New year, new Hammel: Cubs pitcher trying to put 'tale of two halves' behind him


New year, new Hammel: Cubs pitcher trying to put 'tale of two halves' behind him

MESA, Ariz. - Shortly after the Cubs were swept out of the National League Championship Series by the New York Mets, Theo Epstein chalked up 2015 as a "tale of two halves" for Jason Hammel.

Hammel had just taken the loss in the deciding Game 4 of the NLCS, surrendering five runs in 1.1 innings. It was a continuation of a rough second half for the veteran starter, who put up a 5.10 ERA after the All-Star Break (he boasted a 2.86 ERA heading into the break).

Hammel admitted his struggles last year were both mental and physical as he dealt with leg injuries that affected his mechanics.

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This spring, Hammel showed up to camp looking like a completely different guy after shedding some weight and growing a big, bushy beard over the winter.

So, new year, new Hammel?

"Not to overdo that, but just to switch it up a little bit," he said. "Kinda break up that monotony of getting stuck in that same routine. That was kinda the idea of everything this offseason - see what else there was that I haven't discovered yet."

Hammel focused on strengthening and conditioning his legs more over the offseason in an effort to stay healthy and durable throughout the course of a long season.

He even sought help from outside sources to get different opinions from people who didn't have any preconceived notions about how to fix his injury issues.

"At some point, you have to realize - and I feel like I've actually arrived at this point a couple times in my career - where I have to do something more," he said. "Kinda re-evaluate the mechanics and try to figure out why I was faltering at the end of the year.

"I want to be the best that I can be. Not to say there's inner demons or anything like that, but I had to figure something out. I had to find a way to get better. As you get older, things don't come as easily. The body doesn't bounce back as quickly."

Hammel didn't want to blame his rough second half on just the injuries, acknowledging he wasn't getting the job done.

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Hammel - who claimed he didn't pay attention to any possibility he'd be included in an offseason trade - said he didn't blame Joe Maddon for all those quick hooks in August and September, saying he hopes to "squash" that storyline.

Maddon and Hammel go way back to their Tampa Bay days starting in 2006 and the Cubs manager also brushed aside any notion of lasting resentment from Hammel's early exits last season.

"If you don't have arguments or discussions or disagreements - whatever you want to call them - with your group over a course of time, then you're really not doing your job," Maddon said. "You're not going to keep everybody 100 percent happy all the time."

Maddon made sure to add that he and Hammel are good now and he talked up the 33-year-old's offseason work, saying Hammel was in the best shape of his life.

Hammel's spring physique didn't go unnoticed among his teammates, either, as both Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester complimented Hammel's conditioning and mindset.

"He seems like he's more relaxed," Lester said. "I think he just feels more comfortable. He looks great. He says he feels great, which is always good, especially - as pitchers - we need our legs and he had that leg injury last year. You could really tell he struggled after that to kinda maintain his delivery.

"When you start doing that stuff, you start pressing a little more. It becomes hard to kinda catch up when you're behind the eight ball like that. It's good to see him healthy."

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Hammel said he spoke to Arrieta a bit about offseason training, but hasn't yet taken to pilates the way the reigning NL Cy Young winner has.

"He just rededicated himself," Arrieta said. "He wanted to make some changes. I'm very, very happy for him and proud of him for doing the things he did this offseason.

"He's committed to making himself better, which in turn, is going to make us a lot better as a team."

As for the beard, Hammel figured he might as well try something new, joking maybe it was his midlife crisis. Plus, it gives him something to talk about with teammates like Arrieta.

"I was asking Jake what he uses in his," Hammel said. "I'm sure it's like Sabertooth tiger blood or something."

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

When Ben Zobrist rejoined the Cubs active roster on Sept. 1, it was fair to wonder how much he could provide offensively. After all, he spent the previous four months on the restricted list while tending to a family matter, last playing a big-league game on May 6.

Zobrist did no baseball activities from May to mid-July, only working out to stay in shape. Although he eventually ramped things up, he played in just 12 minor league rehab games in August before returning to the Cubs, a small number compared to the length of his absence.

