Cubs

Cole Hamels is out to prove the naysayers wrong, whether that's with the Cubs or elsewhere

Cole Hamels is out to prove the naysayers wrong, whether that's with the Cubs or elsewhere

How you evaluate Cole Hamels’ 2019 performance depends on which half of the season you look at.

Hamels was the Cubs’ most reliable starting pitcher through June, putting his name firmly in the conversation to make the All-Star Game. Through his first 17 starts, he held a 2.98 ERA, with 97 strikeouts and 35 walks in 99 2/3 innings.

That 17th start – June 28 against the Reds – represented a turning point for the left-hander, however. After throwing one warmup pitch ahead of the second inning, Hamels took a beeline for the Cubs’ dugout, exiting the game with a left oblique strain.

Hamels quickly detecting the strain was key, as he avoided a more significant injury and only missed one month as a result. However, he never got back to his pre-injury level after returning. In 10 starts, he posted a 5.79 ERA, walking 21 batters in 42 innings as opponents slashed .315/.397/.506 against him.

Which of the two pitchers does Hamels more closely resemble at this point? That’s what teams will have to evaluate this offseason, when the soon-to-be 36-year-old lefty hits free agency for the first time in his career.

On top of his oblique strain, Hamels also missed a start in September with left shoulder fatigue. By the time he returned, the Cubs were eliminated from postseason contention, but he wanted one last chance to show what he’s capable of before free agency.

“I don’t want to put that in the back of teams’ heads of how I finished,” Hamels said the day before his final start of the season. “I think I’m capable of what I was able to do in the first half - that’s who I am - and I can still get those good results for hopefully [the Cubs], if they consider that.

“But also, for other teams to know that I’m not the type of player that’s on the regression. This is what we’re gonna expect. It’s more so what I was able to do in the first half - the type of player that I am and the results that I can get out on the field.”

He certainly backed those words up, shutting down the Cardinals – who hadn’t clinched the NL Central yet – in the second-to-last game of the regular season. Hamels pitched four innings, allowing no runs on just two hits.

Hamels looked stellar in that game, but it doesn’t change the fact that returning from an extended injury absence isn’t easy on pitchers. They need time to regain command of their pitches, plus any amount of arm strength lost during their time on the shelf.

Hamels made two rehab starts at Triple-A before rejoining the Cubs on Aug. 3. He was determined not to return too quickly, as he did so with the Rangers in 2017 after straining his right oblique. That wound up negatively affecting him the rest of the season.

Still, maybe one or two more rehab starts this time around would’ve served him well, though he felt that he could compete at the majors without his best stuff. Plus, it’s not like he was guaranteed to find his groove again by pitching in more minor league games.

Results are all that matter in the big leagues, however, and they show that while the Cubs starting rotation was okay, it wasn’t the difference maker capable of leading the team to October, as anticipated. Cubs starters finished the season with a 4.18 ERA, 10th in MLB and sixth in the National League.

Hamels’ post-injury woes played into those numbers, and he’s determined to bounce back in 2020 to prove his second half performance was a fluke. His first half showed that he still can pitch at a high-level, but he may not be in the Cubs’ plans for next season, regardless.

"There was some injury and regression (especially after injury) that led us to be closer to the pack certainly than we had envisioned,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said of the team’s rotation at his end-of-season press conference. “It’s an accomplished and experienced group, but with experience means that we could stand to add some younger talent, refresh the group as well.

“We certainly need to add depth and we need to add some youth and a little bit of a different look to the staff, as well, going forward.”

Those comments seem to indicate that Hamels won’t be back next season. The Cubs have Adbert Alzolay, Tyler Chatwood and Alec Mills as internal rotation options for 2020 and could look outside the organization for more. Hamels also made $20 million in 2019, so freeing up his salary would help the Cubs address other roster needs.

The Cubs could do a lot worse than having a healthy Cole Hamels in their rotation, though. He’s enjoyed a resurgence since the Cubs acquired him and has had plenty of success against the NL Central and at Wrigley Field overall during his career:

vs. Brewers: 20 starts, 8-5, 3.53 ERA
vs. Cardinals: 17 starts, 5-6, 2.21 ERA
vs. Pirates: 13 starts, 5-4 record, 2.52 ERA
vs. Reds: 20 starts, 11-2 record. 2.30 ERA
at Wrigley Field: 25 starts, 7-4 record, 2.20 ERA

Granted, a large portion of those starts came earlier in his career. But with how competitive the NL Central was in 2019 and will be in 2020, the results can’t be ignored.

