Five starts into his Cubs career, Cole Hamels looks like the bargain of the summer trading season.
For the low, low price of $5 million in salary commitment and a few unproven pitchers, the Cubs got a playoff-veteran starter who suddenly looks like the single biggest key to their postseason hopes.
But wait, there’s more!
And that’s the big tease, the part of the deal that looks bigger with every start Hamels makes and every expensive Cubs pitcher who goes on the disabled list late in the season.
Will the Cubs exercise the $20 million option year on Hamels’ contract and bring back the former Phillies and Rangers ace in 2019?
That question got more compelling when $126 million starter Yu Darvish was shut down for the year after being diagnosed Monday with a stress-reaction bone bruise in his elbow. Three days later, $38 million free agent Tyler Chatwood — already demoted for his historically bad command problems — went on the DL with a mysterious hip injury.
Cubs-centric social media seems to want Hamels back, even though he’ll be 35 next season.
If anyone wants it more, it might be Hamels.
“That’s obviously something that I know [team president] Theo [Epstein] and the ownership and I think [manager Joe] Maddon will have to think about,” Hamels told the Sun-Times. “My job is to obviously make them think a little bit harder.
“It’s to show them that I’m here to try to win every game that I possibly can, and in between those games do what I can to prepare, to help guys prepare, and still be a positive influence day in and day out.”
After slumping the previous month with the Rangers, Hamels is 4-0 with a 0.79 ERA and averaging nearly seven innings in his first five starts with the Cubs.
According to the terms of the July 27 trade, the Rangers must pay the $6 million buyout price if the Cubs’ decline the 2019 option. Otherwise, the Rangers keep that money.
So that’s a full $20 million payroll hit in a season in which the luxury-tax threshold will go up by $9 million over this year ($206 million).
Theoretically, the Cubs could allow the Rangers to pay the buyout and then work out a free-agent deal with Hamels — say, two years, $30 million, which would reduce the luxury-tax-related impact to $15 million.
With five weeks left in the season and October to worry about, the Cubs aren’t ready to start the internal debate, much less talk about it.
“He’s a wonderful guy to have around the clubhouse,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “He’s excited to be here. He’s been a winner his entire career. He’s pitched in big games. So far, it’s been great. Obviously, we’re focused entirely on 2018. Those discussions are for after the season.”
Hoyer also has more than once said in theory, “There’s almost no such thing as a bad one-year contract.”
The issue might be less pressing if the Cubs had built even a semblance of a pitching pipeline in their farm system the last six years. Their top pitching prospect this season, Adbert Alzolay, finished on the DL (lat strain).
In the short term, they’re counting on sixth starter Mike Montgomery to come back quickly from a sore shoulder to stabilize the starting depth down the stretch.
A two-month oblique injury for Hamels last season ended his streak of consecutive seasons with 200 innings at seven, ultimately preventing the option from vesting through an innings clause based on the final two years of the deal.
“When I signed that [six-year, $144 million] contract six years ago, the assumption was that I was going to make it vest,” he said. “I was always a guy that got 200 innings, so that was a no-brainer. Unfortunately, the injury kind of hit in the worst possible year.”
He’s strong enough at this point to have pitched the National League’s 12th complete game to beat the Reds on Thursday.
“But I always thought it was a pretty fair [option], compared to what I’m capable of doing and what I’ve done in the past,” said Hamels, who was both the NL Championship Series MVP and World Series MVP for the Phillies in 2008. “I know you don’t look at what somebody did in the past because we’ve always got to look forward. But I still feel like I can prove that that’s a good option.
“And it’s something that I’m going to definitely make a team think about long and hard.”
Epstein and Hoyer got Hamels on their second try. They came up short when they tried to deal from a cash-strapped position with the Phillies before the Rangers acquired him in July 2015.
When Hamels joined the Cubs last month, he recalled that episode with what seemed like a tinge of disappointment.
“They were always a team that was at the top of my list of teams I would like to play for,” Hamels said. “It’s just because of the environment, the history, just how they’re run, just knowing what Theo and Jed and those guys have been able to put together, in Boston and then obviously over here. So there was always an interest.”
After two exceptional starts at Wrigley Field since joining the team, he’s 4-1 with a 1.58 ERA and 56 strikeouts (nine walks) in 57 innings in eight career starts there. That included a seven-inning no-decision in a duel with perennial Cy Young winner Max Scherzer on Aug. 12.
His first impressions now that he’s in the home uniform?
“Everything and more,” he said. “To be able to see the excitement with the fan base on a daily basis, both how they travel and how they show up at Wrigley, it really gets you motivated, on top of the fact that everybody in this clubhouse has a great time, expects results and knows how to keep an even keel.
“You just want to be able to be another piece that can help them win and provide any sort of leadership or knowledge, just from experience, that I can to help guys out and make them better, too.”