Drew Smyly

Considering Cubs' budget crunch, was picking up Cole Hamels' option the right move?

Considering Cubs' budget crunch, was picking up Cole Hamels' option the right move?

Did the Cubs make the right call in picking up Cole Hamels' $20 million option?

That question was a no-brainer in the first few days of November — an easy call to pencil Hamels into the Cubs rotation for 2019 even if it meant trading away Drew Smyly and his $7 million contract to the Texas Rangers.

But here on Jan. 8, it's at least a fair question and the answer isn't so automatic, as we discussed on Hot Stove Tuesday.

Mind you, the result is still the same. The Cubs have Hamels under contract for 2019 and his $20 million salary is part of why Theo Epstein's front office doesn't have much wiggle room to add to the roster.

Epstein and Co. have pointed to payroll issues all winter (the Smyly move to clear some salary for Hamels was a clear indicator), but those woes seem to have hit a crescendo this week as The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal reported the Cubs couldn't even sign a second-market relief pitcher like Adam Warren without first clearing salary.

[Explaining Cubs budget woes: Why Theo Epstein's front office is limited this winter

Those are some serious financial restraints, though it's understandable. With a payroll projected to surpass $228 million, the Cubs will pay far more to their roster in 2019 than they have at any other point in franchise history.

But that is not a lot of financial flexibility for Epstein to add necessary pieces. Warren made just $3.3 million in his final year of arbitration in 2018 and would probably fetch a bit more than that on the open market.

If that's true and Epstein's front office is restricted that much, there's one definite conclusion to be drawn from the Hamels decision: The Cubs clearly felt they absolutely needed the veteran starting pitcher. 

Either the budgetary restraints have changed since the Cubs picked up Hamels' option on Nov. 2 (Epstein and Jed Hoyer maintained throughout the MLB Winter Meetings the budget has not changed) or the Cubs felt Hamels was more valuable to the 2019 team than using that money elsewhere to address the other holes on the roster (bullpen, veteran backup catcher, another bat, etc.).

It's tough to argue that point. Bringing Hamels back really was a no-brainer at the time, especially given how he performed in 12 starts down the stretch (2.36 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 8.7 K/9). Sure, he's 35 and has shown signs of decline in the past, but he was obviously rejuvenated in a Cubs uniform and increased health/mechanics support the boost in numbers over the last two months of 2018.

The Cubs also have serious question marks in their starting rotation beyond maybe only Kyle Hendricks. Jon Lester is 35 and showing some minor signs of decline, Jose Quintana had a bit of a disappointing 2018 despite a strong finish and of course Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood are far from reliable options after the way their first season in Chicago played out. Imagine the tenor of fans this winter if the Cubs were planning on cruising into next year with Chatwood as a projected member of the rotation.

There's a strong argument that the reliability Hamels brings is well worth the $20 million and financial constraints the Cubs now face. 

It's much easier to find a reliable member of the bullpen than a solid starting pitcher with the upside of Hamels. Relievers can pop up from all over the place, as Jesse Chavez proved in 2018.

To play devil's advocate, if the Cubs are as limited financially as they are saying, they could've done a whole hell of a lot with that extra $13 million in savings from not picking up Hamels' option and keeping Smyly instead. (Though that obviously is not enough money to turn around and add Bryce Harper just because Hamels is off the books.)

Smyly missed all of 2018 to Tommy John recovery and $7 million ($5 million hit against the luxury tax) would've been a lot to pay for an unreliable option like that, but he showed signs of health in September and would've represented an option in either the rotation or bullpen.

That would then leave $13 million (or close to it) to fill in other gaps on the roster, namely in the bullpen while also potentially adding a veteran backup catcher and more depth for the starting rotation alongside Smyly, Chatwood and Mike Montgomery.

The offseason is far from over (pitchers and catchers don't report for another 5+ weeks) but as it stands right now, the Cubs bullpen appears in worse shape than it was heading into 2018 spring training. They will be without closer Brandon Morrow for at least the first couple weeks of 2019 due to surgery to clean up his elbow after a bone bruise erased his entire second half.

There's a valid case to be made on either side of the Hamels decision, but the Cubs drew their line in the sand months ago and will have to add to the roster in other ways.

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Cubs trade away Drew Smyly to clear room for Cole Hamels

Cubs trade away Drew Smyly to clear room for Cole Hamels

Theo Epstein has pulled off another bank shot.

The Cubs president executed a two-part roster move Friday morning, dealing pitcher Drew Smyly to the Texas Rangers and subsequently picking up Cole Hamels' $20 million option. It's a series of deals reminiscent of when Epstein's front office traded away Starlin Castro to clear room for veteran free agent Ben Zobrist ahead of the 2016 season.

Jerry Crasnick first reported the Smyly/Hamels deals:

The Cubs had until Friday afternoon to exercise their 2019 option on Hamels, who turns 35 in December.

The veteran southpaw was a breath of fresh air for this Cubs rotation in the final two months of 2018, going 4-3 with a 2.36 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 8.7 K/9 in 12 starts.

The Cubs acquired Hamels from the Rangers and now send Smyly to Texas in a separate - but related - trade.

Smyly signed a two-year deal with the Cubs worth $10 million during last year's MLB Winter Meetings, but he was unable to pitch at all in 2018 due to his recovery from Tommy John surgery. He will depart Chicago having never thrown a single pitch for the Cubs.

Smyly is still owed $7 million and had a $5 million hit against the luxury tax, so dealing him away frees up some money for the Cubs ahead of a huge offseason of free agents.

Still, it's an interesting move from the Cubs' perspective as they essentially paid Smyly $3 million just to rehab in 2018. Epstein also often says there's no such thing as "too much pitching" and the Cubs could've found a spot for Smyly in 2019 either as rotation insurance or a part of the bullpen, where the only current left-handed relief options are Brian Duensing and Randy Rosario. Smyly has made 71 appearances as a reliever in his career, going 7-0 with a 2.47 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and 9.7 K/9 across 87.1 innings.

As part of the original trade, the Rangers were on track to pay Hamels' $6 million buyout if the Cubs did not pick up his option, so from their perspective, they essentially pay a similar amount ($7 million) and yet now get a pitcher (Smyly) out of the deal.

Hamels' return helps bring the Cubs' 2019 pitching staff into focus as he will join Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Yu Darvish and Jose Quintana in the rotation.

The Cubs still need to figure out what they will do with Tyler Chatwood and Mike Montgomery next season, but those two guys provide rotation depth heading into the new season and Montgomery can always fold back into his swingman role in the bullpen if he's willing to go down that road again.

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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."