Atlanta Braves

Cole Hamels signs with Braves, forcing White Sox elsewhere for starting pitching

Cole Hamels signs with Braves, forcing White Sox elsewhere for starting pitching

So much for the idea of Cole Hamels bringing his veteran presence and championship experience to the South Side.

Not long after he discussed what he could provide the White Sox with Our Chuck Garfien on the White Sox Talk Podcast, Hamels agreed to a one-year deal with the Atlanta Braves, per ESPN's Jeff Passan.

Hamels ending up somewhere besides the White Sox is hardly a surprise, considering he said on the podcast that more than half the teams in baseball had reached out to express some level of interest. The White Sox were one of them, though, according to Hamels, they had some other priorities they were attempting to address before circling back to the veteran left-hander. That lines up with the team's early signing of Yasmani Grandal and their continued pursuit of Zack Wheeler, who's expected to make a decision on his future soon.

The White Sox are looking to add a pair of starting pitchers to their rotation this winter, and Hamels would have fit nicely as the second, a guy who could pitch in the middle or back end of the rotation while mentoring the young pitchers on the staff and bringing winning experience as the 2008 World Series MVP. Hamels raved in his interview on the podcast about teams like the White Sox, who have a group of young players revving up for a leap into contention mode, saying "those are the teams you want to go jump on board with."

But Hamels is now jumping on board with a very good, young Braves team, meaning the White Sox will need to look elsewhere for starting-pitching assistance. They're reportedly willing to pay big bucks for Wheeler, who's forecasted to receive a five-year deal worth more than $100 million. But there is competition there, too, perhaps most strongly from the Philadelphia Phillies, who were reported to be the top bidders Wednesday morning. The White Sox haven't been nearly as tied to the names at the tippy top of the starting-pitching market: Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg and Madison Bumgarner.

Other free-agent starters include Hyun-Jin Ryu, who just turned in a fantastic season with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Dallas Keuchel, who has the same kind of winning experience as Hamels from his days as a world-champion Houston Astro. But the market does thin a bit after that, with names like Michael Pineda and Tanner Roark the next most attractive. If the White Sox are indeed looking for someone to pair with Lucas Giolito at the top of their rotation, the number of free-agent options is hardly limitless.

That fact puts more pressure on their pursuit of Wheeler than it does make losing out on Hamels look costly, but for a team in search of starting-pitching improvements, the number of them out there is decreasing as this offseason is shaping up to be busier than those in the recent past.

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Cole Hamels signs one-year deal with Braves


Cole Hamels signs one-year deal with Braves

It didn’t seem like Cole Hamels was likely to return to the Cubs considering they didn’t tender him a qualifying offer, but it is now reality that Hamels is leaving the North Side.

ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported that Hamels has agreed to a one-year, $18 million deal with the Braves. The deal has since become official.

The qualifying offer he would have received from the Cubs would have been $17.8 million, just under what he ended up getting from the Braves.

This now leaves the Cubs with a question as to who will be the team’s fifth starter next season. Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester, and José Quintana are under contract and figure to lock in the top four rotation spots. Tyler Chatwood, Adbert Alzolay and Alec Mills all figure to be candidates for that spot.

Hamels turns 36 two days after Christmas and an oblique injury limited him in the second half of last season. He had a 2.98 ERA before the All-Star break and a 5.79 ERA in 42 innings after it.

Hamels was a big part of the Cubs’ push in 2018 when he had a 2.36 ERA in 12 starts after arriving from Texas just before the trade deadline.

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Jason Heyward getting back to 'who he's supposed to be' in Cubs lineup

Jason Heyward getting back to 'who he's supposed to be' in Cubs lineup

This is the Jason Heyward the Cubs thought they were getting when they signed him to an eight-year deal in December 2015.

Back then, the Cubs believed Heyward had more power to tap into from his 6-foot-5, 240-pound, linebacker-esque frame. 

It didn't play out that way initially, with Heyward hitting only 26 homers to go along with a .367 slugging percentage and .688 OPS in his first three seasons in a Cubs uniform.

But all that has changed this year.

Heyward is on pace for 26 homers in 2019 — which would equal that three-year total — and his 71 RBI pace would be his highest since 2012, when he drove in 82 runs.

The 29-year-old hit his 15th homer of the season Sunday and it marks the first time he's eclipsed the 15-homer threshold since that same 2012 season, when he hit 27 dingers as a 22-year-old with the Atlanta Braves.

The power is the area that jumps off the page right now about the new and improved Heyward, but that carries with it a grain of salt that must be taken with everybody's longball total in the game right now. But his walk rate (11.6 percent) is the second-best mark of his career to only his rookie season in 2010. He's also pulling the ball less than he ever has and utilizing the middle of the field more while his hard and soft contact rates are far and away better than they've ever been in a Cubs uniform. 

All told, this is not the same hitter Cubs fans saw in the first three years of Heyward's megadeal.

"He's set up a little bit differently," Joe Maddon said. "Right now, his confidence is soaring. That ball was properly struck [Sunday afternoon] and he's been doing that often — even his basehits.

"... He's set up a little bit differently, but honestly, I think it's a confidence thing right now. He's feeling so good about himself. He's on the barrel more. I mean that's obvious. You don't see the ball off the weaker part of the bat nearly as often as we've seen in the past. I think that's the primary difference — the ball's off the barrel. 

"His hands are really alive. I love that the ball's still line to line, but the power is still showing up. I think that's exactly who he's supposed to be."

Sunday's homer was the game-winning hit for the Cubs and Heyward put his team in front once again Monday night with an RBI groundout to plate Kris Bryant in the fourth inning before a bullpen/defensive meltdown in the seventh inning. Oh yeah, and he got the game-winning knock in the bottom of the eighth inning Friday immediately after the Cubs gave the lead right back to the Pirates in the pivotal first game coming out of the All-Star Break.

He's been a difference-maker in this Cubs lineup all year, even as they search for more consistency and steady production. 

Heyward has gone from a guy who was on the bench in some of the most important games in the 2016-17 postseason because of his offensive issues to an integral part of this team's run production.

He's shown flashes of this in the past, including a month or so in the early part of last summer where he got really hot. But this has been sustained offensive production. In every month but May (when he batted .186 with a .618 OPS), Heyward has hit over .300 with an OPS well above league average, including a .968 mark in June and .992 in April.

But right now, he's not getting into all that. He's just trying to ride the wave of a long season.

"I don't try to break it down at all, honestly," Heyward said. "Just keep it simple and just stay in tune to what I got going on — first at-bat or whatever. It is kinda simple when you just look at it — not dwell on the negative, don't get too deep on that. 'Cause you're gonna fail. Just kinda choose how you want that to happen and make the best."