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.

[RELATED: Setting the record straight on Jorge Soler's hustle]

“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.”   

19 for '19: What should expectations be for Kris Bryant Comeback SZN?

19 for '19: What should expectations be for Kris Bryant Comeback SZN?

We're running down the top 19 questions surrounding the Cubs heading into Opening Day 2019.

Next up: What is a reasonable expectation for Kris Bryant Comeback SZN?

Kris Bryant's Comeback Tour is officially upon us.

The former NL Rookie of the Year and MVP missed 60 games last year due to a shoulder injury and even when he was on the field, he was a completely different player. 

He initially hurt his shoulder on a headfirst dive into first base in Cincinnati in mid-May. He left that series hitting .305 with a .427 on-base percentage and .583 slugging percentage (1.010 OPS). 

Even more encouraging, Bryant looked to be addressing his biggest weakness — strikeouts. In 185 plate appearances, he struck out just 15.7 percent of the time which was well below his career line of 23.8 percent. His previous career-best in that category came in 2017 (19.2 percent) and if he continued along that line for the rest of 2018, it would've marked the fourth straight season in which he reduced his strikeout percentage.

Alas, that was not to be and Bryant struck out 28.7 percent of the time after suffering the shoulder injury and hit just .252/.338/.382 (.721 OPS) with 5 homers and 28 RBI in 63 games.

There's no saying Bryant would've kept those numbers going all season without the injury, but he was on pace for 34 homers, 100 RBI, 121 runs, 100 walks and 59 doubles - all of which would either set new career highs or approach his previous best marks.

If he stays healthy in 2019 (admittedly a big "IF"), that seems like a very fair stat line to expect of Bryant over a full 2019 season: 30+ homers, an OPS north of .900 and approaching 100 walks. He also will probably hover around 110+ runs and come near 100 RBI depending on where he hits in the lineup (which will probably be in the 2-hole, but there's a legit case to be made that he should lead off).

Bryant confirmed over and over again this winter that his shoulder is just fine and he's proved it so far this spring, with a couple of homers while playing both third base and the outfield. 

He also has a little chip on his shoulder, soliciting more talk from the haterz to fuel his Revenge SZN, speaking openly about the state of baseball's free agency and even sparking a war of words with all of St. Louis. 

Injuries are impossible to predict, but there's nothing indicating a healthy Bryant is anything less than an MVP candidate.

-Tony Andracki

In the time since Bryant became a mainstay in the Cubs’ everyday lineup, there have only been three more valuable position players in baseball: Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, and Jose Altuve. Before an injury-shortened 2018, Bryant had started his career with 6.1-, 7.8-, and 6.7-win seasons. He has, quite frankly, been the best third baseman in baseball since being drafted.

That’s why the only real way Bryant can “improve” on 2018 is staying healthy. With two actually-working shoulders, he’s not only a legitimate MVP candidate, but a legitimate MVP frontrunner.

Normally, guys with an ISO north of .200 (what FanGraphs qualifies as ‘Great’) come with a lot of strikeouts. In 2017, Bryant’s last full season, there were 48 guys with ISO’s above .200 and 550 PAs (the number generally accepted as an appropriate sample size). Of those 48 guys, Bryant was Top-20 in ISO (19th), lowest K% (19th), highest BB% (6th), and highest OBP (4th). He’s lived up to his 70/80 power grade while arguably outperforming his 50/55 discipline grade. Basically, there aren’t many better pure hitters in the game.

If we wanted to nitpick, Bryant’s defense could improve. After flashing serious leather during his first two seasons, Bryant was replacement-level in the field during 2017, and bad in 2018. Say what you will about the reliability of defensive numbers, but it’s hard to spin a negative DRS. His statcast numbers paint a similar, albeit slightly more forgiving, picture.

Still, it’s hard to judge Bryant’s defensive prowess on 2018. He’s been a net-positive in the field during every season he’s been healthy, and it stands to reason that a shoulder injury -- even one on his non-throwing shoulder -- would impede his defense in some way, shape, or form. Now, if a healthy Bryant puts up monster numbers at the plate all year and is still bad in the field, then maybe it’s worth a discussion.

For now, Kris Bryant Comeback SZN depends almost entirely on health. Even in a shortened season that was by all accounts disappointing, he was still 25 percent better than the average league hitter. If the shoulder’s fine, he’s in the MVP conversation.

-Cam Ellis

 

The complete 19 for '19 series:

19. Who will be the Cubs' leadoff hitter?
18. Who's more likely to bounce back - Tyler Chatwood, Brian Duensing or Brandon Kintzler?
17. How different will Joe Maddon be in 2019?
16. Can Cubs keep off-field issues from being a distraction?
15. How can Cubs avoid a late-season fade again?
14. Is this the year young pitchers *finally* come up through the system to help in Chicago?
13. How much will Cubs be able to count on Brandon Morrow?
12. How does the Addison Russell situation shake out?
11. Will Willson Contreras fulfill his potential as the best catcher on the planet?
10. Will the offseason focus on leadership and accountability translate into the season?
9. Will payroll issues bleed into the season?
8. Will Javy Baez put up another MVP-caliber season?
7. Will Jon Lester and Cole Hamels win the battle against Father Time for another season?
6. What should we expect from Kris Bryant Revenge SZN?
5. Do the Cubs have enough in the bullpen?
4. What does Yu Darvish have in store for Year 2?
3. Are the Cubs the class of the NL Central?
2. Is the offense going to be significantly better in 2019?
1. How do the Cubs stay on-mission all year?

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Cubs Talk Podcast: Cardinals Scouting Report with Chris Rongey

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Cardinals Scouting Report with Chris Rongey

Luke Stuckmeyer is joined by Chris Rongey, host at 101 ESPN in St. Louis, to take a closer look at the arch-rival Cardinals. The pair discusses the ramifications of the rumored Paul Goldschmidt extension (2:30), the pressure on the Cardinals to get back to the playoffs (6:30), the potential of Jack Flaherty (10:30), and Kris Bryant's inflammatory comments about St. Louis at Cubs Convention (13:45).

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player: