The Chicago Cubs decided Friday to pick up the team option on starting pitcher Cole Hamels, according to multiple reports.
Are you REALLY surprised?
Hamels arguably was the Cubs best pitcher once he was acquired in late July. In 12 starts on the north side, he a 4-3 record, 2.36 ERA and 1.10 WHIP and pitched through the sixth inning in eight of those outings.
The only potential roadblock was the money. Picking up the option costs the Cubs $20 million next season, and they expect to be active players in the pricey sweepstakes for Bryce Harper or Manny Machado.
Fortunately, the corresponding move to trade pitcher Drew Smyly to the Texas Rangers helps offset some of the money on Hamels’ option. Smyly, who spent most of last season rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, is owed $7 million in 2019.
The front office probably preferred to move Tyler Chatwood instead of Smyly. Smyly offers much more versatility as a bullpen arm and spot starter than Chatwood. Unfortunately, Chatwood’s horrendous 2018 campaign and bloated contract make him nearly unmovable.
Any trade involving Chatwood likely would require the Cubs to pay a large portion of the $25.5 million left on his deal. As a result, moving Chatwood really wouldn’t have helped offset costs from Hamels’ option.
Barring any surprising pitching moves this offseason, the starting rotation will be comprised of Hamels, Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana. On paper, it looks like a very strong rotation, especially if everyone plays to their maximum potential.
However, that’s rarely the case in baseball. Unless luck stays on your side, injuries and slumps typically rear their ugly heads throughout the course of a 162-game season.
While the rotation looks strong based on namesake alone, injuries and age should be the biggest question marks in Cubs’ fans minds. Darvish is still an unknown after dealing with a lingering elbow injury most of last season. Can he overcome the physical and mental hurdles in 2019?
Hamels and Lester has strong finishes in 2018. However, both will turn 35 before the start of next season, and most starting pitchers lose a little velocity and durability with age. Having either Hamels or Lester lose their edge next year would make the Cubs rotation mediocre, especially if Darvish either misses time or experiences another slump.
Last season, we caught a glimpse of what a funk would look like for Lester and Hamels. Lester played with fire throughout last season by pitching to contact, and he hit a minor wall around midseason. After starting the year with a 10-2 record, 2.18 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in 16 starts, he went 2-2 with a 6.81 ERA and 1.88 WHIP during a seven-start stretch between July and early August.
Before arriving on the north side July 27, Hamels went 5-9 with a 4.72 ERA and 1.37 WHIP in 20 starts with the Rangers. He ended up surrendering a career-high 29 home runs in 2018 with 23 coming before the trade. While some of those struggles were due to pitching in a hitter-friendly ballpark in Arlington, TX, he was also struggled with command before making mechanical changes .
Did he work out those kinks for good, or is there a chance they can return next season?
Given Hamels and Lester’s track records of making in-season adjustments, you should feel confident that they at least can be solid contributors. If both stay productive and Darvish pitches near his full potential, the Cubs’ rotation should be a threat in the National League next season.
Regardless of what occurs in 2019, bringing back Hamels was the right move now. The pending free agent market for starting pitching is suspect at best, and Hamels would’ve likely been top guy available had the Cubs decided to opt out (Clayton Kershaw being the only exception if he surprisingly opts out).
Even if Hamels isn’t the ace-caliber performer he was with the Cubs, would you rather have him at 70 percent or roll the dice with someone like Chatwood or Mike Montgomery?
The front office has bigger fish to fry this offseason than finding a new starting pitcher. Adding a big bat in the lineup and a solid late-inning reliever are the two biggest priorities for the Cubs this winter.
Bringing back Hamels gives the Cubs a reliable option heading into 2019. And sometimes, that’s just as good as a big splash.