The Cubs’ Idea So Nice They’re Trying It Twice

The Cubs weren’t going to win in 2013, and everyone knew it. The organization had begun to find its way, but it was understood it would be a long process, and 2013 would be more about development. That didn’t mean, however, that the Cubs would be inactive in free agency, and one of the things they did was sign veteran starter Scott Feldman for a year and $6 million, with an additional $1 million in possible incentives. Feldman was solid over 15 starts, and then the Cubs flipped him to Baltimore with Steve Clevenger in exchange for Jake Arrieta, Pedro Strop, and some international spending money. In that way, the Cubs turned a stopgap veteran into possible long-term resources. It was perfect execution of a classic idea.

The Cubs aren’t going to win in 2014, and everyone knows it. The organization is still on its way, and overall it’s made progress, but it’s still going to be a long process, and 2014 will be more about development. That doesn’t mean, however, that the Cubs need to be inactive in free agency, and something they just did is sign veteran starter Jason Hammel for a year and $6 million, with an additional $1 million in possible incentives. What Hammel hasn’t been, yet, is flipped for possible long-term resources. But that could be perfect execution of a classic idea.

As a handy reminder that there’s a difference between contract wishes and contracts signed:


That was never going to happen, not after Hammel’s 2013. Probably, this is better for him. What he’s still got is long-term uncertainty, but 2014 could be all about Hammel rebuilding his value, and the Cubs are more than happy to be the team to allow him to try to do that. The worst case, for them, is that Hammel sucks and gets bounced from a rotation of a team out of the race. Nothing lost, but a little money. The best case is that this follows the Feldman route. Or, I suppose, maybe the best case is that Hammel pitches well and remains in Chicago for a while, but that’s less likely. The Cubs have to be hoping that Hammel just looks a lot better in June and July than he’s looked over this winter. Thanks to the expanded Wild Card, there would be lots of teams in or near the race, and teams always want starting pitching.

So what’s the hope, with Hammel? His most recent season was very much not good. He had an arm injury, and he turned 31 in September. But then, there’s this to consider:

BALTIMORE — The Orioles have placed pitcher Jason Hammel on the 15-day disabled list with right flexor mass tightness.
Hammel said the nagging issue first began in Spring Training, and it’s most noticeable on his slider.
“I figured I could pitch through it. As of right now, it’s really not what’s best for this team,” Hammel said. “I haven’t been pitching to my capability, and it’s really not worth going out there and further injuring myself.”

Hammel spent most of the year pitching through arm discomfort, and it’s easy to see how that could have a negative effect on his results. After he came back in September, he pitched well over a few weeks. Not that we can automatically just write everything off to a problem that’s now resolved, but it’s certainly possible. And prior to 2013, Hammel had a pretty intriguing track record.

In 2009, 123 different starters threw at least 100 innings. Hammel ranked

  • 18th in FIP-
  • 28th in xFIP-

In 2010, 140 different starters threw at least 100 innings. Hammel ranked

  • 20th in FIP-
  • 35th in xFIP-

In 2012, 128 different starters threw at least 100 innings. Hammel ranked

  • 8th in FIP-
  • 12th in xFIP-

What’s missing is a 2011 season during which Hammel was mostly miserable. The Rockies even bumped him to the bullpen for a time. There’s no easy way to explain what happened, although Hammel believes his problems were mental. What’s also missing is that Hammel injured his knee in 2012 and had surgery performed. Later on he aggravated the injury, before returning in the playoffs. But in 2009 and 2010, Hammel was a good starter in a terrible environment. And in 2012, when Hammel was healthy, he was among the very best starters in baseball. Though he wasn’t throwing eight or nine innings every turn, he matched Doug Fister in ERA-, David Price in FIP-, and Adam Wainwright in xFIP-. Hammel was probably the best starter on an Orioles team that played in October.

For a while, Hammel was pretty good in Colorado. The Orioles rescued him from that environment, and the first year, he was outstanding. What’s taken place between that year and the present are 26 appearances Hammel mostly made with discomfort in his arm. So he’s a fascinating buy-low, even for a bad team, because players on bad teams can quickly become players on contending teams. The Cubs are probably hoping for another mid-3s ERA and a contending team with a need and expendable youth.

Sometimes, it doesn’t work. A year ago, the Cubs also took a chance on Scott Baker, and he basically never did anything. The injury Hammel had last season is often a precursor for Tommy John surgery, and though Hammel opted to rest before things got that bad, you never know if he might be in trouble. He might pitch healthy and poorly, like he did in 2011. If Hammel were a better bet, he would’ve signed a better contract with a better team. There’s risk involved.

But the Cubs can afford it, because the Cubs have money and little to play for in the immediate. They don’t lose much if Hammel stinks. They could gain quite a bit if Hammel rebounds. It seems pretty easy to see what they’re doing, but there’s the potential for all parties to win. Hammel just has to delay a payday he wasn’t going to get in the first place. Three good months on a bad team could mean three or four more months in the hunt.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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8 years ago

his value in a given season appears to be tied to his HR/FB rate. 2009, 2010, and 2012 were the only years that his HR/FB ratio was less than 10% and coincidentally are the only years that he has better than average ERA- and FIP-. He also appears to consistenly have ERA that underperforms his FIP and xFIP, which could also indicate issues with keeping the ball in the park

Matthew Murphy
8 years ago
Reply to  Larry

Think the big gap between ERA and FIP/xFIP has more to do with an elevated BABIP and poor strand rate in his years with the Rockies (. His FIP is barely above his xFIP, which actually means that he’s pretty close to average at suppressing home runs, maybe a bit better than average considering the vast majority of his innings have been in Colorado and Orioles, two of the five most homer-friendly parks (as evidenced by his 99 FIP- versus his 103 xFIP-).