Inside Jason Hammel’s free-agent odyssey from Cubs to Royals

Inside Jason Hammel’s free-agent odyssey from Cubs to Royals

SURPRISE, Ariz. – Amid the whirlwind of the Cubs winning their first World Series title in 108 years, a Grant Park rally that may or may not have been one of the biggest gatherings in history and those championship parties, team president Theo Epstein met with pitcher Jason Hammel in his Southport Corridor home. 

A $10 billion industry doesn’t stop. Epstein and Hammel are essentially neighbors with young kids around the same age. Both sides had to separate personal feelings and make calculated decisions. Two days after the parade down Lake Shore Drive and Michigan Avenue, the Cubs issued a press release saying they had declined Hammel’s 2017 option, paying a $2 million buyout rather than commit $12 million to a fifth starter.

The assumption: Hammel would cash in as a 15-game winner in an extremely weak market for starting pitchers. The reality…

“I’ve learned that free agency pretty much sucks if you’re not one of the top two at every position,” Hammel said. “It’s really tough. The game is definitely changing in the way teams (are) going young.

“Unless you’re one of the top names, it might be a tough ride and you’re going to have to wait it out.”

Standing in front of his locker at Surprise Stadium on Wednesday morning, Hammel made it clear that he’s happy how it worked out in the end with the 2015 World Series champs. But it took cutting ties with his longtime agency, Octagon, and switching to ACES, going through another round of medical examinations to prove he’s healthy and the Kansas City Royals needing another pitcher after Yordano Ventura died in a car crash in the Dominican Republic.

The Royals didn’t finalize Hammel’s two-year, $16 million deal until Feb. 8, a long, stressful wait that didn’t match up with some of the initial spin that the Cubs did him a favor (when they could have picked up the option and tried to trade him).

“I love how people were saying it was a choice, because it really wasn’t,” Hammel said. “It was either basically pitch out of the bullpen or not have a job. Because of the way the rotation was planning out, they said they had to get younger. And then you bring in Montgomery, who was a starter all through the minors. My take was they were probably trying to see what they had in Mike.  

“I wanted to stay a Cub. But at this stage of my career, I’m not ready to pitch out of the bullpen.”

Still, Hammel “felt like it was going to be a good situation,” underestimating the impact of not making his last start in the regular season (right elbow tightness) and getting left off the roster in all three playoff rounds. 

“For whatever reason, people thought I was hurt,” Hammel said. “Looking at it with 20/20 hindsight, you can see exactly how it could all add up to me maybe being hurt.”

The read here is that Hammel also had to deal with perception issues – given his second-half fades and the way manager Joe Maddon repeatedly pulled him early from games. The Cubs are auditioning pitchers in the Cactus League – Eddie Butler threw two innings during a 7-3 win over the Royals – and hoping to find some answers for 2018 and beyond.

“I felt like the body of work spoke for itself,” Hammel said. “I do understand with that rotation – Jake (Arrieta’s) a free agent next year and (John) Lackey’s contract is up – if they (bring me back but) don’t extend me, they lose three out of their five starters.

“It might be a tough place to fill in-house. I know they got plenty of capable arms in the minors, but to continue on with what they’ve built for five years, you think you’d want to make some type of investment there.

“I felt like I had proven myself over and over and over again for three years there. It is what it is. It’s the business side of baseball. And I’m very happy that I’m over here with these guys.”

After getting flipped to the Oakland A’s as part of the Jeff Samardzija/Addison Russell trade on the Fourth of July 2014, Hammel actually took a discount to return to the Cubs, accepting two years and $20 million guaranteed. A strong pitching infrastructure supported Hammel (32-22, 3.59 ERA as a Cub) while a sturdy, reliable rotation helped a young, emerging team win 200 games across the last two seasons.

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“I loved my time as a Cub,” said Hammel, who’s keeping that house in Lakeview. “Who knows? Maybe I finish out there in the bullpen at the end (of my career). I don’t hold grudges. I’m certainly not going to burn a bridge.

“We won the World Series. And now I get to go try and do it with another team that’s very capable of doing it.”   

From ‘When It Happens’ to ‘Where It Happens,’ Cubs mining next generation of talent

From ‘When It Happens’ to ‘Where It Happens,’ Cubs mining next generation of talent

MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs turned Theo Epstein’s “Baseball is Better” speech from his first Wrigley Field press conference into a marketing pitch that might distract fans for a moment from an awful big-league product.          

The 2017 “That’s Cub” ad campaign actually uses what started organically years ago within the farm system, two words that recognized a great at-bat or a heads-up play or a defensive stop.    

Business vs. baseball is no longer the dominant storyline it had been during the early phases of the Wrigleyvile rebuild. Business and baseball are booming for what’s become Major League Baseball’s version of the Golden State Warriors.

It’s just interesting that a franchise valued at north of $2 billion has found so much inspiration on the back fields of this spring-training complex, where staffers you wouldn’t recognize get to work before dawn and players you’ve never heard of dream about their big break.

It’s not just drafting Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber. And trading for Anthony Rizzo, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks and Addison Russell. And hiring a manager obsessed with T-shirts. Baseball operations became a marketing department, selling prospects to Cub fans, the Chicago media and the gurus putting together the rankings – and trying to get buy-in from players who all think they belong in The Show.

Minor-league field coordinator Tim Cossins gets credit for “When It Happens,” a theme that didn’t simply revolve around 1908 and the championship drought. Jason McLeod, the senior vice president who oversees scouting and player development, suggested pairing the W flag with that phrase, and it became this ubiquitous idea around the team.   

