SAN DIEGO — The Cubs aren’t waiting around for Jon Lester to start filling out their 2015 starting rotation.
Right-hander Jason Hammel, who went 8-5 with a 2.98 ERA for the Cubs last season before being traded in July, agreed to a two-year, $20 million deal to return to the club, sources said Monday, as the annual winter meetings got underway. The club did not announce the deal.
Meanwhile, top free-agent target Lester is expected to make a decision on a new team Tuesday, tipping this winter’s first big domino in the pitching market.
The Cubs were one of two or three teams left in the Lester bidding late Monday night, depending on whom you talked to at the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego.
One report had the Cubs and San Francisco Giants as the two finalists. But the Boston Red Sox — Lester’s original team — remain in the middle of things, Red Sox manager John Farrell said.
“We’re still confident that we can sign Jon,” Farrell said during his media session. “He’s obviously still going through his free-agency process. … We’re still optimistic that he’ll be in a Red Sox uniform. There’s a lot of history between the Red Sox and Jon. We have a strong desire to bring him back, and yet hopefully this is coming to a little bit of a head here.”
Giants GM Brian Sabean — who was said to have had a lengthy meeting with Lester’s agents on Sunday night — told a group of San Francisco writers, “We’re still on board.”
What was unclear was whether Lester would get the $150 million he was said to be seeking on a six-year deal — or a seventh year. The Cubs aren’t likely to go to either of those levels.
Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer would not comment on Lester or Hammel. Although Hammel looks like insurance against losing out on Lester, one industry source suggested it has no effect on the pursuit of Lester. “Put it this way: They’re trying to win,” he said.
Hammel, who made $6 million on a one-year, build-value deal this year, gets $9 million each of the first two years with a $12 million option for a third year (including $2 million buyout).
As for whether signing a second-tier pitcher could affect the Cubs’ thinking on a big-ticket guy, Hoyer said, “We’ve been pretty clear we want to add multiple starting pitchers this winter. I think we need to.”
Team president Theo Epstein said at the time of Hammel’s July 2 trade to the Oakland Athletics that the club was open to bringing him back as a free agent.
In Oakland a few weeks after the trade, Hammel called his three months with the Cubs’ “at the top of the list of my best baseball experiences I’ve ever had.”
In a conversation with the Sun-Times, he said he was open to a return but not if he thought he was going to be a flip guy again.
“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,” he said.
And if the Cubs were planning, finally, to try to win — as they’ve talked about ever since September?
“That would be like the perfect storm,” he said then. “I definitely loved it there.”
MEETINGS BUZZ: The Cubs are said to be negotiating with the Diamondbacks to acquire 31-year-old catcher Miguel Montero, who has three years, $40 million left on his contract. It’s not believed the deal would require one of the Cubs’ top-tier prospects. One national report suggested the teams were discussing some Cubs’ pitching prospects.