We wrap up our singular player reviews (I’ll have a group one tomorrow about the pen and bench) with the pitcher who might have saved it all, who probably could still help, and yet is probably not coming back. It was a confusing year for Cole Hamels, who looked 27 again for much of it, and then definitely 35 for the important portion. Wait, that’s not confusing at all. Pretty simple, even. Well I’m an idiot. Anyway, let’s do it up.
27 starts, 141 innings
3.81 ERA 4.09 FIP
9.08 K/9 3.56 BB/9 1.39 WHIP
47.3 GB% 36.4% Hard-Contact Rate 12.9% HR/FB
87 ERA- 2.5 WAR
Tell Me A Story: It’s probably best to look at Hamels’s season before his late-June oblique injury and then his attempted comeback as two separate entities. Because before the injury, Hamels was pretty brilliant. In the first 98.2 innings of 2019, Hamels had a 2.92 ERA with a 1.19 WHIP and a 3.58 FIP. Hitters only managed a .231 average off of him, and he was getting over half his contact on the ground. That’s all very good, and no one seemed to care that he was 35. Or even notice, really.
And then he got hurt. And it was the same injury he had in Texas, the one that knocked him off-stride for basically a full season. The one that made him pretty damn affordable via trade for the Cubs. And it was clear that Hamels wasn’t healthy, but still trying to pitch through it, which should have raised more question than it did about the Cubs medical and training staff as he was far from the only one laboring through lingering physical problems. Hamels only threw 42 innings after the injury, though he made 10 starts. His ERA was 5.79. Hitters went for a .315 average off of him, his walk-rate went up a third, and his ground-ball rate dropped by almost a quarter.
When Hamels came back, he had lost a mile per hour or so from all of his pitches, and he didn’t throw that hard to begin with. Worse yet, he’d lost a ton of horizontal movement to his cutter, which wasn’t even breaking in on right-handed hitters anymore. To go with that, his change had lost some fade as well:
It was almost as if Hamels couldn’t “finish” his pitches due to some physical ailment.
Hamels wasn’t around for the series at home to the Cardinals, and didn’t complete more than four innings in any of his last four starts. He was able to gut through some starts post-injury or dance through raindrops, but also got mutilated by the Brewers, Phillies, and Reds in the back half of his season. A healthy Hamels most certainly doesn’t lose all those games, and can probably go longer in others and show up to the post against the Cardinals. Would it have made a difference? It would have made a difference, perhaps not the difference.
Contract: Free agent.
Welcome Back Or Boot In The Ass: This isn’t as cut and dried as some Cubs fans might think. While it’s clear the Cubs need an upgrade in the rotation, and now thanks to the hole left by Hamels they have a clear spot to do it in, the options aren’t plentiful. Gerrit Cole is a pipe dream, and even if Stephen Strasburg were to opt out he might be an even bigger pipe dream (as well as something of a scare after his postseason load. Yes yes, “phrasing”). The rest of the free agent pool absolutely blows. Trade targets aren’t plentiful, as Syndergaard might not be gettable for what the Cubs have to peddle. An aging Corey Kluber? That might yield the same results as Hamels, given his injury problems this year, and he’s only two years younger.
So what the Cubs, or any other team, needs to decide is if Hamels is the pre-injury dude, the post-injury dude, or something in between. And with that, at age-36 is he more or less likely to get hurt again, or more or less likely to recover as well from this one. That’s a lot to figure out, and pretty much none of it has a clear answer.
The pre-injury Hamels is probably enough for the Cubs, especially with a boosted bullpen and at a cheaper rate than the $20M he got last year. Given his age, injury, and the miserly free agent market run by all the scrooges, he’s never going to get that $20M again. But even a guy who’s in between Hamels’s pre- and post-injury performance isn’t enough for the Cubs. Not without another move, at least.
The Cubs might be best slow-playing this one unless something else falls into their lap. If Hamels can’t find the money he wants or team he wants for a while, and you can get him on reasonable money for one year, he very well might be worth the risk. Again, until his injury, Hamels had the 12th-best ERA in all of baseball top-20 in FIP.
Still, you’d have deep reservations about him making it unscathed through a full season, and if you plan on playing in October again, how you’d manage him through that as well. I’d still say if he comes in at somewhere between $10M-$12M for the season, you could absolutely justify the risk.
It shouldn’t be the Cubs first option. Maybe not even second. But as a third or fourth? You can definitely see it.