It sure sounds like Cole Hamels will be back in the Cubs rotation in 2019

It sure sounds like Cole Hamels will be back in the Cubs rotation in 2019

It's safe to say Cubs fans can expect to see Cole Hamels in the "Cubbie blue" pinstripes again in 2019.
Hamels has a $20 million team option for next year and to this point, there's been absolutely no gamesmanship from either side with both the veteran southpaw and the Cubs front office openly admitting they'd like things to continue next year.

From the second Hamels got to the North Side of Chicago, he's been straightforward about how he's always wanted to play for the Cubs, dating back even before he was linked to the Cubs at the 2015 trade deadline before he was ultimately dealt to the Texas Rangers.

When the Cubs picked up Hamels this season, the 34-year-old was everything the team was hoping for and more, going 4-3 with a 2.36 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and racking up 2.5 WAR in only 12 starts.

Even when he wasn't pitching, Hamels was a leader inside the clubhouse, helping lend advice to pitchers like Mike Montgomery while also serving as a respected veteran voice as a former World Series MVP who had pitched in seven different Octobers prior to 2018.

Oh yeah, and then there was that bold statement about the Cubs-Brewers "rivalry" that endeared Hamels to North Side fans and let the entire baseball world know he was not interested in simply being a three-month rental for the Cubs.

"The Cubs have always been one of the top teams I've always wanted to be a player for," Hamels said after the Cubs were eliminated from the playoffs last week. "And obviously it didn't happen in '15. Very fortunate to go to Texas, but the Chicago Cubs were always a team I would've loved an opportunity to play for in front of this crowd and this organization and to see these types of players. 

"They have a tremendous clubhouse presence, tremendous talents and it was great to be able to toe the rubber and have these guys behind me."

When Theo Epstein addressed the media about 16 hours or so after the Cubs' season ended, he didn't hesitate for even a split-second when asked if the front office hoped Hamels could return in 2019.

"Yeah, absolutely," Epstein said emphatically. "I mean, Cole was such a breath of fresh air for us. He made an unbelievable impression. For a guy that's only been here a couple months, he's as universally respected in that room as anyone I've ever seen.

"He's a pro's pro and contributed tremendously on the field and off the field and with a great, engaged, accountable, positive presence in that clubhouse who really cares about his teammates and help make them better by example and by discussion, too. He's absolutely someone we'd love to have part of the mix going forward."

The Cubs already have a bunch of starting pitchers locked under contract for 2019, but that shouldn't - and won't - dissuade Epstein's front office from paying Hamels that $20 million as rotation depth and a clubhouse presence. We should get a final determination on Hamels' option a few days after the World Series ends this fall.

The old adage in baseball is there really is no such thing as a bad one-year deal and with the question marks surrounding Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood, Hamels would give the Cubs a reliable fourth starter behind Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana. The Cubs also have Montgomery as depth and they've already publicly stated they plan to stretch Drew Smyly out as a starter in 2019 after he did not pitch at all in 2018 while recovering from Tommy John surgery.

Many questioned how much Hamels had left in the tank after he posted a 4.42 ERA in 262.1 innings with the Rangers from 2017-18, but he silenced all doubters as he was rejuvenated joining a pennant race and pitching in front of the Cubs' young, talented core. 

Hamels has seen so much in his 13 years in the big leagues and truly believes the Cubs' stunning early exit from this October can be a great learning experience for the team moving into next year and beyond.

And he really wants front-row seats for that in 2019.

"This was a fun experience to be a part of and hopefully this will be something I'll be able to be a part of next year," Hamels said. "...This is the right type of environment [for winning.] What Theo and the ownership have done and the players they have, they really look at that. They have the type of players that are capable of [getting back to the postseason year after year]. 

"Obviously, everybody getting healthy, that definitely turns the tide. So I think they've got quite a few more years to really put a dent in the National League and bring home a couple more World Series."

What Cubs lineup could look like in 2020 if Kris Bryant leads off

What Cubs lineup could look like in 2020 if Kris Bryant leads off

Kris Bryant told reporters Wednesday he's offered to leadoff for the Cubs this season to manager David Ross. And while nothing is set in stone, the 2016 NL MVP is one of the Cubs’ best options for the role.

Bryant isn’t a prototypical leadoff guy but it’s not like we’re discussing a cleanup man moving to the No. 1 spot in the lineup. Yes, he has power, but he’s also an on-base machine (career .385 OBP) who accepts his walks (career 11.9 percent walk rate).

Considering Bryant’s plate discipline, opponents will either have to pitch to him or run the risk of walking him ahead of Anthony Rizzo, Javier Báez, Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras. Bryant leading off will give those guys more RBI opportunities. He’s also one of the Cubs’ best baserunners, and his ability to take an extra base benefits those hitting behind him.

It’s important to note Bryant wouldn’t change his approach in the top spot — his power won't just disappear. He has a career .502 OBP with the bases empty and could put the Cubs ahead right away with a long ball or put them in business with an extra-base hit.

