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Cubs’ trade forces lining up with Jeff Samardzija, Jason Hammel

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ST. LOUIS — This Cubs season is almost 25 percent complete, which is still a long way toward September, much less the finishing touches on a renovated Wrigley Field or the 2020 TV bonanza (as long as the cable bubble doesn’t burst).

As the Cubs packed up after a 5-3 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals on Thursday afternoon, they would leave Busch Stadium with the worst record in baseball at 13-26, percentage points below the tanking Houston Astros.

[RELATED: Rizzo vs. The Shift: Cubs take what they can in loss to Cards]

Which makes you wonder where the Cubs would be if they didn’t get Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro’s bounce-back starts, Emilio Bonifacio’s hot streak, Welington Castillo’s step forward, Mike Olt’s eight homers, Hector Rondon’s 1.47 ERA and some very good starting pitching.

The trade forces are lining up with Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, the steady sign-and-flip guy who let one bad inning ruin his getaway day. Hammel joked it’s “the kiss of death” to strike out the side in the first, and sure enough he gave up a two-out, two-run single to Cardinals pitcher Michael Wacha in the four-run second.

It depends on what aisle you want to shop in, but Hammel (4-2, 3.06 ERA) said physically that was the best he felt all year, despite giving up five runs in 5.1 innings.

Samardzija has a 1.45 ERA, going 7-for-8 in quality starts, but he will still be looking for his first win when he faces the first-place Milwaukee Brewers on Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field.

“The wins thing to me is frustrating, because in general I think it’s a stat we’ve all moved away from,” Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said. “Unfortunately, I think it’s a big story because he’s now breaking records with his winless streak. But the way he’s pitched — he’s been as good as anybody in the National League. People recognize it.”

Or, as pitching coach Chris Bosio said: “Jeff Samardzija’s a beast.”

[MORE: Cubs hope Kris Bryant can change conversation, stopping talk about future]

When the Cubs woke up in St. Louis on Thursday, the five teams in the American League East were separated by only 3.5 games. The five teams in the National League East were separated by only 4.5 games.

There are teams at or above .500 that could be seeing windows closing or feeling some pressure from the fans and ownership to deliver results now — like the Kansas City Royals, Seattle Mariners and Colorado Rockies.

The New York Yankees — who will face Hammel and Samardzija next week at Wrigley Field — have 60 percent of their Opening Day rotation on the disabled list.

As part of the sweeping Tommy John epidemic, the Miami Marlins just lost Jose Fernandez, their All-Star, Rookie of the Year, Cy Young contender and box-office attraction in Little Havana.

[MORE: Cubs hoping Arodys Vizcaino will be Tommy John comeback story]

The Texas Rangers have gone to this well before with Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster, but they do have seven pitchers from their 40-man roster now on the disabled list.

Hoyer knows there’s nothing left to say about the business side of Samardzija’s game: “Certainly, we’ve discussed his contractual status ad nauseam.”

Samardzija, who intends to test the free-agent market after the 2015 season, lobbied the Theo Epstein administration after a breakthrough year as a reliever in 2011, believing he could be a frontline guy in the rotation.

“Jeff deserves the most credit,” Hoyer said. “He was the one that really pounded the table saying he wanted to be a starter and he’s kept getting better and better. There’s times when he’s relied on his split, but this year he’s done a brilliant job of pitching with his two-seamer, staying down in the zone. He keeps evolving as a pitcher.”

The kind of pitcher who could be a difference-maker in a pennant race. It will take some time to play out, but no one will be surprised when the Cubs try to jump the market again.

“You got to stay looking at the positives,” Hammel said, “because we played a lot of good ballgames where we’re not getting blown out. It’s not ugly games. It’s just one or two pitches here and there or one or two timely hits that we just haven’t gotten. It’s not like we’re just laying down.”

