The Cubs made very shrewd moves to bring in a pair of former Rangers for the stretch run, both of whom ended up exceeding everyone’s expectations by a wide margin. In terms of both their performance and their fit within the clubhouse, Cole Hamels and Jesse Chavez offer everything an organization could ask for. What’s more, they both like pitching in Chicago and have openly expressed their desire to return.
So is it a foregone conclusion that both will be integral members of the pitching staff in 2019? The emotional answer is yes. The skeptical answer is no, if only because you never know exactly what you’re going to get from 35-year-old pitchers. But the bigger issue is financial, particularly when it comes to Hamels and his $20 million option.
Because that’s a moderately complicated topic, let’s first turn to Chavez, who was adamant in the aftermath of the Cubs’ Wild Card loss that he only planned to play for one team next season.
“If I’m not wearing this next year, I’m done,” the reliever told ESPN’s Marly Rivera while pointing to the Cubs logo on his shirt.
Jesse Chavez just told a few of his teammates "If I'm not wearing this next year –points to Cubs logo on shirt– I'm done." https://t.co/1dnrmmrhIz
— Marly Rivera (@MarlyRiveraESPN) October 3, 2018
So that’s pretty clear, though how strongly he’ll feel the same once the last vestiges of the season have been washed away is uncertain. Chavez was playing under a one-year, $1 million deal in 2018, but his post-trade performance was worthy of a significant raise. On the other hand, he sort of limited his market and could become the next in a long line to take less money to play for the Cubs.
This one seems like a no-brainer if the Cubs are able to retain him on a short-term deal for a reasonable salary. Wait, isn’t that what we said about Brian Duensing? Well, yeah, but Chavez is a distinctly different player and would be worth the minor risk involved. So I say he’s back.
As for Hamels, his return seems almost a foregone conclusion if you just take him and the Cubs at their word.
“Absolutely,” Theo Epstein said during his postseason presser when asked if he’d like to have Hamels back. “Cole was such a breath of fresh air for us. He made an unbelievable impression. For a guy who’s only been here for a couple months, he’s as universally respected in that room as anyone I’ve ever seen. He’s a pro’s pro and contributed tremendously on the field and off the field with a great engaged, accountable, positive presence in that clubhouse.”
Those sentiments were echoed by the veteran lefty, who relished the chance to pitch in a playoff race after struggling through the first half with the Rangers.
“Hopefully, I did everything I can to convince them that (option) would be valuable,” Hamels told Patrick Mooney (subscription) after the loss. “This organization’s an amazing organization. I’m very fortunate that they made the effort to trade for me.
“I did everything I could. This is a tremendous environment to play baseball. This clubhouse, these guys are awesome. I only was able to get about two months with them. It would be a joy to be able to do it from spring training to the ultimate goal of winning the World Series here.”
So the Cubs love Hamels and Hamels loves the Cubs. But just how much the Cubs are willing to pay for that love is at the heart of the matter here. The lefty’s contract has a $20 million club option for 2019 with a $6 million buyout that the Rangers were to send to the Cubs should they decline Hamels’ option. If that stipulation wasn’t there and it was just a matter of the $14 million — and it still may be, in a way — this is a done deal.
There’s also the possibility that the Cubs could hoodwink the Rangers by declining the option and collecting the $6 million, only to turn around and ink Hamels to a two-year, $25 million deal or something like that. That figure represents more than they’d be on the hook for otherwise, but it would lower the Cubs’ AAV commitment no matter how you look at it (we’ll discuss that here shortly).
However, such a stunt would be viewed as underhanded and would not go over well around the league. It could also sour what has been a very good business relationship between the Cubs and Rangers, particularly when the latter organization is looking to exercise more frugality this offseason and could really use that money.
Theo on wanting to bring Hamels back: “absolutely” .. “a pro’s pro.”
— Mark Gonzales (@MDGonzales) October 3, 2018
That brings us to the financial impact the Cubs would have to absorb, the extent of which I will admit I may not have a full understanding of. Brett Taylor has a take on it over at Bleacher Nation that differs from how I believe it works, but, again, this is a pretty unique situation and I could well be wrong.
Baseball contracts exist on two different planes: Raw payroll and average annual value. The former is simply what a team will actually have to pay the player based on what is due that season, while the latter is an average of all the guaranteed money of the contract over all the guaranteed years. Payroll is a matter of an organization’s liquidity, AAV is what’s used in the calculation of the team’s competitive balance tax figure.
In Hamels’ case, the buyout is guaranteed and would have been rolled into the AAV of his base contract that ran through 2018. As such, my understanding is that the Rangers (and the Phillies before them, with the Cubs assuming a prorated portion for his time there) have already borne the weight of the $6 million in their CBT figures.That would mean only the remaining $14 million of his 2019 option would apply to Chicago’s upcoming luxury tax figure.
So Hamels would still be collecting $20 million in salary, all of which would come from the Cubs, but the Cubs would only have to count $14 million of it toward their CBT number. So the money the Rangers would have sent the Cubs was not a matter of cap relief, but would have helped with payroll. Not that Tom Ricketts is worried about a few million; he loses that much each year the pockets of his dry cleaning. But it could mean quite a bit to a team that may not be as flush with cash.
Ideally, the intricacies of Hamels’ cap hit will be inconsequential if the Cubs front office gets the green light to blow past the $206 million CBT threshold for 2019. But if they are under orders to once again dance the limbo, and if my understanding of the situation is wrong, that $6 million represents nearly 3 percent of the total they’ve got to work with. That would make things interesting and would give rise to the temptation to do a new deal and lower the AAV.
Again, though, I don’t think the Cubs would be on the hook for $20 million in AAV if they pick up the option and I don’t think they’ll be concerned about the tax threshold either way. So all of this has been an overly-detailed way of saying that all signs point toward the Cubs picking up Hamels’ option for 2019. In fact, I’ll go ahead and guarantee that’s exactly what they do (which means I probably just jinxed it).