Cubs

Jason Hammel helps Cubs sweep Pirates and surge into September

Jason Hammel helps Cubs sweep Pirates and surge into September

Another quick hook left Jason Hammel seething over the weekend at Dodger Stadium, bringing back uncomfortable questions about how much manager Joe Maddon trusts him, and whether or not the Cubs would find a spot for him on a playoff roster.

Four days later, Pearl Jam’s “Alive” blasted from the Wrigley Field sound system as Hammel warmed up before facing the Pittsburgh Pirates, with no guarantees about October or next season.

Hammel responded with another strong start during Wednesday’s 6-5 victory, completing a three-game sweep that left the Pirates staggering in the wild-card race and helped the Cubs cut their magic number to win the division down to 16.

Outside of a few extreme lows that distorted the perception of his superb overall season – 10-run outings against the New York Mets and at Coors Field and the 39 pitches he dismissively called a side day in Los Angeles – Hammel has been an integral part of the elite rotation that pushed the Cubs to such a huge lead in the National League Central.

Now up 15 games on the St. Louis Cardinals, the Cubs surged into September with an 85-47 record, an expectation their pitching staff will get healthy and become whole again and a sense of harmony within their clubhouse.

“That’s rearview mirror now,” Hammel said, wearing a Pearl Jam shirt during his postgame press conference. “Joe and I talked it out. There’s no room for off-the-field BS or disagreements or to hold a grudge. 

“I told him how I felt. He told me how he felt and the reasoning for everything. We’re grown men. We solved it and have to respect each other’s views and opinions. To carry something like that would really mess up something special we got going on right now.”

Hammel (14-7, 3.14 ERA) shut down the Pirates for six innings, allowing only one run, scattering three hits and showing the confidence that made him an All-Star-level performer in the first half. 

Hammel regained control of his fastball, spun some curveballs and incorporated a changeup to create doubt in hitters’ minds and add a different wrinkle to opposing scouting reports. He limited the damage to one run in the fifth inning, working around three walks and screaming and flexing his muscles after striking out Andrew McCutchen swinging at a 93-mph fastball to end the threat.

“Yeah, I wanted to get back out there,” Hammel said. “The last one just didn’t sit well with me. So far, so good.”

On a night when the crowd chanted “MVP,” Kris Bryant backed Hammel by launching his 36th homer and playing Gold Glove-level defense at third base. Bryant saved a run by diving to his left to catch a Sean Rodriguez line drive and end the second inning. Bryant began the fourth inning with his answer to Anthony Rizzo’s tarp catch, leaning over the wall and into the stands to catch a Josh Bell pop-up.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

But the defensive play of the night belonged to Addison Russell, who with the bases loaded and the Cubs trying to protect a 5-2 lead, raced over from shortstop and made a sliding catch near the left-field line to end the seventh inning.

“This team’s going to be really good for a long time,” said Hammel, who had been packaged with Jeff Samardzija – Thursday’s starter for the San Francisco Giants at Wrigley Field – in the Russell trade with the Oakland A’s in 2014. “These kids – I say kids now, because I can, because I’m old – they’re impressive and they continue to dazzle.

“You can’t really say surprised, because we’ve come to expect all these great plays and the big knocks that they’re driving in. We’re witnessing greatness.”

After getting 22 wins in a month for the first time since September 1945, this could become the next awkward conversation: If John Lackey (shoulder) returns to full strength – and the rest of the rotation doesn’t experience any setbacks down the stretch – what are the chances of Hammel making a playoff start?

“Stay healthy and we’ll see what happens,” Maddon said. “I don’t bet on the come. Let’s get to the playoffs first, make sure everybody’s well, and at that point then you look at the group you have. And then maybe at that point you look at the group you may be playing. And then you try to formulate the best plan of attack from your personnel versus their personnel. 

“I’ve not even thought about a playoff moment once.”

The Cubs will now have all of September to think about October.

Can Cubs keep Báez and Bryant? Tom Ricketts says that's "on Theo and Jed"

Can Cubs keep Báez and Bryant? Tom Ricketts says that's "on Theo and Jed"

It's a pretty simple question with a pretty simple answer. Can the Cubs, one of baseball's wealthiest organizations, afford to keep both Kris Bryand and Javy Baez? Is there room in the infamous budget to make both of the team's homegrown stars Cubs for life?

“There’s certainly money out there. It’s a very, very profitable game," Bryant said earlier in the week. "It’s just a matter of if they want to. I don’t know, I really don’t. But it would certainly be cool.”

“It’s up to them,” Báez added. “I hope we both stay here. Obviously, we want to keep everyone here because we pretty much have the team that we want." 

Then, on Monday, "they" – being Cubs' owner Tom Ricketts – finally talked. So, Tom? You sign their checks, what do you think?

"Well, where we place our resources is a baseball decision," Ricketts said. "That’s Jed and Theo. But I mean, ultimately, we have to look at it from a bigger perspective."