The Yankees are paying $86 million for a one-inning reliever

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OXON HILL, MD — The Yankees signing of Aroldis Chapman late Wednesday night came as something of a surprise. And the money — $86 million — was something of a shock. Yes, we knew that Chapman was going to break the bank and likely set a record as the highest paid relief pitcher in history, but seeing it in black and white like that is still rather jarring.

In the coming days, many people who attempt to analyze and contextualize this signing will do so by pointing to the 2016 playoffs and the unconventional use of relievers by Terry Francona and the Indians and Joe Maddon of the Cubs. They’ll talk about how the paradigm of bullpen use has shifted and how relief pitchers have taken on a new importance in today’s game. Chapman’s astronomical salary, therefore, will be described as somehow more reasonable and somewhat less shocking than it first seems.

Don’t buy that jive for a second.

Yes, Andrew Miller and, to some extent, Chapman himself were used unconventionally in the 2016 playoffs, but not long into the 2017 season we will see that as an exception, not the rule. And not just because Chapman showed himself unable to hold up to that level of use in the playoffs. It will be the exception because the Yankees have shown no inclination whatsoever to deviate from traditional bullpen usage in the past and there is no reason to expect that they will do so with Chapman in the future.

As you no doubt remember, the Yankees had Chapman, Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller for the first half of 2016. Such an imposing back end of a bullpen has rarely been seen in recent history. All of them, however, were used, more or less, as one-inning-a-piece guys and no real effort was ever made to break any bullpen usage paradigms or to shorten games the way many applauded Terry Francona for doing in the playoffs.

Miller pitched 44 games for the Yankees, totaling 45.1 innings. He pitched more than a single inning on only three occasions. Chapman pitched 31 games for the Yankees, amassing 31.1 innings. He was used for more than one inning only twice. Betances worked in 73 games, totaling 73 innings. On 11 occasions he pitched more than one inning.  It was unconventional for a team to have three relievers that good, but they were not, in any way, used unconventionally. Nor is there any reason to expect Chapman to be used unconventionally in 2017, especially given that Miller is not around and Chapman has shown no real ability to be stretched for multiple innings for a sustained period.

None of which is to say that having Chapman around is a bad thing or that he is any less of a closer than his reputation suggests. It’s merely to say that the Yankees paying Chapman unprecedented money for a closer should not be justified by the alleged new importance of relief pitchers or that changing role for them we heard so much about in the playoffs. Indeed, I suspect that that changing role applies only to pitcher use in the playoffs. And I do not suspect that this transaction alone pushes the Yankees into serious playoff contention, making that temporary unconventionality something of a moot point in New York for the foreseeable future.

It is almost certain that the Yankees are paying $86 million for the same one-inning closer Aroldis Chapman has been for his entire seven-year career. His contract may or may not prove to be a good one for New York based on how he performs, but don’t let anyone tell you now, in Decemeber 2016, that it’s better than you think because Chapman will somehow transform into a 1970s-style relief ace or something.

Report: Yankees sign Aroldis Chapman to a five-year, $86 million deal

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Update (12:02 AM EST): Rosenthal adds that Chapman’s contract includes an opt-out clause after three seasons, a full no-trade clause for the first three years of the contract, and a limited no-trade clause for the final two years.

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Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reports that the Yankees have signed closer Aroldis Chapman to a five-year, $86 million contract. Mark Melancon recently set the record for a contract earned by a reliever at $62 million over four years. Chapman blew that out of the water and many are surprised he didn’t fetch more.

Chapman, 28, began the 2016 season with the Yankees but he was traded to the Cubs near the end of July in exchange for four prospects. The Cubs, of course, would go on to win the World Series in large part due to Chapman. The lefty finished the regular season with a 1.55 ERA, 36 saves, and a 90/18 K/BB ratio in 58 innings between the two teams.

Chapman was the best reliever on the free agent market and, because he was traded midseason, he didn’t have draft pick compensation attached to him.

The Yankees don’t seem to be deterred by Chapman’s domestic violence issue from last offseason, resulting in a 30-game suspension to begin the 2016 regular season.