Jason Hammel happy in Oakland, but wouldn’t rule out return to Cubs
BY GORDON WITTENMYER Staff Reporter July 24, 2014 10:19PM
Updated: August 26, 2014 6:39AM
OAKLAND, Calif. — If the Cubs’ plan gains the kind of traction the club hopes going into next year, they might be done with their flip-guy method that helps stock the farm system.
But that doesn’t mean the would-be flip guys are done with the Cubs. And it doesn’t mean the Cubs won’t use the buy-low (short-term) method to address a significant starting-pitching need as they start building a big-league roster to actually start trying to win.
That’s what flip-guy pitcher Jason Hammel held out hope of happening this year, even as he anticipated the likelihood he would be traded despite a team-leading eight victories and 2.98 ERA when he and ace Jeff Samardzija were dealt July 4 to the Oakland Athletics.
“I was going there hoping that I would pitch my way into them wanting to keep me there,” said Hammel, who found the sudden, jump-the-market trade tougher on him and his pregnant wife than he anticipated. “And I felt like I did my job there. . . . That’s the business side of baseball that we can’t really do anything about, but, honestly, I ended up in an even better situation baseball-wise.”
Team president Theo Epstein said when he made the trade that the club had a plan to acquire the pitching it didn’t get for those top trading chips.
Some of that could involve trading from a newly stocked abundance of top hitting prospects.
At least as likely, it involves a financial flexibility this winter created by expiring commitments, and squirreled-away, unused 2014 money gives Epstein’s baseball department the kind of spending power it hasn’t had since the incoming execs got a harsh reality check on how limited the big-market Cubs’ resources were (through purchase-related debt and spending restrictions).
The Cubs have only five players under contract for next year, at a total of $25.5 million, with starting pitchers Travis Wood ($3.9 million this year) and Jake Arrieta ($544,500) the most significant arbitration cases.
More than $15 million alone in obligations to players on other teams falls off the books.
And they still have close to $20 million in banked budget surplus after whiffing on Masahiro Tanaka and recouping Samardzija-Hammel salary.
That could mean a serious run at Red Sox free-agent ace Jon Lester or underperforming Indians ace Justin Masterson, players the Cubs have had significant internal discussions about, according to sources.
It also could mean a return of somebody such as Hammel, who left in good standing despite his public anger over an early hook the day he was traded — which even Epstein blamed on the team’s lack of communication and not Hammel.
As they did with Samardzija, the Cubs tried to maintain good relations with Hammel even as they dealt him away, keeping open their options for possible reunions with either or both.
“I never burn bridges,” said Hammel, who called his four months with the Cubs “at the top of the list of the best baseball experiences I’ve ever had.”
Even if he wasn’t thrilled about how it ended.
“I understand the business side of the move, and I was able to talk to Theo about it,” he said. “And I’m definitely not opposed to going anywhere that I’ve previously been. . . . I can’t take these things personally.
“If we’re going there, and I know I’m going to stay there — because I really enjoyed my time — that would definitely be an option.”
If nothing else, Hammel knows he rebuilt his value going into a free agency year. Just like former Baltimore teammate Scott Feldman – the Cubs’ 2013 flip guy, who recommended the Cubs to Hammel for a similar deal last fall.
Feldman, who signed a three-year, $30 million deal with Houston as a free agent last winter after talking briefly with the Cubs about a return, thinks the flip-guy deals work well enough for both sides he’d recommend the Cubs and pitching coach Chris Bosio to other pitchers, too.
“It was a great situation for me to try and rebuild a little bit of value and re-establish myself,” said Feldman, who hopes to one day pitch for the Cubs again. “It’s the coolest place I’ve played.”
As much as the Cubs signed Hammel and Feldman – and Paul Maholm the year before – with the intent of flipping them during roster-gutting, transition seasons, the front office also has kept an eye on potential longer-term fliers.
Former 15-game winner Scott Baker, who was rehabbing from Tommy John surgery when he signed before last season, was designed to be one of those guys, if his recovery had gone better.
So maybe the flip guys will keep coming. And in a best-case scenario for the Cubs, maybe next time they can leave out the flip part.
And maybe they can even have a flip-guy reunion or two. Hammel’s definitely not ruling it out.
For now, he said he’s focusing on the work in “the green and gold” that he hopes takes him into late October.
By then, maybe, the Cubs will be ready to sign him to try to make their own run.
“That’d be like the perfect storm,” he said. “I definitely loved it there.”