So-so spring? So what? Expect Jason Hammel to be the latest SP acquisition to get off to a solid start

Last year the Cubs acquired a tall (6'7") RHP early in the free agent period.  He relied on throwing a low 90s two-seamer with good plane, pounding the lower part of the zone and looking to draw weak ground ball contact.  The problem is that that style of pitching doesn't always show up well in the spring.  Pitchers are stronger and tend to leave leave the ball up, the thin air sometimes takes the edge off some of their good movement, and maybe that precise location hasn't shown up yet that early in the year.

That pitcher put up an 0-3 record with an 11.25 ERA in the spring.  He got pounded, leaving the ball up, giving up 38 hits, including a whopping 7 HRs, in just 20 innings of work.

The previous year, another pitcher had similar issues with command and the long ball, putting up a 10.67 ERA, giving up 7 walks, 24 hits and 4 HRs in 14.1 innings and 24 HRs.

What were the Cubs thinking?  It certainly didn't take long for some fans to call for the Cubs to dump their new acquisitions.

That first pitcher was Scott Feldman and he was arguably the Cubs best pitcher in the first half last season, particularly the first two months, along with Travis Wood, who was that second pitcher we mentioned.  Wood took a bit longer but he was also pretty effective in that 2012 season after his poor spring, putting up a 4.27 ERA, including a 3.05 ERA in the first half of that season.

Although Wood is a different kind of pitcher, he also relies on keeping his two seamer low in the zone and the ball in the park, so there are similarities in terms of approach.

By comparison, another tall (6'6") RHP, Jason Hammel, is actually having a much better swing than Feldman did.  He has kept the ball in the park but for him it has come at the expense of throwing strikes.  Like Wood, he has also struggled with his command, keeping the ball and allowing 17 hits and walking 8 in 12.2 innings.  But unlike either of the previous two pitchers, Hammel has kept the ball in the park.  So far he has yet to allow a HR and has put up a comparatively solid 4.26 ERA.

Now I'm not saying that just because Wood and Feldman had atrocious springs and then good seasons that the same will happen with Hammel, but what I am saying is that sometimes we put a little too much into what happens in the spring, especially when we're dealing with pitchers who depend on keeping the ball down in the zone to have success.

I like Hammel's potential to get off to a good start in 2014.  His low to mid 90s velocity, the good downward plane, and the movement on his two seamer will make him tough in that cold April weather.  If he can keep the ball at the knees, then it's going to be difficult for hitters to hit the ball into the air.  What we should see instead is hitters pounding the ball into the ground and right into the teeth of a good infield defense, a strategy that plays right into the Cubs plans.

Last year Hammel put up a solid 3.79 ERA in the first month of the season but was unable to sustain it all year.  The year before he was even better, putting up a 1.97 ERA.  In 2011, it was 3.23.  That's a 3.02 ERA over the last 3 seasons for April over 98.1 innings.

The key for Hammel in 2014 is to sustain that level, something he only did in only one of those 3 seasons (2012).

Hammel has been more effective throwing the two-seam FB in recent seasons and Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio has been very effective teaching pitchers to work with that pitch in Wrigley Field.  It seems to me that the Cubs think that they can get similar results with the Bosio and Hammel tandem as they did with Bosio and Feldman, especially early in the season.

What that translates to in the long term remains to be seen.  The Cubs ultimately traded Feldman, but that was due in large part to the Cubs being out of contention by the July.  They kept Travis Wood, but that was mostly because he was young, pre-prime, and cost-controlled.  None of those things apply with Hammel at this point.

There are too many variables to say with any kind of certainty so for now, the main concern is to get Hammel off on the right foot  If the team struggles as many expect, then he becomes trade bait.  But if the Cubs surprise as a team, they can deal with it then.  Even if the Cubs do get off to a good start, they may still want to deal him with an eye toward helping the present team and adding cost control, as the Jake Arrieta/Pedro Strop return did last year.  But if they can't do something like that, then it wouldn't shock me to see the Cubs hang on to him if they think they have any chance to win in 2014.

But that's a bridge they can cross later.  For now, I'm only saying that we shouldn't worry about the mediocre spring.  The goal is to get Hammel off to a good start (and hopefully the Cubs along with him) and go from there.

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    My brother is a big O's fan. As soon as the Cubs signed Hammel I texted him and told him we would "shine him up" and send him back in July for some prospects! He didn't like that idea very much but hopefully it works out (even if it's not the O's who take him!)

  • In reply to Brandon Halford:

    Ha! I wouldn't surprised if he's dealt, especially if the Cubs struggle as much as people are expecting.

