Jon Lester

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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State of the Cubs: Starting rotation

State of the Cubs: Starting rotation

As the Cubs maneuver through a pivotal offseason, we will break down the current state of the team each week by sectioning it off into position groups. Here is the first installment on the starting rotation.

Hot Stove season is heating up, but don't expect the Cubs to be linked to a bunch of starting pitchers.

That's because the rotation is really the only position group that is close to a finished product at the moment. 

When Theo Epstein's front office decided to pick up Cole Hamels' $20 million option for 2019, they also sent a message about how they feel about this rotation moving forward. Drew Smyly was dealt to the Texas Rangers to shed his $7 million salary for 2019 and create room for Hamels, who became a clear fit for this rotation with his contributions both on and off the field down the stretch last year.

In the minds of a large part of the fanbase, Hamels may have etched his spot in the 2019 rotation when he scoffed at the idea that the Brewers were even a rival of the Cubs

Still, the Cubs weren't expecting to shell out so much money to this rotation in the short-term, as Hamels, Jon Lester and Yu Darvish are all set to make more than $20 million next season. The team also picked up Jose Quintana's $10.5 million option and Kyle Hendricks is slated to make about $8 million in arbitration in 2019.

Throw in the $12.5 million the Cubs are paying Tyler Chatwood despite a lack of a clear role for the embattled right-hander and it's easy to see why the organization is not looking to spend a bunch more money to add depth beyond the Top 5 guys.

"The areas we're looking to address are our position group and the bullpen," Epstein said at the GM Meetings last week. "We're looking at a little starting depth here and there when we can, but right now, I think our rotation is a strength."

Here's how the 2019 rotation looks at the moment:

Depth chart

1. Jon Lester
2. Kyle Hendricks
3. Cole Hamels
4. Yu Darvish
5. Jose Quintana
6. Mike Montgomery
7. Tyler Chatwood

Assuming the Top 5 guys make it through spring training healthy, that will likely be how the Cubs line up their rotation in order. Hendricks and Darvish would ensure the Cubs aren't throwing out back-to-back-to-back lefties often like they were in the final couple months of 2018.

On paper, this looks like it could be one of the best rotations in baseball, but clearly we've said that before — even as recently as February after Darvish signed — and it hasn't played out that way.

But Darvish's first year in Chicago was a total disaster, bogged down by injury (triceps and elbow) and ineffectiveness (4.95 ERA, 1.43 WHIP). He will head into 2019 as maybe the biggest X-factor on the roster — a guy capable of pitching like an ace but he has fallen on rough times since the start of the 2017 World Series. The Cubs still have more than $100 million committed to Darvish over the next five years, so getting him right ranks way up there in terms of importance for a team aiming to take home another ring.

Hendricks got off to a slow start, but he continues to show that he has emerged as a co-ace of this pitching staff thanks to an 8-3 record, 2.84 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in 88.2 innings after the All-Star Break. 

Quintana had an up-and-down 2018, but dealt with some shoulder issues around the All-Star Break and posted a 2.92 ERA with 48 Ks in 49.1 innings over the last month-and-a-half of the season. He's under team control for the next two years at only $22 million (if his 2020 option is picked up by the Cubs), which is a relative steal for a team with serious money issues in the short-term.

Lester and Hamels will both be pitching in their age-35 seasons, but they've proven they still have what it takes to get outs — Lester with some lesser stuff than in years past and Hamels has a wide array of pitches he can utilize to keep hitters off balance while still touching 95 mph on the gun.

Montgomery represents quality depth for this team if injury strikes and wound up making 19 starts last year — posting a 3.69 ERA in the rotation.

Chatwood is the ultimate wild-card in that he's still under 30 (he turns 29 next month) and has never had control issues anywhere near his 2018 struggles, so it's reasonable to expect he still has the potential to turn things around. But will it be too little, too late? Can the Cubs find a trade partner for Chatwood if they're willing to eat some of the remaining $25.5 million on his contract? 

What's next?

Epstein and Jed Hoyer constantly talk about the need to go 9-10 arms deep in the rotation because they know a lack of quality starting pitching is the quickest way to flush a season down the toilet. 

Beyond those seven options above, the Cubs still have some rotation depth waiting in the wings.

Alec Mills impressed in his late-season audition with the clubs, flashing strikeout stuff and turning heads with his composure and versatility to pitch both out of the bullpen and in the rotation (which is good because he's out of options). 

The Cubs are really high on top prospect Adbert Alzolay and they believe he can be a major part of their future rotations, but he's still only 23 and coming off an injury-riddled season. He figures to have major restrictions on his workload next year even if he shows enough development to make it to the majors at some point in 2019.

Duane Underwood Jr. made his MLB debut in a solid 4-inning showing in LA in 2018 and it seems like he's been around forever, but is still only 24 after spending the last seven years in the Cubs system. 

Jen-Ho Tseng has been a spot starter over the past couple seasons and 23-year-old Trevor Clifton figures to be added to the big-league roster this winter now that he's Rule-5 eligible. But those guys are probably only emergency options in the short term.

It wouldn't be a surprise to see the Cubs take a few fliers on veterans on minor-league deals — similar to how the Brewers signed Wade Miley in February and watched the southpaw emerge as a major piece of their rotation.