“Obviously I do very well at Wrigley, so I hope that’s a consideration - I love to be able to pitch there,” Hamels said about the Cubs possibly re-signing him. “For some reason, it’s just the energy and I’ve mentioned it before, it’s baseball to me. And that’s what I really feed off of and that’s hopefully what they think about.”

But if the Cubs decide to part ways with Hamels, he’ll have his fair share of suitors. The Brewers and Reds each could benefit from adding starting pitching this offseason, and Hamels would bring a ton of experience to two squads that will be competing for postseason spots in 2020.

“Otherwise, I know the other teams in the division are gonna think about it,” Hamels said with a laugh. “If you have to come to Wrigley three different times [as an opponent], I don’t pitch bad there.

“I just want to win. I think that’s it. When you get the taste of it early and then you don’t have it for a while, that’s what you’re striving for. To play this game and in front of sellouts and the energy and the expectation of winning, it’s why I enjoy the game.

“That’s what I want to be able to continue to do for the few years I have left.”

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Jon Lester on Cubs-Cards series amid COVID-19 news: 'I don't see that happening'

Jon Lester on Cubs-Cards series amid COVID-19 news: 'I don't see that happening'

At least the Cubs got to try out that new extra-inning rule. They even got five innings of scoreless baseball from their much-maligned bullpen before the weekend was done.

But where does the hottest-starting team in the National League go next?

Nobody could be sure Sunday as worsening COVID-19 news swirled around the Cardinals during the Cubs’ extra-inning victory over the Pirates.

Various reports suggested as many as four more Cardinals players and staff tested positive for the coronavirus Saturday night, in addition to the four confirmed cases from earlier in the week. That led to another round of testing Sunday to confirm the results of the potentially positive cases — all playing out five days before the Cubs are scheduled to open a three-game series in St. Louis.

“I would imagine that we’re probably not playing those games this weekend. But I can’t fully speak to that,” veteran pitcher Jon Lester said.” That’s just my opinion. Maybe there’s a way where we flip the schedule around where we’re playing somebody else. I think guys right now just want to keep playing.

“It sucks that we’re dealing with this, but it’s the nature of the beast right now. The league I’m sure will alter the plans going forward. If we’re in St. Louis on Friday, we’re in St. Louis on Friday. We’ll figure it out, and we’ll try to beat the Cardinals and move on to the next day. But right now, as of today, I don’t see that happening.”

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The Cardinals already have had four days of games postponed — the second team to deal with an outbreak after the Marlins had 18 players test positive in the days following their opener in Philadelphia. The Marlins haven’t played in a week. Their outbreak prompted MLB to juggle the schedules of other teams impacted by the Marlins shutdown to allow them to keep playing during the week. 

If the Cardinals news doesn’t improve fast, it could mean a much tougher decision for commissioner Rob Manfred, who in recent days had pledged to persist with the season, even if it meant teams would finish with different numbers of games played.

Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said on Saturday his conversations with MLB and officials from other teams in recent days offered no sense of clarity on the viability of play during the first-week crisis — even as MLB mandated safety compliance officers for each team and stressed greater adherence to protocols.

“I don’t think there’s any consensus,” Hoyer said. “Our experience so far has been positive, and based on what I have viewed this is absolutely survivable. But our experience hasn’t been the rule.”

RELATED: Why no Cubs have expressed intent to opt out amid MLB COVID-19 outbreaks

The Cubs are the only team in the league that hasn’t had a player test positive since intake testing began more than a month ago — though star third baseman Kris Bryant has self-quarantined since reporting a stomachache to team officials Saturday. He has continued to test negative, was said to feel better Sunday, and might be cleared to play Monday or Tuesday depending on the results and timing of two more tests.

Whether the 7-2 Cubs and everyone else have a season to keep playing by the time he were to return — much less a Cubs-Cardinals series to play Friday — remains in flux.

Depending on how widespread the Cardinals’ outbreak becomes, the Cubs might already have faced a higher risk series in their sweep of the Pirates — who faced the Cardinals five days before taking the field at Wrigley.

“Those are the kinds of things you start thinking about during this,” Hoyer said. “You’d be crazy not to start thinking about the number of days and making sure that [the Cardinals’] outbreak is under control. I think you have a right to have those concerns and ask those questions.

“That’s probably the area that I’m focused on right now, is that as they test, the positives have to stop before we can really have a sense of what we’re dealing with.”

Until then, the team that has looked impressive against the Brewers, Reds and Pirates — and even better in containing the virus within its bubble — could be on the brink of having all its best laid plans and early performance wiped out by teams outside their bubble and factors beyond their control.

