CHICAGO — He was an All-Star as recently as 2016, when he went 15-5, but new Chicago Cubs lefty Cole Hamels has seen his ERA rise rapidly over the past three seasons, from 3.32 that year to 4.20 in 2017 to 4.72 right now, as he takes his distinguished career to Chicago.
On the surface, the trade with the Texas Rangers of Hamels for minor league prospects — which the two sides haven’t made official yet — is a risky one. After all, Cubs manager Joe Maddon opined earlier this week, that a trade for a new player must be a slam dunk.
“If you bring someone in, the guys have to know he’s going to be positively impactful to the group as opposed to the group that’s already here,” Maddon said. “If you’re going to make a move, it has to be obvious, maybe not to the general public, but to the guys in that room.”
And that’s the strange part of the deal. Despite some truly horrific recent numbers — since June 25, Hamels is last in ERA, last in OPS against and 119th in WHIP — Hamels feels like an upgrade simply based on his pedigree. And of course based on the Cubs starting staff, which is in the bottom third in innings pitched per start.
It feels like the Cubs simply can’t sustain keeping Chatwood in the rotation, considering he has issued 85 free passes in a 94 innings this season. Somehow, they are 11-8 in his outings — including winning the past five he has started — but he also has crushed their bullpen. And who can trust a walk machine in the postseason?
This is where Hamels steps in. It’s unclear if the Cubs will employ a six-man rotation or simply replace Chatwood, but either way the veteran lefty can pitch his way into a big role with his new team. The opening is there — if Hamels’ stuff will follow suit.
The Cubs’ obvious reason for optimism is how Hamels has fared on the road this season — or, more to the point, away from Globe Life Park in Arlington. It’s a hitter’s paradise. Hamels has a 6.41 ERA there this season but just a 2.93 mark on the road.
The Cubs don’t play in Texas this season. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that Hamels’ fastball has been hit everywhere. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, in at-bats ending on that pitch, the opposition is hitting .329 with a .927 OPS — and that’s on the road. Fortunately, the home splits in those categories don’t matter anymore because they are off-the-charts high (.391/1.245).
“It does not affect him so he can move on to the next one,” former teammate Jesse Chavez said earlier this week of Hamels’ struggles. “That’s the beauty of having a guy like that. Look what he’s done on the road. I’d take him.”
Chavez pitched for the Rangers until a week ago, comparing Globe Life with Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati. Both are great hitter’s parks.
So for a low-risk investment, the Cubs are hoping to reap some big rewards as they did in 2016 and 2017, when Aroldis Chapman and Jose Quintana came on-board in July trades, helping the Cubs to the playoffs each season. This time they’re turning to an aging veteran whose numbers don’t look pretty, but is intriguing nonetheless.
The numbers might look even better in a Cubs uniform for a team desperate to find some stability in its rotation. We’ll find out soon if Hamels is the answer to their problems.