The bottom line

The rotation was supposed to be the strength of the Cubs in 2018 and after four months of nothing but flashes of greatness, they finally hit their stride in the final third of the season once Hamels joined the rotation. Now there's the potential to be even better from Day 1, especially if Darvish can actually return to the pitcher he was before the start of the 2017 World Series. 

It has to be a comforting feeling to Epstein and Co. to know they pretty much are set with their rotation for next season even before Thanksgiving hits, allowing the front office to turn their attention to more pressing needs like the bullpen and trying to fix an underperforming lineup.

How Jon Lester continues to fight off age to become a 'metronome' for Cubs rotation

How Jon Lester continues to fight off age to become a 'metronome' for Cubs rotation

It's not every day you hear the word "metronome" to describe a baseball player.

But Jon Lester isn't your average baseball player.

He still has two years and almost $50 million left on the megadeal he signed before the 2015 season, but Lester has shown no signs of slowing down...even if he technically IS slowing down.

The 34-year-old saw a dip in his velocity to career lows in 2018 (91 mph average fastball, 90.2 mph average sinker) and that led to his lowest K/9 (7.4) since his 2012 season in Boston (7.3 K/9). 

That didn't stop Lester from once again looking like the Cubs' ace, leading the league in wins (18) and turning in a 3.32 ERA while making at least 30 starts for the 11th straight season. 

The Cubs only played one playoff game in a season that fell short of everybody's expectations, but Lester can't shoulder any of that blame — especially after yet another gutsy performance in that one-game Wild-Card against the Rockies at Wrigley Field on Oct. 2.

Lester walked the first batter of that game (Charlie Blackmon) who came around to score two hitters later and Cubs fans were biting their nails less than 10 minutes into the game. 

But from there, Lester did what he does best — adjust and put his team in a position to win the ballgame.

With that outing, Lester's postseason resume improved to the tune of a 2.51 ERA and 1.019 WHIP over 154 innings.

"Extremely impressive," Cubs president Theo Epstein said the day after Lester's six strong innings. "He's like a metronome with his ability to take the ball, make just about every start and find a way to contribute to winning baseball and in the postseason. I mean, it's hard to live up to that postseason reputation time and time again. You go out there, you make a couple bad starts in October and that reputation's gone. But he lives up to it just about every time in a Cubs uniform.

"That was such an impressive performance, fighting a lot of little small things that could've gone against him and a little bit of a tough first inning and he just found a way to adjust and get better. That was a huge performance for this team. We find a way to walk off one of those four innings that we had an opportunity to do so, that's a performance that goes down in Cubs lore.

"It's really unfortunate it wasn't able to happen. But man, proud of him, proud of how he's handling aging...don't tell him I said that."

Epstein's wisecrack drew laughs from the Chicago media, but his point still holds weight — Lester has handled aging remarkably well up to this point.

Outside of one month in 2015, Lester was fantastic in his first two years with the Cubs but the haters and worrywarts were out in full force in 2017, all but writing the retirement speech for the veteran southpaw after he went 13-8 with a 4.33 ERA and 1.32 WHIP, his worst marks since 2012. 

Even when Lester got out to a red-hot start to the 2018 campaign (12-2, 2.58 ERA) and earned a spot on the NL All-Star team, everybody was screaming for the Regression Monster to hit

Sure, we saw some regression in the second half (6-4, 4.50 ERA), but he also posted a 1.52 ERA in September.

How does he keep finding success as the years and innings pile up? 

By reinventing himself.

For Lester, it's not about advanced stats or Analytics with a capital "A" but more about finding ways to simply get outs and limit the damage. He knows he's pitching to a lot more contact now than he was even a couple years ago and with all those balls in play sometimes comes bad luck on bloopers or ground balls past the shift.

Earlier this year, Lester was asked if he believes he is a different pitcher now than he was in 2016:

"Very different," he said. "I'm relying a lot more on my defense. In '16, I had a lot better stuff — consistently better stuff. I've had starts this year where I've felt really good physically and been able to repeate and do the things that I've done in the past. Obviously, I've thrown a lot of baseballs. There's just some wear and tear there. I'm not gonna be the same pitcher I was even last year or two years ago.

"We're making adjustments. We're figuring out new ways to get guys out and I know people are making a big deal about how hard balls are hit or whatever, but an out's an out. I really don't care. ... I'm just trying to get outs. I'm trying to go as deep into games as I can and take the ball every five days. That's all I'm really concerned about."

That's exactly the type of mindset and professionalism that helped transform the Cubs clubhouse into a consistent winner.

With the World Series now over, the 2019 MLB season has become the focal point and 2018 is nothing but a chapter in a history book now.

And moving forward, bet against Lester and the Cubs at your own risk. 

"The bonding that goes on in [the clubhouse] is a little bit different than anywhere else," Lester said less than an hour after the Cubs were eliminated from the postseason. "You got guys in here that are unique. I feel like this is my family. You see a lot of emotion here and I don't think anybody's moving on from this.

"...You have guys that give a shit and really care about us winning, regardless of their stats, regardless of anything else. That's what makes us a unique group. Obviously it didn't work out tonight. That happens. I don't think we beat ourselves — they beat us and sometimes that happens.

"I love our guys. I love our competitiveness. I love our grind. I love everything that these guys do, what they bring. There's not a group of guys that I would take into another one-game playoff tomorrow than this group. And I would like to think we would win it."