It's been a week since Theo Epstein, David Ross, and Jed Hoyer (he was there too!) addressed the media for the first time this spring, and no one seems to be able to get a straight answer on the team's most-pressing long term concern. It's almost certainly by design, as the Cubs are adamant that speaking on finances publicly creates some sort of competitive disadvantage when it comes to negotiating with players and agents. KB and Báez say it's up to ownership, ownership says it's up to the front office (?), and the front office isn't going to speculate. Terrific! If you're to believe the rumor mill, the team seems marginally closer to an extension with Báez than they are with Bryant, and are maybe – according to some – more focused on moving the latter.

Epstein said Bryant was given no assurances about what the time between now and Opening Day holds, and regardless of Bryant's wishes to be in the loop, Ricketts also doesn't feel that an explicit guarantee is totally necessary. 

"I imagine there’s communication between Theo and Kris at some point," Ricketts said. "I think they met yesterday. But a lot of the stuff, what – do you communicate to say that the stuff you saw is a rumor? I mean, I don’t know. Like I said, we love KB. I think he’s ready to go and a full season of a healthy Kris Bryant is something we could really use." 

Put aside for a moment the fact that, yeah, that's exactly what you'd communicate. Compare the apparent transparency of an owner who said that the CBT "won’t define the situation" and "won’t determine the actual player moves" vs. what he said when pressed about all of the offseason turbulence surrounding Bryant and the Cubs. 

"Well obviously we love KB, he’s a great player and he’s a great teammate," he said. "He’s just a great part of the team. Most of the things that are out there are just rumors and noise. A lot of it is just not true. But with respect to all player decisions, if anything was going down that path, it’d obviously be a baseball decision."

Most of the things out there are just rumors and noise. A lot of it is not true. Can the Cubs' afford to keep Bryant and Báez? Yes. Will the Cubs' make that choice? 

"Once again, that’s in Theo’s camp. That’s his decision," Ricketts said. "We’d have to take a look at what that means for us all financially." 

Competitive Balance Taxes are looming, but the Cubs are still willing to bend the budget

Competitive Balance Taxes are looming, but the Cubs are still willing to bend the budget

Tom Ricketts met with the media on Monday morning to give his usual spring State of the Cubs press conference, and the state of the Cubs is … sorta the same? The Cubs look almost identical to the 84-win, third place team of 2019, but Ricketts’ expectations are far above that. 

“I think we have the best team in our division,” the Cubs’ owner said. “I think we have a really dynamic, exciting new manager. I think the players are going to play very, very hard for David Ross. Barring some kind of crazy injuries, I think we should win our division and get back in the playoffs.”

Considering there’s not a whole lot of on-field news to discuss, much of the 20-minute press conference was focused on the team’s finances, their (lack of) headway towards a television deal with Comcast, and what to expect as teams ramp up for the oncoming round of CBA negotiations. Ricketts talked at length about the club’s perceived battles – or lack thereof, he claims – with baseball’s Competitive Balance Tax (CBT). 

“I think the CBT is a factor that every large market GM has to put into their calculus when they create their teams,” Ricketts said. “I don’t know how much fans know, but it’s not just a financial penalty. It’s a financial penalty that grows over time, for a number of years you’re above the threshold. And then it gets into a player penalty, which you have to be careful to avoid. So like I said, it’s a factor – I don’t think it’s a defining factor – but it’s definitely a factor that every team has to deal with, at least every large market team.” 

Ricketts mentioned that some of this offseason’s planned budget was fronted when the Cubs signed closer Craig Kimbrel to a three-year, $43 million deal towards the end of last summer. He was also adamant that payrolls don’t correlate directly to winning, which is certainly not unfair to claim but also not entirely accurate. He pointed to the Cubs’ baseball budget in 2019, which was, according to him, the highest in the league as to say that the team wasn’t exactly sitting on their hands. While the front office’s inactivity surprised many of the Cubs’ players, Ricketts shot down the idea that something needed to happen for the sake of something happening. 

“I’m not disappointed,” he said. “The fact is that we have a great team, we have guys that are proven winners and verteran players. We have the talent to win our division and go deep into the playoffs. So that’s a good starting place. In terms of big changes, it’s hard. You guys follow the game, it’s not like there’s a lot of player for player swaps anymore. Trades don’t happen like they used to.” 

And while many view the Red Sox-Dodgers player swap that took place literally last week as a concerning sign of baseball’s current economic market heading into the next round of CBA discussions, Ricketts chose not to comment on what he thinks the owners are going to try and bargain for. Instead, he left the door open for activity – even if it means swallowing the rather costly CBT pill. The Cubs were over the CBT last year, and are open to the notion of a second-straight violation if it means making the right move. Penalties for third-time offenders are particularly harsh, though, and Ricketts conceded that it’s that point when spending begins to give ownership pause. 

“Obviously paying large taxes on CBT is really inefficient and not a great use of team resources, so if there’s a way to put a great team on the field and not pay that, then they will,” he said. “But I leave it up to Theo and Jed. 

“Like I said, the CBT thresholds are a piece of the puzzle. They’re something that we’re always mindful of, but they won’t define the situation and they won’t determine the actual player moves.” 

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Chicago