    Just for argument's sake, though, let's say he gets off to a Feldman-ish start and the Cubs are in the wild card race, would you still want to deal him? I think that's a tough question and I hope it's one we get to answer soon -- if not this year, then sometime in the next couple of years.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    I would love to see him work out. He is only 31 and it would be great if he could put it together for a couple of years and help the Cubbies be competitive. I am 100% behind the rebuilding plan but I am also excited for the winning to start so lets get a wild card and get this started!

  • In reply to Brandon Halford:

    That's kind of how I feel. I don't think it will happen this year, but I'm looking forward to the day when we don't look to trade everyone -- because that will mean the team is finally winning!

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    I wonder what type of season it would take for us to put out a qualifying offer? Giving how this market went this year, I would assume a lot more fringe players would be accepting those offers, but there looks to be very few starters available in the mid-tier range. It would be nice to what Hoyer and Theo would do with two first round picks next year.

  • I think he'll fit nicely in with what this FO is trying to accomplish. Whether that's having him pitch well & flipping him near deadline or they like what they have and keep him around. I'm looking forward to him & Arrieta starting on this team.

  • In reply to Milk Stout:

    Agreed. And I hope Arrieta is ready soon.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    Really seems like they are taking more time than normal for Arrieta and his recovery back--especially with no set backs.

  • In reply to Stomper90:

    Have to think they're just being really cautious. May not be a good idea to rush him back when he hasn't been stretched out, especially heading into cold weather. We may not see him until sometime in May.

    Still, I'm always worried when it's shoulder soreness.

  • In reply to Stomper90:

    Arrieta is a hard thrower, whos essentially a one-speed pitcher. Throws everything hard. Those guys always seem to take longer.

  • I'm on record for saying Hammel won't work out.

    The dumpster diving worked once before, it won't work for Hammel.

    He's not in the rotation by mid-season and it's not being he's traded.

  • We think alike, watching him last week, I liked the downward action. Heard he has made a great impression in camp with his hard work and professionalism.
    If they can get anything out of Jackson, could be a pretty salty rotation. I predict cubs will flirt with .500 the first 3 months.

  • You could see the makings of what makes him good, that good plane and once he's in a rhythm you can see him pounding the lower part of that zone. And he throws harder than Feldman too. The key for him will be to throw strikes. If he does and he can stay healthy, he's going to be pretty tough.

  • Will add to that every projection system is somewhat optimistic in that he'll put up an ERA in the low 4s -- and my guess is he'll do his best work early in the season.

  • Based on the last 2 years of "flip this pitcher" I see no reason to doubt this years version in Hammel. I've watched most of his starts and warm-up sessions this Spring and he definitely keeps the ball down. One session he probably threw less than 3 pitches at the eye level of the catcher or above. In the early Spring this only bodes well for him.

    One question about Arrieta, does it seem like he has that Mark Prior/Farnsworth type FB? Meaning it reads 95, but it's straight. I had that impression from his few starts, possibly why he has not been a little more successful? Cannot throw strikes with his off speed pitches and hitters wait for his fb. Just an observation.

  • In reply to Buzz:

    No he's got some nice arm side tail on it. When he reaches back and elevates his 4-seam it can straighten out quite a bit. he doesn't elevate often though. He's what I call a East to West pitcher. He works in & out on batters, not up & down too much. Struggles with control and consistency of all of his pitches. Has incredible movement on all of his offerings, until he starts "over-thinking". i.e., when runners get on base he seems to fall apart. His pitches flatten out and he can't hit his spots because he's too worried about the runners.

    He is IMO, the biggest challenge (after Marmol) we've put in front of Bosio because his issues are more mental than mechanical. Love his stuff though.

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    In reply to Buzz:

    That is exactly what I've heard on Arrieta's's straight. For a guy with his velocity, he doesn't get alot of empty swings.

  • In reply to Zonk:

    Not only straight Zonk. He also has no deception in his delivery, gives the hitters a good look at his pitches. Difference between him and Prior was Prior had much better command.

  • In reply to Buzz:

    Not being able to command it is an issue. MLB hitters can hit 95 when they are expecting it.

  • Besides Wood, it would be reasonable to think that everyone in the rotation could take a step forward in 2014. With a solid bullpen and some timely hits, we could be looking to add some pieces at the deadline...hopefully

  • To be fair (or a jerk, your choice), I'd like to point out that "tall, RHP who looks to pound the bottom of the strike zone with a 2 seam fastball" could also describe Carlos 'Fail Whale' Silva.

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    In reply to Eddie:

    Silva was also two years removed from being anything but awful, and had suffered a big velocity drop almost the minute he signed that big contract with Seattle. He was also fat!

