The Cubs sucked in 2014. They won a mere 73 games, and while they had a respectable expected win count (based off fWAR) of 79.8, that doesn't stand out in any way. Moreover, this year actually represented an improvement from the two that preceded it: In 2012 and 2013, the club had 61 and 66 victories, respectively, to go along with expected win totals of 65.2 and 74.3, respectively. Overall, the last three years haven't been pretty.
Nevertheless, the future has hope — and a lot of it. Theo Epstein's farm system, in the words of FanGraphs' Kiley McDaniel, "has to be in the top five" and could be "the best system in baseball". With impact prospects all over the diamond, and some solid major leaguers as well, this team should dominate in a few years.
Looking to pad that hegemony a bit, the Cubs signed Jason Hammel to a two-year, $18 million contract today. The deal has a club option for 2017 (and a $2 million buyout), so it could become a three-season pact. Will he make it worthwhile?
In all likelihood, yes. Once teams have scooped up all the usable players, the price of a win on the free-agent market will probably fall around $6 million. At that rate, Hammel would have to crank out three wins over the next two years. Steamer projects 163.0 innings of 1.6-WAR ball for Hammel in 2015. If he fulfills that, and does the same thing in 2016 (a fairly modest proposition), he'll have provided...3.2 WAR. So yeah, it'll probably be a good deal.
Before we delve into what this means for the Cubs, though, I'd like to take a closer look at Hammel's performance this year. After an ugly final season in Baltimore (139.1 innings, 115 xFIP-), he went to the Cubs on a one-year, $6 million contract. He turned that around, putting up an 87 xFIP- in his time in Chicago; for the Athletics, to whom the Cubs traded him in July, he'd presumably do the same. That didn't happen, as he regressed significantly to the tune of a 110 xFIP-.
The first Chicago iteration of Hammel used his slider more than ever before:
While it didn't have more velocity, it had gained an extra inch of vertical bite over its predecessors:
Perhaps due to this, it blew away Senior Circuit hitters; its run value per 100 pitches of 1.84 would have ranked fifth in baseball. This propelled him to the success he enjoyed in Chicago.
Unfortunately, something stopped working in the Bay. Hammel's slider lost nearly two miles per hour of velocity and consequently tumbled to -0.33 runs per 100 pitches. Most of the blame for his Oakland devolution should fall on this.
But what caused the slider to lose its efficacy? I can't see any real cause — none of his other pitches saw decreased speed, and he didn't have any injuries. With this in mind, I don't see any reason why he can't return to his early-2014 form in 2015. If the slider returns with force, so will the Hammel of old.
Suppose Hammel does make a comeback. For how good of a team will he play? In all likelihood, not an above-average one, at least not immediately. FanGraphs currently sees the Cubs as a 75.8-win team in 2015; even the signing of Jon Lester, a 3.6-win player on his own, wouldn't get them above .500. There's nothing wrong with this — again, this roster will blow away the competition in a few years — but in the short term, Hammel doesn't seem to serve much of a purpose. Why, then, would they sign him?
Their past might offer an answer. When the Cubs brought Hammel in a year ago, they knew he wouldn't finish the season on the North Side. As with Scott Feldman the year prior, he came to the team as one thing: a trade chip, for which they could hopefully collect a prospect or two in July. Sure enough, the Athletics came knocking, and Chicago packaged Hammel with Jeff Samardzija to net Addison Russell (and others). With Russell topping BP's Cubs prospect ranking, the Cubs clearly made out well here.
Did Epstein have the same thing in mind when he inked Hammel again? Perhaps not; a deal of this duration generally stays put. However, the probable output of his club next year might lead him to sell again, and a reliable starting pitcher could tantalize several playoff hopefuls.
Let's say the Cubs play as expected in 2015. At the trade deadline, they'll hang around .500, with Hammel posting respectable numbers. The Red Sox, meanwhile, will probably be in contention: Largely because of their recent spending spree, FanGraphs projects them as the third-best team in baseball for 2015. They might need pitching, though — their rotation has the sixth-lowest projected WAR. Obviously, that ranking will improve as they ink some free agents, but it most likely won't rise much above average. As it prepares for the postseason, this squad might look for a starter to boost their chances.
Enter Chicago. They can offer a decent righty, whom the Red Sox can control for an additional year (possibly two, if they exercise his option) beyond 2015. For that, they could sacrifice a mid-level prospect — say, Brian Johnson or Matt Barnes. That would give the Cubs a back-end starter for six years, instead of three at a much lower price. This deal has worked for them twice already, and there's no reason to think it won't happen the third time around.
Regardless of where he goes from here, both in terms of quality of pitching and literal location, Hammel's career will almost certainly progress. He has a much better future than he did a year ago; spending it on a Cubs dynasty, or on another team that vies for a title, would probably improve it further.
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Ryan Romano is an editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles on Camden Depot and on Camden Chat that one time. Follow him on Twitter at @triple_r_ if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.