One thing we expected and the other caught us a little by surprise. When Dexter Fowler exercised his mutual option on Saturday – one that will make him a free agent in 2017 – it came as no big surprise. If you recall, Dexter went out on the free agent market last off-season and realized there wasn’t much of a market at all. That’s when he decided to come back to the open arms of the Cubs and accept a deal that was worse than the original qualifying offer the Cubs made him. So seeing Dexter flee after trying the free agent market in the 2015 off-season and failing, and after having a career year, and entering a weak free agent market for outfielders, comes as no real shock.
Then there’s Jason Hammel. The Cubs announced on Sunday that they will not be exercising their club option to keep Hammel on the roster and, instead, will pay the $2 million buyout and make him a free agent. If you haven’t seen it yet, here is the Cubs official press release and statement from Theo Epstein.
First, I want to thank Jason for all of his contributions in his almost three seasons as a Cub. He was an effective, reliable starter the entire time he was a Cub, and this year he was an integral part of one of the best rotations in club history. We would not have been in a position to win the World Series without Jason’s terrific performance during the regular season. Jason and his family have been outstanding members of our organization and our community, and we are proud of their time with and impact on the Cubs.
While Jason is healthy and primed to have another effective season in 2017, we have decided to consider other internal and external options for our starting rotation next year. Our hope is that by giving a starting opportunity to some younger pitchers under multiple years of club control, we can unearth a starter who will help us not only in 2017 but also in 2018 and beyond.
When we agreed with Jason on this two-year contract back at the 2014 winter meetings, the option was included with the intent that it would be exercised if Jason was going to be a Cub in 2017. The intent was never to exercise the option and then trade Jason, so we will not consider that path. Instead, Jason will have the opportunity to enter free agency coming off an outstanding season and the ability to choose his next club. Meanwhile, the organization gains some flexibility and the opportunity to use a rotation spot to develop a younger, long-term starting pitcher.
We wish the Hammels nothing but the absolute best going forward. We would certainly be open to Jason rejoining the organization in the future, but even if that never happens we will always consider him a Cub and be thankful for his role in delivering a World Series championship to the people of Chicago.
In the end, this was about doing what was right for a player who was a big part of the Cubs successful run to the 2016 World Series Title. Of course, the Cubs could’ve re-signed Jason and then tried to trade him, although it remains to be seen if his $10 million salary would’ve been a plus or a draw-back for an interested team. It looks to be a pretty weak market for starting pitchers this off-season so our guess is that Jason will likely end up signing with another team for around that same level, maybe a bit less.
So now that we know with certainty that both Jason and Dexter will hit the free agent market and both, most likely, will end up with other teams, where does that leave the Cubs?
In the outfield, there are going to be a number of moving pieces for Chicago heading into the 2017 season. With the return and Kyle Schwarber, and the less-than-likely shot he’ll ever play catcher again, you can bet he’ll be plugged into left field and stay there. It’s likely that he will platoon a bit with Ben Zobrist getting added to the mix in the outfield. As for Jorge Soler, I just don’t see a place for him and his club-friendly contract on the Cubs and I’d expect to see him get moved in the off-season. Although, we’ve been thinking that for a while now and it never seems to happen.
As for center field, and replacing Dexter Fowler, we may see some platooning happen there too. I completely expect that Albert Almora will be the starting center fielder for the Cubs in the future, and that future may well come sooner rather than later. In the meantime, we may see a combination of Almora and Jason Heyward playing center field, with Zobrist playing out in right field when Heyward is in center. In this scenario, I’m assuming that Javier Baez has cemented his place as the starting second baseman, which is a pretty safe assumption but, with Joe Maddon, you never really know until it happens.
As for the starting pitching situation, that remains to be seen. The Cubs have some guys on the current roster that they could plug into the fifth starter spot in the rotation. I won’t be surprised if they move Mike Montgomery into that spot – he was a starter with Seattle before moving to the bullpen and he was fairly effective in a spot-starting role for the Cubs down the stretch.
Another option for the fifth starting spot could be left-hander Rob Zastryzny. He was a starter in the minors, albeit not quite as effective as he was as a reliever for the Cubs after they called him up from the minors in 2016. The big question with Rob will be if the Cubs would view moving him into a starting role as an experiment or a decision that they’d feel comfortable sticking with. That may get flushed out in spring training.
The Cubs certainly have some talented young pitchers in their minor league system that could hit the major league roster in 2017. Guys like Dylan Cease, Pierce Johnson and Oscar De La Cruz all have a shot at making the Cubs opening day roster but I’d be a little surprised to see any of them slotted into that fifth starter spot. To me, Cease is the only guy on that short list that I’d think the Cubs would even remotely consider as a starter in 2017.
The other option, of course, would be making a trade for a fifth starter. That’s possible but it may come at too high a price considering the overall weak free agent market for starting pitchers. And, if that was the Cubs intention then why wouldn’t they have just kept Hammel on the roster? It seems like this move is more about getting young guys into the fold and not about making a trade for pitching. If that is the case, expect to see a nice competition leading into spring training for that final starting pitching spot.