Jason Hammel’s 2016 season has had its ups and downs — more downs, lately, than ups — but on the whole it hasn’t been helped by the fact that he’s been part of what has been a historically good starting rotation. Hammel currently ranks 40th in ERA (minimum 100.0 IP) for starting pitchers across all of baseball, which is certainly not bad, and his peripheral stats line up decently as well, as his FIP and DRA both rank between 80th and 90th leaguewide. He has performed, in short, in a way usually associated with a number three starter. He could certainly fill the role admirably on most major league teams.
As you know, Hammel does not play for “most” major-league teams. He pitches for a team that has three aces on its staff, and likely the best number four starter in the game. This means he will almost certainly be left off of the postseason roster—as he probably should be—despite the fact that he would be the second or third best starter on other playoff-contending teams, such as the Orioles. This is both totally fair to Hammel with respect to his place on the Cubs, and completely unfair as a reflection of his talents compared to the major-league landscape. Such is the life of a professional athlete. Give everything you have for a long season while achieving appreciable results, only to face the possibility of not being on the field to celebrate with your teammates as they make history. Should the playoff roster be constructed as we expect, it will not be a pleasant news for Joe Maddon to have to break to Hammel.
Now, win or lose, on or off the roster, life will go on for everyone. The Cubs have each of Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and John Lackey under contract for next season, meaning only their fifth rotation spot holds any mystery. For Hammel, this opens up the possibility that even though he will probably be left off the postseason roster, he may have to show right back up to Mesa next season to prepare for another regular season grind.
After being traded from the Cubs to the Oakland A’s in the blockbuster trade that included Jeff Samardzija and Addison Russell, Hammel returned to the Cubs as a free agent after the season. It was the type of idyllic post-trade signing by the trading team that is often discussed, but rarely plays out in actuality. His contract was initially reported as two years and $20 million total, a figure considered reasonable by most. Hammel has provided excellent value over the course of those two season’s, delivering 3.6 total WARP to this point. At about $5.55 million per win, the Cubs secured solid value, considering the perils of the free agent starting pitching market. In a vacuum, Hammel has to be relatively pleased with the way this part of the contract has played out as well, as he has managed to improve upon his value as a player, while also getting the opportunity to contribute to great teams.
Of course, no story is without its caveats, and this one is no exception. The contract wasn’t just for two years and $20 million, it was actually two years at $9 million per year, with a $2 million dollar buyout. That buyout was necessary because of a team option for a third season at $10 million. The option became mutual if Hammel reached the 200 innings pitched plateau this year, or if the Cubs traded him any time during the contract. Despite his durability and dependability this season, Hammel will fall short of the plateau, meaning the 2017 option rests solely in the hands of the Cubs.
The starting pitching market this offseason is absolutely awful; Hammel would be near the top of the heap had he been able to opt out of the option. Instead, he finds himself left with the distinct possibility of being called into Maddon’s office for a sobering conversation, only to then have his option exercised requiring a return to the team next year. The Cubs will almost certainly do just that, considering the value and lack of options in the free agent market. He will be asked to show up and compete just as before, with the likely result being that he is the Cubs’ fifth starter, yet again. It will be a testament to Hammel’s character if he can maintain professionalism and performance in the face of such an unfortunate circumstance.
It’s completely fair for the Cubs to do what’s best for the team. What’s best for them is to take their best roster to the playoffs; that’s probably one that doesn’t include Jason Hammel. It’s also completely fair for them to exercise their contractual right to bring him back next year to contribute once again. There isn’t any shame in any decisions they will make. It is, however, terribly unfortunate for a guy to equitably contribute at a high level all season, just to be told he doesn’t get to participate when it matters most. It’s equally unfortunate to be one of the 60 or 70 best in the world at what you do, but be told you’re not good enough. Such is life for Jason Hammel these days.
Lead photo courtesy Benny Sieu—USA Today Sports.