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 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 show 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.”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.
All eyes were on No. 3 overall pick Kirby Dach during Sunday's game as he made his NHL debut with the Blackhawks, but the story leading up to puck drop was where he was going to slot into the lineup.
Would he be broken in as a winger or were the Blackhawks going to slide him into his natural position at center? And if so, where? The answer to the first question was the latter and the second drew excitement among the fanbase when the team ran through line rushes during warmups.
Dach lined up as the second-line center with Patrick Kane at right wing and Dylan Strome moved over to left wing. That's a No. 3 overall pick (Dach) alongside another No. 3 overall pick (Strome) and a No. 1 overall pick (Kane), who's a three-time Stanley Cup champion and Hart Trophy winner.
When the three of them were on the ice together at 5-on-5 against Washington, they had eight shot attempts for and nine against and four scoring chances for and five against in 12:27 of ice time, according to Natural Stat Trick. Not great, but not terrible.
On paper, the trio has some real potential and it's enough for Kane to feel like this could be a line that sticks going forward.
"I thought he played well," Kane said of Dach's debut. "Did some noticeable things where he's hanging onto the puck, big body, he's obviously still a young kid. Pretty raw, but for his first game against a really good team, one of the better teams in the league, I thought he was noticeable, had some good shifts. I think there's some chemistry to be built there. I think we can even be better. Better with him, myself and Strome, we can be better for him."
Dach said after morning skate that he wasn't sure where he was going to fit into the lineup. But he found out shortly after and spoke after the game about what it was like playing with Kane and Strome.
"It was pretty cool," Dach said. "Obviously grew up watching Kaner play and how successful he's been in his career and Stromer is coming into his own way and how good of a player he is. They made it easy to play with those guys. It was fun. I enjoyed playing with them."
The Blackhawks return to action on Tuesday against the Vegas Golden Knights, one of the top teams in the Western Conference, and expect the Strome-Dach-Kane line to get another crack together as they look to strengthen their on-ice rapport.
"I look at his game, he's pretty responsible," coach Jeremy Colliton said of Dach. "He doesn't look like a centerman who is going to struggle in his own end. He looks like he knows what he's doing down there. It's not going to be perfect, but there's the opportunity for him to get a lot better really quickly. We'll see how it plays out."