Did the Cubs make the right call in picking up Cole Hamels’ $20 million option?
That question was a no-brainer in the first few days of November — an easy call to pencil Hamels into the Cubs rotation for 2019 even if it meant trading away Drew Smyly and his $7 million contract to the Texas Rangers.
But here on Jan. 8, it’s at least a fair question and the answer isn’t so automatic, as we discussed on Hot Stove Tuesday.
Mind you, the result is still the same. The Cubs have Hamels under contract for 2019 and his $20 million salary is part of why Theo Epstein’s front office doesn’t have much wiggle room to add to the roster.
Epstein and Co. have pointed to payroll issues all winter (the Smyly move to clear some salary for Hamels was a clear indicator), but those woes seem to have hit a crescendo this week as The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported the Cubs couldn’t even sign a second-market relief pitcher like Adam Warren without first clearing salary.
Those are some serious financial restraints, though it’s understandable. With a payroll projected to surpass $228 million, the Cubs will pay far more to their roster in 2019 than they have at any other point in franchise history.
But that is not a lot of financial flexibility for Epstein to add necessary pieces. Warren made just $3.3 million in his final year of arbitration in 2018 and would probably fetch a bit more than that on the open market.
If that’s true and Epstein’s front office is restricted that much, there’s one definite conclusion to be drawn from the Hamels decision: The Cubs clearly felt they absolutely needed the veteran starting pitcher.
Either the budgetary restraints have changed since the Cubs picked up Hamels’ option on Nov. 2 (Epstein and Jed Hoyer maintained throughout the MLB Winter Meetings the budget has not changed) or the Cubs felt Hamels was more valuable to the 2019 team than using that money elsewhere to address the other holes on the roster (bullpen, veteran backup catcher, another bat, etc.).
It’s tough to argue that point. Bringing Hamels back really was a no-brainer at the time, especially given how he performed in 12 starts down the stretch (2.36 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 8.7 K/9). Sure, he’s 35 and has shown signs of decline in the past, but he was obviously rejuvenated in a Cubs uniform and increased health/mechanics support the boost in numbers over the last two months of 2018.
The Cubs also have serious question marks in their starting rotation beyond maybe only Kyle Hendricks. Jon Lester is 35 and showing some minor signs of decline, Jose Quintana had a bit of a disappointing 2018 despite a strong finish and of course Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood are far from reliable options after the way their first season in Chicago played out. Imagine the tenor of fans this winter if the Cubs were planning on cruising into next year with Chatwood as a projected member of the rotation.
There’s a strong argument that the reliability Hamels brings is well worth the $20 million and financial constraints the Cubs now face.
It’s much easier to find a reliable member of the bullpen than a solid starting pitcher with the upside of Hamels. Relievers can pop up from all over the place, as Jesse Chavez proved in 2018.
To play devil’s advocate, if the Cubs are as limited financially as they are saying, they could’ve done a whole hell of a lot with that extra $13 million in savings from not picking up Hamels’ option and keeping Smyly instead. (Though that obviously is not enough money to turn around and add Bryce Harper just because Hamels is off the books.)
Smyly missed all of 2018 to Tommy John recovery and $7 million ($5 million hit against the luxury tax) would’ve been a lot to pay for an unreliable option like that, but he showed signs of health in September and would’ve represented an option in either the rotation or bullpen.
That would then leave $13 million (or close to it) to fill in other gaps on the roster, namely in the bullpen while also potentially adding a veteran backup catcher and more depth for the starting rotation alongside Smyly, Chatwood and Mike Montgomery.
The offseason is far from over (pitchers and catchers don’t report for another 5+ weeks) but as it stands right now, the Cubs bullpen appears in worse shape than it was heading into 2018 spring training. They will be without closer Brandon Morrow for at least the first couple weeks of 2019 due to surgery to clean up his elbow after a bone bruise erased his entire second half.
There’s a valid case to be made on either side of the Hamels decision, but the Cubs drew their line in the sand months ago and will have to add to the roster in other ways.