Not even 72 hours removed from winning the World Series, the Cubs made their first roster shakeup of the offseason – roster decision deadlines wait for no hangover. Yesterday, the Cubs officially declined the $12 million team option on Jason Hammel and will pay the $2 million buyout instead. Typically there isn’t too much surprise with contract options. Ryan Howard at $25 million? Decline. Wade Davis at $10 million? Accept. Declining Hammel’s option was so curious, however, that Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein took a break from his bender to issue 318-word statement on the matter:
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) November 6, 2016
Hammel signed a one-year deal with the Cubs prior to the 2014 season, was traded to Oakland with Jeff Samardzija in the Addison Russell trade that July, and then returned to the Cubs on what would’ve been a three-year, $30 million contract had the option been picked up, but which has instead become a two-year, $20 million deal. In his two-and-a-half seasons with Chicago, he pitched 446 innings to a 3.59 ERA, 22.9% strikeout rate, and 5.9 WAR – and added 0.6 WAR with the bat, for good measure. Now, those stats might be disappointing for a top-of-the-rotation pitcher, but Hammel was functionally the Cubs’ fifth starter! Fifth starters aren’t supposed to be this good and the Cubs could’ve had effectively retained him for $10 million (his $12 million option minus the $2 million buyout), so why didn’t they?
Let’s start backwards with a look at reasons why Hammel’s contract should have been picked up. In the season prior to the Cubs bringing on Hammel at his two-year, $20 million deal, he posted a 95 ERA-. In the two seasons since, he’s posted a 96 and 92 ERA-. Three consecutive years of slightly better-than-average (earned) run prevention is the kind of consistency any team would gladly accept from a back-of-the-rotation arm. His recent stat lines remind me of a free-agent pitcher from last winter:
As you may recall, the then-33-year-old Happ went on to receive a three-year, $36 million contract from the Blue Jays last November. It would, of course, be disingenuous to claim that these situations are equivalent. Hammel, in his second round of free agency, is almost exactly a year older than Happ was a year ago and he lacks anything to match the tantalizing upside provided by Happ’s 2015 second-half breakout. Still, considering that Hammel has been productive since receiving a two-year, $20 million deal two years ago and that the price for starting pitching has only increased, it’s reasonable to hypothesize that his current value lies in the vicinity of Happ’s current deal.
Even if the Cubs didn’t intend to use Hammel in their rotation this season, it’s clear that having him on a one-year, $12 million deal provided him extra value which could have, theoretically, been transferred into trade value. According to Epstein’s statement, however:
“When we agreed with Jason on this two-year contract back at the 2014 Winter Meetings, the option was included with the intent that it would be exercised if Jason was going to be a Cub in 2017. The intent was never to exercise the option and then trade Jason, so we will not consider that path.”
It’s possible to take that quote at face value, call Epstein a great guy, and leave it at that. But baseball, as we know, is a business and, for better or worse, the Cubs didn’t get to where they are by nobly refusing to act in their self-interest. If they believed that Hammel still provided notable value to the team, Hammel would still be with the team.
So what’s the catch? First and foremost, is Hammel’s season-shortening elbow injury. On Aug. 20, he had a brilliant 2.75 ERA for the season. Then, he made the final seven starts of his season, yielding 30 earned runs in 32.1 innings for a 8.35 ERA — ballooning his season-ending figure to 3.83. He was shutdown at the end of September and left off the postseason roster entirely. The Cubs, obviously, have boatloads more information than us about the extent of Hammel’s injury and his prognosis. It’s entirely plausible that their knowledge of the injury was enough to dissuade them from picking up the option.
It must be noted, however, that health isn’t the only relevant factor. It’s a bit gauche to critique the newest champs while the Champagne is still drying, so I ask your forgiveness in advance. With Hammel gone, here are the returning four members of the Cubs’ rotation: John Lackey, Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, and Kyle Hendricks. Now here are their respective ages on Opening Day 2017: 38, 33, 31, 27. Lackey is in the final year of his contract, battled a shoulder injury this season, and was good, not great, this season. Lester has been fantastic for the Cubs, but considering that they have him under contract through age 36 or 37, aging-induced decline is a matter of when, not if. Arrieta returned to Earth this year after his phenomenal 2015 season. But, hey, at least there’s Kyle Hendricks.
The Cubs’ rotation is talented and there’s no compelling reason to think they won’t be fine in the short-term, but it must be acknowledged that, for the most part, their peak is behind them. This, of course, stands in stark contrast to their almost obnoxiously young and uber-talented lineup. It is now the responsibility of the Cubs’ front office to find ways to maximize the team’s long-term success as this young position-player core continues to grow at the major-league level. This will have to mean finding ways to replenish their rotation talent as time wears on and a natural starting point to begin that turnover was by saying goodbye a 34-year-old fifth starter who is battling an elbow injury. From that perspective, declining the Hammel’s option was a no-brainer.
Was it truly the right decision, though? The fifth-starter spot now presumably belongs to 27-year-old Mike Montgomery who did strong work both in the rotation and the bullpen after coming over from the Mariners in a midseason trade. It’s possible they could trade for additional starting pitching given that the depth of their lineup leaves Jorge Soler on the outside looking in (and, yes, given that their non-DH league is not the ideal league for Kyle Schwarber). The alternatives on the free-agent market, however, are less than appealing, and Hammel himself has now become one of the most attractive free-agent targets along with Rich Hill and, uh, Jeremy Hellickson? Given the realities of the market, it seems inevitable that (assuming he passes the requisite physicals) Hammel will secure a contract that makes declining a one-year, $10 million situation look foolish at first glance.
Will the Cubs care, though? They’re rolling in the ungodly amounts of money that come along with a franchise’s first championship in 108 years. Their responsibility is to begin building future rotations and there was no conceivable way Hammel was going to be a part of them.
Corinne Landrey writes for FanGraphs and MLB.com's Cut4 site. Follow her on Twitter @crashlandrey.