When the Chicago Cubs made a trade deadline deal for Cole Hamels in 2018 it was considered, by most, to be nothing more than a minor move of little consequence. Fast forward to the end of 2018 and Hamels had found himself again and become the best pitcher on the Cubs and one of the best pitchers in the National League.
Position: Starting Pitcher
2018 Stats: In 12 games with the Cubs Hamels had an ERA of 2.36, a WHIP of 1.10, a DRA of 3.46, a DRA- of 77.4, and a WARP of 1.6.
Year in Review: How did Hamels go from lukewarm deadline acquisition to a guy the Cubs counted on for dominance every time he toed the rubber down the stretch? He trusted in his changeup again, and his fastball found a couple more miles per hour. With the Texas Rangers, Hamels had regressed to a middle of the pack pitcher. His fastball velocity was down, but his changeup was relatively the same. This shortened the miles per hour gap between the two, and hitters were able to see his formerly world-class changeup a lot better. The result of this was Hamels throwing fewer changeups and relying more on his other secondary pitches. But, without his fastball being a plus pitch his secondary pitches had nothing to work off of and they were far easier pickings for Major League Baseball caliber hitters.
In his short season with the Cubs Hamels immediately started throwing his fastball, well, faster. I’m not entirely sure if it was a mechanical adjustment, deciding his body was old and would explode someday anyways so he just let it all go on every pitch, or if he felt rejuvenated being back in a playoff race again. Whatever the reason may be, Hamels added a good 2 miles per hour on his fastball in Chicago. With his fastball back to sitting at 94mph, and his changeup still at 85mph, Hamels had deception in his arsenal again. His changeup returned to being an out pitch that hitters struggled to make contact with.
In those 12 games with the North Side club, Hamels became a fan favorite, and he did so by keeping the Cubs in all but one of the games he pitched. Fans felt confident when Hamels took the mound, and so did the team. It’s not something that can be measured, but Hamels taking the ball added leadership in a way I think the Cubs front office hadn’t expected. When Hamels made an appearance in the Wild Card game it was a completely different feeling from his first appearance post-trade. The old Cole Hamels was back, and you just knew that he would find a way to get the job done. That sort of intangible feeling can’t be dismissed from a team that too often last year didn’t have that hard edge to them.
Looking Ahead: Heading into 2019 Hamels is a free agent with a club option of $20 million on the table. That option also features a $6 million buyout. It’s an option that places the Cubs front office in a bit of a bind. To be fair it’s not the money that is vexing, because though the Cubs may be wont to admit it, they have more than enough money to spend, spend, spend this offseason and not bat an eye. What makes Hamels’ option a tricky one are other factors, such as his age, the current free agent market, and existing contracts on the club.
Hamels will be 35 the first time he throws a pitch in 2019. For a pitcher who has logged a lot of innings that is quite old. Sure, Hamels showed that he could turn regression around in 2018, but can he keep doing that as the pitches continue to add up? There’s also the idea that when it comes down to it do you want one more year of Hamels or multiple years of a Patrick Corbin or Nathan Eovaldi? They are free agents who are much younger and appears to be trending upward in great ways. Then there’s Tyler Chatwood, he’s a starting pitcher already on the 40-man roster who is owed money by the Cubs for the next couple of years. Were the Cubs to re-sign Hamels they would have to figure out a new role for Chatwood, trade him if they could find a willing partner, or possibly DFA him and eat his contract.
The best route with Hamels; avoid the option side altogether and sign him to a new multi-year deal. I don’t believe Hamels will be asking for more than three years in any contract negotiations. I also believe Hamels wants to spend his last few years with a contender, and he knows he will get to do that if he signs a new deal with the Cubs. That gives you the flexibility to jettison Chatwood in some way and would take Hamels until about the age where he’s likely to have declined past the point of no return. It’s a risky move, there’s no doubt about that. But, based on his 2018 performance, I see no reason why the Cubs shouldn’t try to solidify the backend of their rotation before free agency even truly begins, and they can do that by signing Cole Hamels to a new contract.
Lead photo courtesy Patrick Gorski—USA Today Sports