Chicago Cubs

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.”   

Once again, Javier Baez will be a huge X-factor for Cubs down the stretch

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USA TODAY

Once again, Javier Baez will be a huge X-factor for Cubs down the stretch

Javier Baez flicked his bat and watched the ball rocket in the direction of Waveland Avenue, the last of the back-to-back-to-back homers against Cincinnati Reds starter/Cubs trivia answer Scott Feldman.

That quick strike came during a four-homer fourth inning on Thursday afternoon at Wrigley Field, where the offense looked explosive and the pitching looked combustible in a 13-10 loss that left the Milwaukee Brewers one game out of first place, the St. Louis Cardinals right behind them and the Cubs awaiting a diagnosis on Jon Lester’s lat injury.

“I know the talent we got,” Baez said. “When they come to play a team like us, we know they’re going to come play hard and obviously play good baseball. They’re going to come to compete, and that’s what we got to do.”

Whatever happens from here – the Cubs are 2-2 so far during a 13-game stretch against last-place teams – you know Baez will be in the middle of the action as the No. 8 hitter with 19 homers this season and a power source with Willson Contreras (strained right hamstring) injured.

This is the starting shortstop until Addison Russell (strained right foot/plantar fasciitis) comes off the disabled list and the unique talent you couldn’t take your eyes off during last year’s playoffs.

“He’s not afraid of anything,” manager Joe Maddon said. “So I don’t care how big or small the game is, he’s going to play the same way. He’s going to do everything pretty much full gorilla all the time.

“Sometimes, he’s going to make a mistake. And that’s OK, because with certain people – with all of us – you got to take the bad with the good. Everybody wants perfection. He’s going to make some mistakes. But most of the time, he’s going to pull off events.”

The night before against the Reds, Baez led off the ninth inning with a line-drive double and scored the game-winning run on a wild pitch. Last week, Statcast clocked him at 16.11 seconds for his inside-the-park homer off the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park. Over the weekend, he launched another home-run ball 463 feet against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field.

There are so many different ways Baez can help the Cubs win a game at a time when they don’t have anywhere close to the same margin for error that they did during last season’s joyride into the playoffs.

“I know we often talk about the strikeouts or the big swings,” Maddon said. “But look at his two-strike numbers. Look at his OPS (.808). Look at the run production in general (his 55 RBI match Kris Bryant). It’s been outstanding. And you combine that with first-rate defense.

“Now he’s going to make some mistakes. I’ve talked about that. That’s going to go away with just experience. As he gets older, plays more often, he’s going to make less of those routine mistakes. And the game’s going to get really clean and sharp.”

Until then, Baez will keep taking huge swings, making spectacular plays and trying to cut down on the errors (10 in 334 innings at shortstop, or one less than Russell through 729 innings), because he knows what he means to this team.  

“Javy’s very important,” pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “He’s one of our best defensive players, one of our most athletic players on the team.

“Javy’s got a really big swing, but he’s got a great eye and he handles the bat really well. For as big as his swing is, he still manages to make really good contact. I don’t want him to approach the game any other way than he does right now.”

Should the Cubs pursue Justin Verlander after Jon Lester's injury, and what would they have to give up?

Should the Cubs pursue Justin Verlander after Jon Lester's injury, and what would they have to give up?

The Cubs may be in some trouble, with the injury bug hitting them at an inopportune time.

First it was Addison Russell (strained right foot), then it was Willson Contreras, arguably the best catcher in baseball and one of the hottest hitters on the planet before going down with a hamstring injury, and now it's Jon Lester who may be on his way to the disabled list after suffering a strained left lat muscle in Thursday's 13-10 loss to Cincinnati.

All of this occurring during a time Joe Maddon's club is looking to pull away from the pack in the National League Central and capture their second straight division crown, which appears to be the only way the North Siders can control their own destiny.

So what should the Cubs do if Lester is sidelined for an extended period of time?

One option could be re-opening trade discussions surrounding Justin Verlander, who cleared revocable waivers in early August. But what would it take to get him, and how much salary would they have to take on for it to happen?

The SportsTalk Live panel weighed in on that possibility in the video above.