Bryant will be himself no matter where he hits: an elite on-base guy who almost always puts together a quality at-bat. He’s as good a leadoff candidate as any on the Cubs (no disrespect meant to Anthony Rizzo, aka the “Greatest Leadoff Hitter Of All-Time”).

If Bryant leads off, here's what standard lineups could look like, both against righties and lefties:

Versus RHP

1. (R) Kris Bryant (3B)
2. (L) Anthony Rizzo (1B)
3. (R) Javier Báez (SS)
4. (L) Kyle Schwarber (LF)
5. (R) Willson Contreras (C)
6. (L) Jason Heyward (RF)
7. (R) David Bote
8. Pitcher
9. (S) Ian Happ (CF)

Former Cubs manager Joe Maddon liked to alternate lefties and righties in his lineup. With MLB’s new three-batter minimum rule for relievers, I stuck to that mentality to create a late-inning advantage for the Cubs.

Schwarber-Báez-Rizzo looks lethal and is somewhat interchangeable. Rizzo recently said he prefers hitting third or fourth but will hit where Ross wants him. Ross suggested Wednesday Rizzo will hit behind Bryant; it looks unorthodox but Ross can always adjust it. 

Rizzo has fared well hitting second and hitting him there keeps him and Bryant back-to-back.

Rizzo hitting second (237 plate appearances): .300/.401/.515, 153 wRC+.

I like Báez getting RBI chances behind Bryzzo, the Cubs’ two best on-base guys. And, he mashes in the three hole:

Báez career hitting third (118 plate appearances): .366/.398/.571, 161 wRC+ 

Similarly, Schwarber has been more successful hitting cleanup than any other spot:

Schwarber career hitting fourth (68 plate appearances): .393/.441/.787, 211 wRC+

Those aren't the biggest sample sizes, but the numbers are eye-popping. Contreras and Heyward hitting fifth and sixth brings us back to a more traditional Cubs lineup. The second base competition is wide-open, but I'll give Bote a slight edge after he hit .274 with a .425 OBP post-All-Star break last season.

Bote will also play some third, which is when we'll see Daniel Descalso and Jason Kipnis (if he makes the roster) at second.

RELATED: Cubs roster projection 1.0: Bullpen, second base competitions are wide open

From there, I like a pitcher hitting eighth and Happ hitting ninth as a second leadoff guy. He has a good eye for the strike zone and his ability to get on base will give the top of the order more RBI chances.

Now, for the lineup against lefty starting pitchers:

1. (R) Kris Bryant (3B)
2. (L) Anthony Rizzo (1B)
3. (R) Javier Báez (SS)
4. (L) Kyle Schwarber (LF)
5. (R) Willson Contreras (C)
6. (L) Jason Heyward OR (R) Steven Souza Jr. (RF)
7. (R) Albert Almora Jr. (CF)
8. Pitcher
9. (R) David Bote (2B)

Ross believes in a structured lineup, so this looks pretty similar to the previous order. Heyward isn’t going to sit against every lefty starter, but when he does Souza’s power bat will fit in nicely in the sixth spot.

In this scenario, Hoerner is in Triple-A and Bote is the starting second baseman against lefties. Where Bote hits is contingent on Almora. I’d put Bote ninth when Almora is in the lineup because the former is more of an on-base threat. Almora’s contact-oriented approach could help move ahead any baserunners ahead of him. The same can be said about Bote, but I like the idea of him getting on base for the top of the order.

Happ, a switch-hitter, will also start against righties and I can see him hitting sixth, seventh or ninth. A lot of this hinges on how he, Almora and Bote are performing at the plate. Each will get their at-bats, but the Cubs need one to emerge as a consistent contributor.

Do these groupings look unfamiliar? Sure, but Bryant leading off will put us in new waters. Again, nothing is set in stone, and the Cubs have a ton of lineup combinations for this season. Seeing Bryant atop the order sure looks like an enticing possibility, however.

Kris Bryant to get a shot as Cubs leadoff hitter

Kris Bryant to get a shot as Cubs leadoff hitter

The leadoff spot has been in flux for the Cubs since Dexter Fowler left after the 2016 season. A new chapter in that role could soon be coming.

According to multiple reports, Kris Bryant talked about leading off for the Cubs in a meeting with new manager David Ross and it sounds like he will get a chance to do just that.

The Cubs have been creative with the leadoff spot without the lack of a traditional leadoff hitter on the roster. Anthony Rizzo even has 57 games in the leadoff spot in his career.

Bryant has had seven starts at the top of the order. He hit .321/.387/.464 in those games.

The Cubs' own Twitter account has made it semi-official by poking fun at Bryant as a leadoff hitter.

What this would do to the rest of the Cubs' lineup is going to be interesting. Bryant primarily batted second or third last year. Putting him at leadoff could separate him from Rizzo and Javy Baez in the middle of the lineup. Ross could also continue to change things up and put Baez or Rizzo second to keep the team's best three hitters back-to-back-to-back in the order.

Ross hasn't even managed a spring training game yet, but this could be his first big change. With the first spring training game coming up on Saturday, we should get a clue as to how Ross plans to send the team out. Suddenly the batting order is something to keep an eye on.

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