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.”   

Why Cubs core's desire to sign extensions might not matter anymore

Why Cubs core's desire to sign extensions might not matter anymore

The day after Kris Bryant suggested that first-time fatherhood and the dramatic reality of world events have changed how he looks at his future with the Cubs, general manager Jed Hoyer outlined why it might be all but moot.

Setting aside the fact that the Cubs aren’t focusing on contract extensions with anyone at this time of health and economic turmoil, the volatility and unpredictability of a raging COVID-19 pandemic in this country and its economic fallout have thrown even mid-range and long-term roster plans into chaos.

“This is without question the most difficult time we’ve ever had as far as projecting those things,” Hoyer said. “All season in projecting this year, you weren’t sure how many games we were going to get in. Projecting next season obviously has challenges, and who knows where the country’s going to be and the economy’s going to be.”

Bryant, a three-time All-Star and former MVP, is eligible for free agency after next season. He and the club have not engaged in extension talks for three years. And those gained little traction while it has looked increasingly likely since then that Bryant’s agent, Scott Boras, would eventually take his star client to market — making Bryant a widely circulated name in trade talks all winter.

MORE: Scott Boras: Why Kris Bryant's free agency won't be impacted by economic crisis

The Cubs instead focused last winter on talks with All-Star shortstop Javy Báez, making “good” or little progress depending on which side you talked to on a given day — until the pandemic shut down everything in March.

Báez, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber are both also eligible for free agency after next season, with All-Star catcher Willson Contreras right behind them a year later.

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None has a multiyear contract, and exactly what the Cubs are willing to do about that even if MLB pulls off its 60-game plan this year is hard for even the team’s front office executives to know without knowing how hard the pandemic will continue to hammer America’s health and financial well-being into the winter and next year.

Even with a vaccine and treatments by then, what will job markets look like? The economy at large? The economy of sports? Will anyone want to gather with 40,000 others in a stadium to watch a game anytime soon?

And even if anyone could answer all those questions, who can be sure how the domino effect will impact salary markets for athletes?

“There’s no doubt that forecasting going forward is now much more challenging from a financial standpoint,” Hoyer said. “But that’s league-wide. Anyone that says they have a feel for where the nation’s economy and where the pandemic is come next April is lying.”

The Cubs front office already was in a tenuous place financially, its payroll budget stretched past its limit and a threat to exceed MLB’s luxury tax threshold for a second consecutive season.

And after a quick playoff exit in 2018 followed by the disappointment of missing the playoffs in 2019, every player on the roster was in play for a possible trade over the winter — and even more so at this season’s trade deadline without a strong start to the season.

Now what?

For starters, forget about dumping short-term assets or big contracts for anything of value from somebody’s farm system. Even if baseball can get to this year’s Aug. 31 trade deadline with a league intact and playing, nobody is predicting more than small level trades at that point — certainly not anything close to a blockbuster.

After that, it may not get any clearer for the sport in general, much less the Cubs with their roster and contract dilemmas.

“We have a lot of conversations about it internally, both within the baseball side and then with the business side as well,” Hoyer said. “But it’s going to take a long time and probably some sort of macro things happening for us to really have a good feel for where we’re going to be in ’21 and beyond.”

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Cubs GM Jed Hoyer: Everyone in MLB has to take COVID-19 'equally' serious

Cubs GM Jed Hoyer: Everyone in MLB has to take COVID-19 'equally' serious

Veteran umpire Joe West made waves Tuesday downplaying the severity of COVID-19 in an interview with The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal. 

“I don’t believe in my heart that all these deaths have been from the coronavirus," West said. "I believe it may have contributed to some of the deaths.”

As far as the Cubs are concerned, those comments don’t represent how to treat the virus. In fact, they’ve gone out of their way to ensure everyone treats it with equal severity.

“That’s one of the things we've really tried internally to instill in our players and our coaches,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said Tuesday, “[that] everyone here has to take it equally [serious].”

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Hoyer noted like the world, MLB isn’t immune to people having different viewpoints on the virus — those who show concern and those who don’t. This echoes comments made by manager David Ross earlier on Tuesday, and Hoyer said those he’s talked to with the Cubs don’t feel the same way as West.

The Cubs had an up close and personal look at pitching coach Tommy Hottovy’s battle with COVID-19 during baseball’s shutdown. It took the 38-year-old former big leaguer 30 harrowing days to test negative, and in the past week many Cubs have said watching him go through that hit home. 

“When you get a 38-year-old guy in wonderful health and he talks about his challenges with it,” Hoyer said, “I think that it takes away some of those different viewpoints.”

To ensure everyone stays safe and puts the league in the best position to complete a season, MLB needs strict adherence to its protocols.

“I think that's one of our goals and one of the things that we feel is vital is that we have to make sure everyone views this the same way, because we can't have a subset of people within our group that don't view it with the same severity,” Hoyer said.

“That’s not gonna work. We're not gonna be successful."

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