In the days after tragedy, as the Royals and Kansas City wrestled with the death of starting pitcher Yordano Ventura, general manager Dayton Moore made it clear that the franchise was prepared to fill the on-field hole. Moore did not know how it would be done. The loss and pain was all too fresh. But the organization would find a way forward, he said.
For now, the grieving process continues. But Moore and the front office moved aggressively on Sunday to fill the hole in the club’s starting rotation, agreeing to terms on a two-year deal with free agent starting pitcher Jason Hammel.
The deal was first reported by Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal late Sunday night. It includes a guaranteed $16 million over two years, pending a physical this week, according to Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Passan. The specific terms of the contract were not yet known as of late Sunday, but the deal is likely to be significantly backloaded, limiting the financial cost in 2017.
Moore was not able to be reached for comment late Sunday, though club policy prohibits team officials from commenting on deals until contracts are official.
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Hammel, 34, is coming off a season in which he posted a 3.83 ERA and recorded 144 strikeouts in 166 2/3 innings for the Chicago Cubs. As spring training loomed, he remained the best available free agent starting pitcher on the market.
Since 2014, Hammel has exceeded 500 innings pitched while posting a 3.68 ERA. He will likely slot into the middle of the rotation, behind left-hander Danny Duffy and right-hander Ian Kennedy.
Left-hander Jason Vargas is also positioned as a rotation lock in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery. Right-hander Nathan Karns could enter spring training as a favorite to win the final spot in the rotation, but he will likely draw heavy competition from left-hander Matt Strahm, who also projects as an option at the back end of the bullpen.
The move comes just one week after the club completed a deal for slugger Brandon Moss. At a press conference on Wednesday, Moore hinted that the Royals were looking for ways to shore up the starting rotation.
“We’ll do something,” Moore said. “I think we’ll do something. I got a feeling. I don’t know what, but certainly before spring training.”
By late Sunday, that something was a deal for Hammel, the top arm on the market.
The prospective signing also represents a mild shift in offseason philosophy. All offseason, Royals officials have stated that the club’s payroll would not exceed the club-record of more than $140 million in 2016. But that could change after deals for Moss and Hammel.
Entering Sunday, the Royals owed close to $128 million for 18 players, according to Star projections, a number that includes $8 million owed to second baseman Omar Infante and $3.25 million for Ventura. The Royals may receive some relief on Ventura’s contract through an insurance policy, though the contract status may take months to sort out, according to club officials. In addition, the Royals were on the hook this offseason for $6 million in buyouts for Kendrys Morales, Edinson Volquez, Kris Medlen and Luke Hochevar.
As the offseason began last October, the Royals appeared unwilling to open the coffers and make splash in free-agency, citing the need to control cost. In an effort to find that payroll relief and replenish the organization’s assets for the future, they dealt closer Wade Davis to the Chicago Cubs for outfielder Jorge Soler, saving close to $7 million in 2017 salary. They shaved off another $2 million or so by exchanging outfielder Jarrod Dyson for Karns, who is under club control through 2020.
But with a hole in the rotation, and a pivotal season on the horizon, the Royals appear poised to allocate resources toward Hammel, a former 10th-round pick who has pieced together the best run of his career in his early 30s.
Hammel debuted for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2006 before bouncing to the Colorado Rockies in 2009 after three forgettable years in the American League.
Hammel’s run in Colorado was also unspectacular, at least statistically. In three seasons, he put up a 4.63 ERA across 524 2/3 innings. But in the context of Coors Field and the nightmarish conditions that meet pitchers in Colorado, the performance was adequate, foreshadowing a breakthrough to come.
The better days would come in Baltimore in 2012, when Hammel posted a career-best 3.43 ERA and 113 strikeouts in 118 innings across 20 starts. But Hammel struggled again the next year, posting an ERA just below five and hitting free agency at the end of the year.
Hammel signed a free-agent deal with the Chicago Cubs before the 2014 season and found a comfort zone in Chicago, logging a 2.98 ERA in 17 starts before being dealt to the Oakland A’s at the trade deadline. He spent the rest of the season in Oakland, surrendering the game-winning single to Royals catcher Salvador Perez in the 12th inning of the 2014 American League Wild Card Game at Kauffman Stadium.
Hammel returnws to Chicago via free agency before the 2015 season. He posted ERAs of 3.74 ERA and 3.83 during the last two seasons, helping the Cubs to consecutive playoff appearances and a World Series championship in 2016. He did not pitch during the 2016 postseason run after battling elbow tightness in September.
When the season was over, the Cubs declined a $12 million option on Hammel and granted the pitcher free agency.