MESA, Ariz. — The Jason Hammel rebranding began on Monday morning at a mostly empty Cubs Park, in a B game against a no-name lineup of San Francisco Giants.
Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein sat five rows behind home plate, in between general manager Jed Hoyer and assistant general manager Randy Bush. The front office watched this year’s sign-and-flip guy, Scott Feldman 2.0 or Paul Maholm 3.0.
Pitching coach Chris Bosio couldn’t wait to see it and talked about “unleashing” Hammel, who felt a little rusty and threw two scoreless innings in what turned out to be a 5-5 tie. Hammel grabbed some of the leftover Masahiro Tanaka money this winter with a one-year, $6 million deal that makes him an obvious trade target.
“I’m sure you guys are going to talk about that all year,” Hammel said. “I honestly could care less. And that’s the answer you’ll get from me every time. I’m here to win ballgames and that’s it. That’s my bottom line. I’m here to help the Cubs.”
Hammel could help the Cubs by staying healthy and making around 15 starts. Epstein’s front office has traded away 40 percent of the rotation in each of the last two seasons. Cashing in Hammel and Jeff Samardzija could mean adding another four or five prospects to this long rebuilding process.
“It’s never easy to see any of our guys traded,” Bosio said. “Especially in the position that we’ve been in the last couple years, (selling when we’re) getting competitive and the team’s starting to play well. But in our division and in our situation, when teams come calling offering some big prospects, you have to listen. Who knows? Maybe things change this year where we extend this guy.
“The last couple years, we’ve been able to get our starters hot. All of them. But we’ve been able to get a hell of a return on those guys.”
The full accounting will take years, but Arodys Vizcaino is hitting around 100 mph again after Tommy John surgery and coming over in the 2012 Maholm trade with the Atlanta Braves. Last summer’s Feldman trade with the Baltimore Orioles yielded a potential closer (Pedro Strop) and No. 5 starter (Jake Arrieta).
The Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza trades produced a mini-version of the Texas Rangers system: Baseball America’s No. 28 overall prospect (C.J. Edwards), two interesting third basemen (Mike Olt and Christian Villanueva), the organization’s 2013 minor league pitcher of the year (Kyle Hendricks) and a few more power arms (Justin Grimm and Neil Ramirez).
It works both ways: Feldman used that platform to get a three-year, $30 million contract from the Houston Astros this winter. Feldman loved working with Bosio, who has big-league credentials, a physical presence and an ability to synthesize all the data.
As Hammel said: “He knows his stuff, but he’s not going to try to flood you with information.”
Hammel had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in 2012 and missed more than a month last season (7-8, 4.97 ERA) while dealing with a forearm injury. The 31-year-old right-hander says he’s healthy now, creating tilt on his sinker and ready to throw 200 innings.
On Monday, Hammel faced 12 batters you’ve probably never heard of before and gave up four hits — three infield singles — while walking a guy and hitting another. He had three strikeouts, getting one with the bases loaded to end the second inning.
Hammel helped the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays in their worst-to-first run to the World Series. He notched 10 victories and made 30 starts for the 2009 Colorado Rockies team that won 92 games and a National League wild card. He went 8-6 with a 3.43 ERA for the 2012 Orioles team that came together to win 93 games and an American League wild card.
“I like proving people wrong,” Hammel said. “I like the out-of-nowhere stuff. That’s kind of the way my whole career’s been — a lot of naysayers.
“That just fuels this whole clubhouse.”
The Cubs have lost 197 games across the last two seasons and won’t think twice about blowing up the team again. Hammel sounds like another solid citizen who will pitch in a pennant race and get paid with his next contract, if everything goes according to plan.
“At some point, you want to have the guys play together for a long time,” Hammel said. “That’s usually what makes winners. You get to know who’s around you and that trust factor goes even higher. Every year brings something new. We’re going to bring more wins this year.”