee (2.56 ERA, 15 starts) than with Iowa in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League (7.58 ERA, 11 starts).

The Cubs drafted Short, 24, in the 17th round in 2016; he can play shortstop, second base and third base. He gets on base at a decent clip (career .377 OBP) but hasn’t had much success offensively (.241 career average) in his four minor league seasons.

The Cubs signed Rodriguez, 23, to a minor league deal in July 2016. He posted a 3.45 ERA in 35 relief appearance with Myrtle Beach in 2019, faring much better than he did in 2018 with Single-A South Bend (7.59 ERA, 32 appearances).

Amaya is the Cubs' No. 2 prospect and No. 90 overall in MLB (per MLB Pipeline). The Cubs signed him during the international signing period in July 2015, giving him a $1.25 million signing bonus. The 20-year-old posted a .235/.351/.402 slash line in 99 games with Myrtle Beach in 2019. His OPS jumped from .714 in the first half to .790 in the second half.

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