SURPRISE, Ariz. — Two years ago, teams feted Jon Lester, sent gifts to him and family members, made video presentations and made nine-figure contract offers.
Jason Hammel? After winning 15 games for the World Series champions, the right-hander lingered on in the free-agent market without an offer. Teams doubted his health after he missed his final start of the season and was left off the playoff roster. But after firing his agents, he finally signed a two-year, $16 million deal with the Royals in February.
“I actually feel very thankful that I was able to get what I could get at that point,” Hammel said before the Cubs and Royals played an exhibition game Wednesday. “I’ve learned that free agency pretty much sucks if you’re not one of the top two at every position.”
Hammel, 34, said it’s “one of the places I wanted to be,” with the 2015 World Series-champion Royals — even if the timing coincided with the team’s sudden and heart-wrenching way their need for pitching arose after the death of 25-year-old ace Yordano Ventura.
But Hammel never wanted to leave Chicago, either.
“I love how people are saying it was a choice,” said Hammel, who was 33-22 with a 3.59 ERA in 78 starts for the Cubs in 2½ seasons. “It really wasn’t. It was either basically pitch out of the bullpen or not have a job.”
That was made clear to him by team president — and Lakeview neighbor — Theo Epstein barely three days after the final pitch of the World Series during a meeting in Hammel’s home to discuss the club’s $12 million option on his contract.
“I wanted to stay a Cub. But at this stage of my career, I’m not ready to pitch out of the bullpen,” Hammel said.
The Cubs might have declined the option regardless. Team officials suggested that allowing Hammel to become a free agent not only was a benefit to him in a pitching-thin free-agent market but also for the club, which wanted to get younger at the back end of its rotation and in the bullpen. And Hammel said he agreed at the time he could leverage the market.
Meanwhile, it’s anybody’s guess whether the Cubs are better off a month before their title defense opens in St. Louis.
Hammel said he understands the Cubs’ desire to get younger on the pitching staff.
“But I felt like I had proven myself over and over again for three years there,” he said. “It’s the business side of baseball. And I’m very happy that I’m over here with these guys.”
The Cubs’ vision for their fifth starter this year involves a combination of two pitchers in a “hybrid” rotation spot.
It comes with high hopes but little certainty, whether that’s about the oft-injured Brett Anderson’s health or Mike Montgomery’s inexperience as a big-league starter.
Even when talking about how much he likes Anderson’s upside this week, manager Joe Maddon wasn’t ready to suggest the Cubs were better off then they were with Hammel as part of the rotation last season.
“Jason won 15 games; that’s not easy to do,” Maddon said. “Hammer did a lot of great work for us. There might have been a bit of a slide towards the ends of the [last two] seasons. I can’t just tell you blanketly that this guy’s going to come in and be able to put up that kind of line.”
Maddon’s quick hooks in some of Hammel’s starts the last two summers and Hammel’s non-roster status throughout the long postseason run might have influenced his market as much as the “elbow tightness” that cost him his final regular-season start.
Hammel said he believes it was solely a perception of his elbow that affected his market — a perception that began to change after he switched agents near the beginning of the year and underwent a fresh physical.
Hammel, a sign-and-flip guy in 2014 who was traded before taking a discount to return to a place he fell in love with, said he has no regrets about his decision.
In fact, he plans to keep his home in Chicago and suggested he might be willing to return as a reliever some day.
“I don’t hold grudges, and I’m certainly not going to burn a bridge,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me at all. I’m very happy. We won the World Series. And now I get to go try to do it with another team that’s very capable.”
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