SCOTTSDALE, Az. — The Cubs could have made it difficult on right-hander Jason Hammel. They could have picked up his $12 million option, stuck him in their bullpen and depressed his free-agent value next season.
“I really do believe with any other team, I would have been taken advantage of,” Hammel said Monday. “If they would have picked up my option, it very easily could have ended my career.”
Instead, Hammel said, the Cubs honored a commitment they made when they signed him to a two-year, $20 million free-agent contract in Dec. 2014 — a commitment not to exercise his third-year option and trade him.
The history between the two parties helps explain why the Cubs allowed Hammel to become a free agent on Sunday, even though he had a 3.83 ERA in 166 2/3 innings last season. The move seemed curious at the time; teams rarely decline reasonable club options on starting pitchers, knowing how fleeting rotation depth can be.
But the Cubs, according to Hammel and his agent, Alan Nero, remembered the context of their original free-agent negotiations, how Hammel was concerned about the team effectively using the option against him and trading him during that season for the third time in his career.
“It all boils down to Theo’s character, the fact that he lives up to his word,” Nero said of Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein. “Jason is coming off the best season of his life. It’s appropriate for him to be a free agent. Theo took the high road, as he normally does.”
Hammel, now 34, had better offers in Dec. 2014 — offers for three years, offers for more than $10 million annually, both parties said. He took less to return to the Cubs, who had traded him to the Athletics the previous July.
The Cubs did not grant Hammel a no-trade clause for the option year, and one team official said he would not even describe their commitment as a gentlemen’s agreement. But by making Hammel a free agent, Epstein kept his end of the bargain.
Epstein likely could have acquired a fringe prospect or middle reliever for Hammel, but the Cubs will benefit in other ways by simply letting him go; their treatment of Hammel reinforces to players and agents that their front office can be trusted.
“The intent was never to exercise the option and then trade Jason, so we will not consider that path,” Epstein said in a statement. “Instead, Jason will have the opportunity to enter free agency coming off an outstanding season and the ability to choose his next club.”
Hammel and his wife, Elissa, said their strong connection with Epstein and Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer began when the team signed Jason as a free agent in 2014, and actually grew stronger when he was traded to the A’s.
Elissa was pregnant at the time, as were the wives of both Epstein and Hoyer.
“Elissa was in the lobby with me as we got traded,” Hammel said (the Cubs were in Washington at the time.) “She ran into Jed. She was bawling her eyes out.
“We were like, ‘We pitched so well, there’s no way you’d actually trade us.’ It kind of resonated with them, how that move was so crazy for us. I think they understood what was going on with our family.”
Said Elissa, “We established a good relationship with them personally and professionally where there was mutual respect for not just using us as a chess piece, but really kind of caring about their players and their players’ families, which is really why they succeeded this year.
“The families of the Cubs’ organization are treated like gold. And they know how that affects the player. I don’t think it’s just us. They know there is a ripple effect. You keep the family happy, you keep the player happy and the players can perform. They followed that mantra the entire time we were there.”