The Chicago Cubs’ decision to decline Jason Hammel’s 2017 club option is about many things. It’s about what the Cubs want to do with the starting rotation moving forward. By declining Hammel’s option the Cubs have expressed a level of confidence in Mike Montgomery or Rob Zastryzny moving into a permanent starting rotation slot when opening day rolls around next year. Moving away from Hammel may even send a message to potential starters like Pierce Johnson who are currently sniffing the big leagues from the minors that their future is even more imminent. This move could be a sign to the rest of the club that this front office isn’t going to sit on its recent success and instead is putting the wheels in motion for 2017 and beyond. I’m sure even a small portion of the decision to allow Hammel to walk is rooted in financial considerations.
All of the above statements are true, or at the least could turn out to be true, but they are not what I’m taking away from Hammel’s departure. The words used by Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein in announcing the team would not be bringing Hammel back are key. They were written with respect for Hammel, what he had done for the Cubs, and what he hoped to do with the rest of his career. This wasn’t your typical, “Thanks for all you’ve done,” behind closed doors speech that we know dominate the sports world. Epstein and the Cubs were very public in their handling of Hammel’s last day as a member of the organization.
In Epstein’s statements lies the truth of why they were so public. The Cubs could have held onto Hammel, kept him as a sometimes fifth man in the rotation, or a bullpen piece, or a spot starter. More than likely he would have provided the Cubs value in all three of those roles. What that value would have missed is that Hammel himself most likely would not have been happy. Hammel has made it abundantly clear that he believes he is not just a starter, but a workhorse for a team. Sure, Hammel would have done what was asked of him, but Theo and company made sure that was not something Hammel had to worry about.
By taking that course of action a crystal clear message was sent to the rest of the league: The Chicago Cubs care about you as players and will take care of you once you become a member of this organization. I honestly do believe that the Cubs care about their players—the previous handling of Edwin Jackson and Tommy La Stella provide examples of this—but the truth matters little next to perception in this case. How other MLBers perceive the Cubs’ handling of Hammel could prove valuable in the years to come. By working with Hammel and not just using him as a piece on the board (while in all actuality using him as a piece on said board), other free agents may view the Cubs as an even more desirable destination.
Of course, the handling of Jason Hammel could all boil down to money. Baseball is a business after all, and though the majority of us think of baseball as something much larger than money, that’s rarely the case. In this instance though, money could mean both a positive and a negative. Perhaps the Cubs declined Hammel’s option so as to allow him to make more money as a free agent. Had the Cubs signed Hammel he would have made about $12.2 million in 2017. He’ll make more long term as a free agent, and the cost to the Cubs is the intangible of what they could have brought back in a trade. If they do hand the spot to either Montgomery or Zastryzny they’d be paying something closer to the major league minimum. More to the point, this is a move that potential free agents could look at and see as a team allowing them to maximize their potential as free agents when they best can. As already stated, this could lead to more, or better, free agent signings. It could also lead to current Cubs players signing extensions or agreeing to options for less simply because of the perceived idea of the Cubs being a player-first team.
If the Cubs’ suave move causes even one key free agent to pick them over another big league club, then it is a move that paid off. The Cubs front office isn’t perfect (this is where my issues with the trade for Aroldis Chapman come boiling to the surface), but it’s a shrewd front office. It’s a front office that, even while giving a player what he wants, found a way to use that want to their advantage. Jason Hammel gave a lot to the Cubs while playing for them, and now perhaps he will give the Cubs even more after leaving.Next post: Trading (Imaginary) Chris Sale
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