Even Zobrist admitted upon his big-league return that his timing at the plate wasn’t where he wanted it to be. And yet, what he did in September was nothing short of impressive. In 21 games, he posted a .284/.377/.388 slash line, performing at a level many couldn’t have expected, considering the circumstances.

Zobrist's impact on the Cubs' lineup goes beyond what you see in the box score, however. Not only is he a switch hitter with some pop, but he has a keen eye for the strike zone and frequently puts together professional at-bats.

On a Cubs team that tends to expand the zone, Zobrist’s presence mattered. In his second game back, for example, he went 3-for-3 with two walks, helping the Cubs beat the Brewers 10-5. After the game, Brewers starter Chase Anderson pointed out how different the Cubs' lineup looks with Zobrist in it.

"They play the matchups really well and Zobrist makes that team so much better," Anderson said on Sept. 5. "Just bringing his presence to the top of the lineup, it changes their dynamic a little bit."

Where Zobrist stands entering 2020, though, is currently unclear.

Zobrist is set to hit free agency after the World Series and will turn 39 next May. Therefore, it’s possible that he’s played his last game in the big leagues, as he has little, if anything, left to prove at this stage in his career.

Ahead of the Cubs’ season finale on Sept. 29, Zobrist told reporters in St. Louis that he hasn’t thought about how much time he’ll take before deciding what’s next for him. His family situation will obviously play a big role in his decision, but if September showed anything, it's that he still has something left in the tank.

“I’m 38 but I got that feeling all over again,” Zobrist said following the Cubs’ season finale, a 9-0 loss to the Cardinals in which he pitched a scoreless inning. “Just really fun, you know? It’s a fun game. Sometimes you don’t come out on the winning end, but you still gotta have fun with it and enjoy it. I enjoyed it today."

The Cubs roster is expected to undergo changes this offseason, with center field, second base and the leadoff spot being just a few areas the team will look to address. The latter two spots became revolving doors during Zobrist’s absence, as the Cubs struggled to replace what he brought offensively.

Zobrist is past the point in his career of being an everyday player. However, he still could be a useful asset for the Cubs in a supporting role, bringing his veteran approach to the lineup when he plays while still offering an experienced voice in the clubhouse.

“I take a lot of joy in that role, just being a supporting guy and being a part of winning clubs and part of winning atmospheres and cultures,” Zobrist said on Sept. 29. “The Chicago Cubs have been that since I’ve been around. This year we didn’t make the playoffs — we still have a winning record — (but) the kind of relationships that are built here and the culture that’s been built here is definitely a winning one.”

After the Cubs announced that they wouldn’t retain Joe Maddon for 2020, Zobrist acknowledged that more changes were likely coming in the offseason. Only time will tell what that means for the veteran utilityman — should he continue playing.

Whether he retires or joins a different team for 2020, though, Zobrist will look back on his four seasons with the Cubs fondly.

“(They’re) just the most passionate fans I’ve ever met,” he said of Cubs fans. “They’re very loyal, very passionate and it’s been such a pleasure to be a part of that team that beat the curse back in ’16, so I feel that still, when I see Cubs fans, there’s a lot of them that hug me and thank me for being a part of that.

“I’ll always look back at [my] time here — I don’t know what’s going to happen in the offseason — but look back at these four years and [be] very grateful to be able to be part of a group like this and be able to do what we did while I was here.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Tony Andracki, Kelly Crull, Scott Changnon and Jeff Nelson give us their memories of Joe Maddon's time with the Cubs and discuss David Ross and Joe Espada's candidacy to be the next manager.

01:30 Kelly's memories of Joe from the perspective of a reporter

06:00 Going back to Hazleton with Joe

07:45 Joe's legacy as manager of the Cubs

16:00 How Joe impacted Javy Baez' career

18:00 David Ross and Joe Espada may be the leaders to replace Joe Maddon.

Listen here or via the embedded player below:


Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Cubs games easily on your device.