“You don’t want to see something go down just because of, I guess, a couple teams,” said Kyle Schwarber, who drove in his sixth run Sunday, threw out a runner at the plate in the 10th and has an .851 OPS so far. “Hopefully, this is something quick [with the Cards]. Hopefully, there’s able to be a fix and they’re able to keep the season going.

“It would be a disappointment just because you see the group in here, what we’ve been doing,” he added. “We’ve been responsible in everything that we’re trying to do because we know we’re part of something greater here.”

That’s about doing their part to make sure a two-month season and playoffs can be completed during a global pandemic as much as it is about doing what they can to still be one of the teams playing at that point.

The Cubs say all they can do now is show up Monday for their game against the Royals until or unless they hear otherwise.

“You can’t worry about Team ‘X’ testing positive three or four or 10, 11 times,” Lester said. “We have to worry about what’s in front of us.

“And if the commissioner comes and says we’re done, then we’re done. And if he says play on, then we play on.”

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How the Cubs bullpen became the surprise hero in series finale vs. Pirates

How the Cubs bullpen became the surprise hero in series finale vs. Pirates

Cubs reliver Jeremy Jeffress clapped in triumph. Shortstop Javier Baez had just fielded a sharp ground ball and thrown a dart to third baseman David Bote to tag out the lead runner.

The new extra innings rule had put Jeffress under pressure as soon as he stepped on the mound, but that out was like a relief valve.

“That’s exactly how you do it,” Bote said. “The pitchers made good pitches, kept them off balance.”

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In the Cubs’ 2-1 win over the Pirates on Sunday, the Chicago bullpen held Pittsburg scoreless through five innings, including two extras. This was the same bullpen that entered play Sunday with an MLB-worst 9.75 ERA. But in the series finale, Jeffress, Ryan Tepera and Dan Winkler all performed under pressure, buying the Cubs time until Baez’s walk-off single in the 11th inning.

With less than a week until the active roster is cut to 28 players, the Cubs bullpen is taking shape.

“That’s a lot of innings that we asked out of our bullpen tonight,” Cubs manager David Ross said, “and they did a really good job.”

The bullpen’s shutout began with Casey Sadler, who pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings. But with two outs in the eighth inning, Sadler walked Jose Osuna, and runners stood on first and second with cleanup hitter Colin Moran up next.

Ross turned to Dan Winkler, who only lasted a third of an inning in his first appearance this season. A week ago, he walked two and gave up an RBI single in the Cubs’ narrow win at Cincinnati. He redeemed himself Sunday.

Winkler threw three cutters in a row to Moran, and he whiffed on all of them. Winkler came back out the next inning and preserved the 1-1 tie, setting the Cubs up for their first extra-inning game of the season.

“Real big outing tonight,” Ross said. “Thought he looked sharp. Some nice cutters in there deep. Pitching though some moments was poised. Things get a little bit tenser as the game moves on in a 1-1 game, first real clincher that I think I’ve had coming down the stretch. … When you’ve got somebody out there that you feel like’s in control of the ball game, it’s just a nice feeling as a manager.”

For this season, in an attempt to avoid 15-inning games in a jam-packed schedule, Major League Baseball has adopted the international tiebreaker rule.

The hitting team starts every half inning after the ninth (or the seventh during double headers) with a runner on second. For the Cubs, that meant a bullpen that has struggled in pressure situations this year had to start each extra inning under pressure.

“For guys to step up right there and make pitches, I can only imagine what that feels like,” said starting pitcher Jon Lester, who allowed just one run in six innings. “You haven’t even thrown a pitch yet and you’ve got a guy on second base.”

With the game on the line, Ross put the ball in Tepera and Jeffress’ hands.

Craig Kimbrel, who has traditionally been the Cubs’ closer, is working through mechanical issues. On Saturday, Ross declined to say whether Kimbrel would remain the Cubs closer after a pair of disappointing outings. Kimbrel was notably absent from late innings on Sunday.

Tepera and Jeffress delivered.

“A lot of people don’t know Tep got up (in the bullpen) multiple times today,” Ross said. “So, for him to come in and have that nice outing … our guys were definitely engaged, locked in.”

Josh Bell pinch hit to lead off the 10th inning and hit a hard ground ball off Tepera into left field. Pirates baserunner Jacob Stallings, who started the inning on second, rounded third base and sprinted home. But Schwarber’s throw beat him there. Cubs catcher Willson Contreras held onto the ball through the collision at the plate.

Extra-innings threat eliminated. Tepera retired the next two batters in order.

Then it was Jeffress’ turn. Three up, three down.

 

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