On Sunday afternoon, Theo Epstein released a statement explaining that the Cubs had bought out Jason Hammel’s 10 million dollar option for next year. The statement, in full, is copied in the tweet below:
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) November 6, 2016
This is an unexpected move, and one that says a lot about how the Cubs intend to attack this offseason. Hammel did not crack their postseason roster, but, as the statement says, was an integral part of the franchise’s success over the last three years. After an excellent first half in 2014, he was traded as part of the deal that brought Addison Russell to Chicago. He opted to return in 2015, signing a three-year, $30 million deal that has now become a two-year, $20 million deal. In that time, he put up a 3.79 ERA in 337.1 innings of work, striking out 8.43 batters per nine innings and walking just 2.48 per nine. He was a solid starter, a pitcher that would give you a chance every night, and, by all accounts, a good teammate. The $10 million looked like a bargain for what they were getting.
But, still, there are some marks against Hammel’s utility. As we’ve covered several times before, he appeared to repeatedly run out of gas down the stretch, and this pattern has not been something he’s been able to shake. In 2015, he put up a 5.10 ERA and this year he put up a 4.35 ERA in the second half. The Cubs still happily accepted his aggregate results, but there certainly is some marginal lost value if a pitcher isn’t able to perform in the highest leverage time of year. Jason Hammel didn’t make the playoff roster because the Cubs have four other very good starting pitchers, but also because of his own struggles.
There are also questions surrounding his long-term ability. Hammel’s results were undeniably good over the last two years, but his peripherals were often less so. He put up a DRA (Deserved Run Average) of 4.15 in 2015, and of 4.97 in 2016. For this reason, his WARP only added up to 2.6 wins over the last two years. In a vacuum, this is probably still worth the contract, but it begins to look like less of a bargain. Hammel’s cFIP this year was 110, which means that he is expected to be 10 percent worse than a league-average pitcher going forward. BP’s most updated and modern stats expect him to be a 34-year-old backend starter next year.
Still, in this extremely thin free agent market, this is still worth something, and potentially quite a lot. Most teams need six or seven capable starters to get them through the regular season, and Hammel has proven that he is that. But, in reading Epstein’s statement, there is yet another underlying reason for the Cubs to cut Hammel loose, and that is opportunity cost.
“Our hope is that by giving a starting opportunity to some younger pitchers under multiple years of club control, we can unearth a starter who will help us not only in 2017 but also in 2018 and beyond.”
This, I think, is the key reasoning behind this move. While the Cubs have had historically great success in developing young hitting, they still have failed to consistently produce young, controllable starting pitching. Kyle Hendricks is the only evidence to the contrary. The success of their offense has allowed them to go out and spend their money on Jon Lester and John Lackey, but, in the next few years, starting pitcher of this caliber just aren’t going to be on the market at any sort of reasonable price. This means that the Cubs will either have to 1) trade for it, which is also expensive, or 2) double down on developing it. The Hammel move appears to be a first step in the development of young pitching.
The Cubs had already indicated that they would give Mike Montgomery a chance to start next year, but until now, it wasn’t clear exactly how they would do so. It was largely assumed that Montgomery and Hammel would compete for a spot and the other would provide depth, but, if Montgomery ended up being better, it wasn’t clear what the role for Hammel would be. This also opens the door for young players like Rob Zastryzny or even, maybe, Carl Edwards Jr. to be stretched out and given opportunities for further development. It’s hard to develop young, controllable pitching if you have five entrenched, veteran starters. And this is what the Cubs’ front office is thinking.
This move will not help the Cubs’ depth in 2017, but it gives them the chance to find the players that might be able to contribute for the next decade. Hammel is now poised to get a big payday in free agency, and the Cubs are now positioning themselves to begin pursuing in earnest that dynasty that everyone has been talking about.
Lead photo courtesy Jeff Curry—USA Today Sports