“We tied everything into it,” McLeod said Sunday at Sloan Park. “When that time comes, when it happens, can you lay the bunt down? When it happens, can you execute a pitch? Can you go in and pinch-run, steal the base when the time comes?

“The big ‘When It Happens’ is when we win, of course, but for us in (player development), it was about everything that we’re going to be asked to do in that moment: Are you going to be ready when it happens?”

Now what? The defending World Series champs are going with: “Where It Happens.”

A bullet point from Epstein’s bio in this year’s media guide references how his first three first-round draft picks with the Cubs “combined to set up the go-ahead run in the top of the 10th inning of Game 7 of the 2016 World Series when Schwarber singled and (Albert) Almora pinch-ran, moved to second on Bryant’s deep fly to center, and scored on Ben Zobrist’s double.”

“We’re never going to forget about the importance of young players,” Epstein said. “There’s definitely a lot of talented, interesting prospects still in the system and sometimes they get a little overshadowed because of the star young players we have at the big-league level and how quickly some of those guys moved through the system. But there’s a lot of talent there.

“We’re going to lean on young players beyond our prospects, not just in trades, but also to provide organizational depth and also to serve as the next generation, the next infusion of talent at the appropriate time.

“But it’s a process. There’s going to be a lot of ups and downs in development for all these guys. And we have a ton of faith in our player development operation to help these guys along the way.”

So Ian Happ will start the season one phone call away at Triple-A Iowa and see if some combination of injuries and his switch-hitting skills and defensive versatility gets him to the North Side at some point. Or used as a trade chip for pitching, the way third baseman Jeimer Candelario and catcher Victor Caratini appear to be blocked.

Joe Maddon already compared Eloy Jimenez – who can’t legally buy a beer in Wrigleyville yet – to a young Miguel Cabrera or Edgar Martinez. The Cubs are practically begging for someone like Eddie Butler to pitch his way into the 2018 rotation.

By Monday morning, when the full squad reconvenes after a weekend trip to Las Vegas, the Cubs could start making cuts and shaping their Opening Night roster. But the Cubs are going to need so much more than the 25 players who will be introduced next Sunday at Busch Stadium. Maddon used 26 pitchers and 149 different lineups last season. This is “Where It Happens.”

“If this particular group of youngsters were in a different organization that had a greater need right now, you’d probably hear a lot more about these guys,” Maddon said. “But the fact that they’re stuck behind a Bryant and a Russell and a Javy (Baez) and a Rizzo and a (Willson) Contreras and a Schwarber, et cetera, et cetera, it becomes more difficult to really push or project upon these guys.

“But I think these young guys have gone about their business really well. If it’s bothering them or if they’re concerned about that, they’re not showing that. I think they’ve put their best foot forward.”

Joe Maddon doesn’t have any concerns about new Cubs closer Wade Davis

Joe Maddon doesn’t have any concerns about new Cubs closer Wade Davis

MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs studied all the MRIs and analyzed every pitch Wade Davis threw last season, poring over the information on the All-Star closer. During the winter meetings, Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore even took the unusual step of allowing the Cubs to give Davis a physical exam.  

The Jorge Soler trade wouldn’t be announced until athletic trainer PJ Mainville met with Davis at his home in New York’s Hudson Valley. The Cubs got another read on the flexor strain in his right forearm that twice put Davis on the disabled list last season.

Davis now has a 19.64 ERA through five Cactus League appearances – and the complete confidence of a manager who isn’t connecting those dots.

“The injury’s really not an issue,” Joe Maddon said Sunday at the Sloan Park complex. “He feels really good right now. He kind of thought that whole thing was a little bit overblown last year, according to (what he told) me. Because even in talking to him in the offseason: ‘I’m fine. I’m good. I feel really good.’”

Maddon managed the Tampa Bay Rays while Davis broke into the big leagues as a starter and began the transition to reliever. Everything clicked in Kansas City’s bullpen, with Davis blowing away hitters and notching the last out of the 2015 World Series.

“I’m watching him,” Maddon said. “He’s throwing the ball really well easily. That’s what’s really encouraging to me. From the side, there’s no bumping and grinding and…” Maddon made a grunting noise to illustrate his point: “There’s none of that. It’s easy. I look up at the gun and I’m seeing 94, 95 and sometimes 96 (mph). It’s like: Wow, I have never seen him do that in camp.”

Across the last three seasons, Davis allowed three home runs while piling up 234 strikeouts in almost 183 innings. This spring, he has twice gotten only one out, like Saturday’s 29-pitch, four-run appearance against the Colorado Rockies. Overall in March, he’s given up eight earned runs, nine hits and five walks in 3.2 innings.  

“Honestly, I’ve known him long enough that it’s not” a concern, Maddon said. “You’re not going to believe this, but he’s actually throwing better than he normally does in spring training. The biggest problem he’s having right now is command.

“Velocity looks good. The break on the breaking ball looks good. He’s just not throwing the ball where he wants it. And this guy is normally the kind of pitcher that can dot it up really well.

“But everything else looks really good to me, (because) I had him back with the Rays and in spring training you always saw him throwing like 86, 87, 88 (mph). I’m seeing easy 94-95. I’m seeing sharp break on some breaking stuff. It’s just bad counts and bad command right now.”

This isn’t the Cubs saying Carlos Marmol or Jose Veras is our closer. A guy with a 0.84 ERA in 23 career playoff appearances doesn’t care about Cactus League stats. As long as Davis is healthy, there should be no doubts about the ninth inning. Check back next week amid the sea of red at Busch Stadium.

“A lot of it’s just an adrenaline rush sometimes,” Maddon said. “A lot it’s just a moment that you can’t recreate here. You can’t do it. It’s impossible.”