Hamels Pitching Himself into $20 Million Option for 2019

When the Cubs first acquired Cole Hamels, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that he’d be spending only the remainder of this season in Chicago. No way would they exercise a $20 million option on a guy who’ll turn 35 in December and who was mired in the worst stretch of his professional career. All the Cubs needed was for Hamels to make like Joey Chestnut and eat as many innings as possible without puking.

But, gosh, kind of a few things have changed since then. Not only has Hamels been better than the Cubs could have hoped for in their wildest dreams, his option for next year isn’t really $20 million. Let’s talk about the money first, since that’s a fixed cost.

The way baseball contracts work, only the average annual value of guaranteed money counts toward the payroll figure used to calculate a team’s competitive balance tax. And since Hamels’ option year includes a $6 million buyout, that smaller figure has already been factored into his $24 million AAV that expires this year.

The Rangers sent cash to the Cubs as part of the trade as well, with FanCred’s Jon Heyman reporting that the Cubs would assume only $5 million of the lefty’s remaining $14 million obligation. Don’t let that confuse you with what I’m about to explain, as said obligation is simply a combination of his pro-rated salary for this season and the buyout for next year.

All that really matters to the Cubs is that exercising Hamels’ 2019 option would only cost them $14 million, the balance between his actual salary and the $6 million buyout that was already paid over the previous six years of his deal. That’s, uh, not a lot of money in the grand scheme of things, even if you count yourself among those who think the team will continue to conserve payroll in order to extend young players in the next few years.

More than just a very reasonable cost for a starting pitcher in today’s market, the finite term of such a deal makes it incredibly appealing. The “are we there yet” factor applies not only to long trips in the car, as we have seen with Tyler Chatwood and Yu Darvish. And while I’m of the opinion that at least the latter can get his you-know-what together, there’s a not-insignificant sense of dread when you think of having an extended obligation to a player who has yet to perform well.

Which brings us to how Hamels has pitched in four starts since joining the Cubs. He’s proven adept at leveraging both guts and stuff, showcasing the elite secondaries that spawned hope for a renewal and reaching back for more on his fastball than he’s shown since no-hitting the Cubs three years ago. His velocity has been trending up all season and has continued to do since the trade, a sign that Father Time may yet be a few steps behind.

Hamels has now pitched 25 innings over those four starts, striking out 23 batters and walking only six. And he’s proven that he can work through efforts in which he doesn’t have his best stuff, which we saw Friday night in Pittsburgh. Despite giving up five hits and walking two men, Hamels allowed a paltry 16.7 percent hard contact, a vast majority of which was on the ground.

Putting up only three strikeouts didn’t matter because the Cubs turned five of their MLB record-tying seven double plays behind Hamels. That was a change from the southpaw’s first start with the Cubs, also in Pittsburgh, in which he got nine strikeouts but left early because his defense committed a trio of errors and forced him to labor harder than he should have.

We’ve seen Hamels alternate efforts so far, putting up 18 strikeouts against four hits and three walks in his first and third starts (12 IP) with five strikeouts against 12 hits and three walks in his second and fourth (13 IP). That latter pair is perhaps what offers the best argument in favor of bringing him back, since therein lies the proof that this guy is still going to be able to win ballgames even when he’s not at his best.

Then again, you could argue that keeping the Pirates at bay over seven shutout innings to allow the Cubs another 1-0 win is indeed the best you could ask for. Incidentally, that was the Cubs’ second straight win in which they had a lefty starter and scored their only run on a solo shot by a left-handed-hitting left fielder.

With about six weeks left in the season, it’s possible for Hamels to just completely fall apart and ruin all this talk of picking up his option. But even regressing closer to his mean production makes him more than just a passable option for the remainder of this year and the next. And as we’ve see all too well this season, you can never have too much pitching.

Yes, the Cubs have every member of their starting rotation under contract through at least next season and it’s going to be difficult to balance what could be perhaps eight arms for the rotation. But that’s what the guys in the front office get paid to figure out. Even more, they get paid to figure out how to win ballgames, and having Cole Hamels on the bump every fifth day is looking like a damn good way to fly that W flag more frequently.

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