The Chicago Cubs bought low to upgrade their rotation, signing former Baltimore Oriole Jason Hammel to a one-year contract worth $6 million with an additional $1 million in incentives. Hammel struggled in 26 appearances in 2013 due to a strained right elbow, and only made 20 starts in his breakout 2012 due to right knee problems that lingered nearly all season.
2012 was Hammel's first year with Baltimore after getting dealt by the Rockies, and he was impressive in helping Baltimore to their first playoff birth since 1997, Though he threw just 118 innings over those 20 starts, Hammel posted a 3.49 ERA and struck out 113 hitters while leading the Orioles' pitching staff with 2.6 fWAR. But Hammel had surgery to remove loose bodies in his knee in July, and made just three starts after the All-Star Break, along with two in the ALDS against the Yankees.
Last year, it all fell apart for the 31-year old. Hammel's strikeout rate plummeted to 15.7%, below his career mark of 16.6%. Left-handers pounded him over the course of the season, mashing their way to a .294/.373/.508 line. He did pitch better in two starts and three relief appearances in September, striking out 11 and walking two in 16 1/3 innings, but we shouldn't put a lot of weight in that limited sample.
The Cubs are banking on Hammel rebounding much like Scott Feldman did for them in 2013, which ironically allowed the Cubs to trade Feldman to an Orioles club that needed rotation help, due in part to Hammel's struggles and injuries. If Hammel's signing turns out like Scott Baker's, who made three starts for the Cubs and earned $5.5 million after missing all of 2012 following Tommy John surgery, it will be decidedly less impactful for Chicago.
If healthy, Hammel is a nice upgrade for the Cubs rotation, but only for the year 2014 – he's not a long-term building block like Masahiro Tanaka would have been. He'll join a rotation that includes Jeff Samardzija, Edwin Jackson, and Travis Wood, which is actually a pretty decent foursome. Hammel's signing will do nothing to quench the thirst of Cubs fans who wanted the team to make a splash in free agency, but his signing isn't necessarily a bad one – it's really just a stopgap move that could pay dividends for the team in six months.