    Somehow he kept it together for 3 months with us; if he pitched for this FO, we would have traded him before he got hurt, and gotten something back

  • In reply to Eddie:

    and Volstaad but I think Hammel is more proven and is going to do good early on. When did we trade Feldman last year? I remember it was earlier than the deadline. Early July? Late June? I know they don't normally get too many trades done before that but if he is starting off like he has the last couple of years and Hendricks is lighting it up in AAA, do you think we could make a trade in May/Early June? Have Arrieta back by then and bring Hendricks up to fill Hammel's spot? I think they had it right last year, find the team in need and get rid of your trade bait before they become human again or get hurt.

  • In reply to IowaCubbie:

    July 2nd according to baseball-reference.

  • In reply to Eddie:

    Silva was a godsend because he allowed us to get rid of Milton. I didn't care how he pitched.

  • In reply to Eddie:

    Silva (and Volstad) were both guys they took on for a guy they didn't want (Bradley and Zambrano). They were more reclamation projects than Wood, Hammel, or Feldman were. And even Silva showed flashes early in the year.

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    I had the team pegged for 75 wins, but seeing the pitching this spring has me shaking my head. That "improved" bullpen has looked brutal. John's caveats about the significance of spring pitching performances are well taken - but the counter-argument is that our major-leaguers are getting pounded by the opposition's minor leaguers and hangers-on. They should at least be dominating those guys, especially early in the year when pitchers are typically ahead of hitters.

  • In reply to SKMD:

    I'm a little nervous about the BP performance as a group thus far. All the s/t caveats apply, but that doesn't really give me any solace.

    Having the depth/plethora of power arms for the BP has been a blessing, right? I think that's a bit of a false sense of security though. Of the 7 projected arms in the BP only Grimm & Rondon can be optioned to Iowa. So if someone is struggling, we either release them or carry them until they turn it around. There's a few caveats like Russell's waiver can be rescinded if someone claims him and Villanueva can be optioned with his permission, etc... But we can't count on any of that happening. So either they perform or we'll have to fake some DL stints to bring up someone to replace them...

    For better or for worse, looks like we're riding with
    Veras (closer?)
    Strop (8th)
    Cabrera, Russell, Wright, Rondon or Grimm (I take Rondon over Grimm)
    Villanueva (swing-middle relief)

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    You do remember Silva started 5-0 for the Cubs before he got injured and fell off. Also, that was during the Hendry era where flipping mediocre pitchers before they showed their true colors was non existent. I give this FO credit in recognizing what pitchers (mediocre sinker ballers who can improve with Bosio's guidance) can take advantage of the early season cold weather at Wrigley and pad their numbers for a potential return for the future. At least for one more year all these "risk" acquisitions are really here to wear the Cubbie blue until July, whether we compete and are around .500 or not. Next year is when we see a possibility of not being complete sellers at the deadline.

  • if the cubs are in the wild card chase, they wont be flipping any assets unless someone is blocking a better asset.

    to be in the hunt I think Olt,Lake,Kalish,Bonafacio,Veras,Jackson, Hammel & Rusin or Arrieta need to get off to a good start. Not counting Castro,Rizzo,Shark & Wood having solid years.

    If they do fall out then I think Hammel,Villanueva,Shark or Jackson,Russell,Veras,Schierholtz & Barney might all be moved by the deadline.

    Hopefully they would be replaced by: Hendrick,Grimm,Jokisch or Ramirez,Rondon, Rosscup,Baez & Alcantera.

  • I fear what another year of losing will do to the psychic of our core. When teams have no experience at winning, they usually continue to lose. I think that the Cubs need to win more this year if they plan on turning things around anytime soon.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    I would argue that with the success at the minor league levels - FSL champions and Tennessee doing well in the Southern League playoffs in 2013 - the young core actually has a lot of experience at winning. Even the 2013 Solar Sox played in the AFL championship game. These kids seem to win anywhere they go.

  • In reply to MKE cubs:

    That's a good point, but was thinking more about the psychic of young mlb guys like Olt, Castro, Rizzo, Beef etc. So if Hammel is helping us win a few more games, then maybe this is the year to keep those type contributors a full season.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    I think you mean psyche, but I understand where you are going. As they say "winning leads to winning". We've all seen examples of when a team gets on a streak and good stuff just seems to happen. The pressure is off and people tend to rely on instinct and muscle memory rather than over-thinking everything they are doing and pressing to make something happen.

  • In reply to carolinacub:

    I do mean psyche, thanks. I'd like to see a good start and lose the funk after the trade deadline that we saw last year. Finish on an upbeat.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    I had to look it up to be sure. I'm not expecting miracles this year but I'm honestly optimistic for the first time in a while. I'm thinking that we actually surprise a fair amount of people out there and show we are not the pushovers that we have been.

  • Hoyer just announced that Olt and Kalish made the team!!

  • GOOD NEWS !!!!!!! Put the guys on the team with the upside and who have shown well this spring. I said awhile ago call me crazy but I thought they both would make it.

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