Three months ago, Jason Hammel never expected to conclude his offseason here on the bottom floor of Kauffman Stadium. Hammel, 34, was a free agent after posting a 15-10 record and 3.83 ERA for the World Series champion Chicago Cubs. He ranked as one of the top starting pitchers on the market.
The Royals, meanwhile, expected to be bit players in free agency, an organization that was not searching for free-agent starters and constrained by a rising payroll. Club officials liked Hammel, general manager Dayton Moore said, but they did not see a match.
But a confluence of events would transpire over the course of the winter, a combination of tragedy and injury concerns and a market for starters that never quiet materialized. And here was Hammel on Wednesday afternoon, walking into an afternoon press conference after signing a two-year, $16 million deal to join the Royals starting rotation in 2017.
Hammel will make $5 million this season and $9 million in 2018. The contract also includes a $2 million buyout on a $12 million mutual option for 2019. To make room on the 40-man roster, the club designated for assignment right-hander Alec Mills, who was then dealt to the Chicago Cubs for minor-league outfielder Donnie Dewees.
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The Hammel deal represents the last significant addition for a Royals team trying to return to the postseason after a disappointing 81-81 finish in 2016. It also comes just weeks after the death of starting pitcher Yordano Ventura, who was killed in car crash in his native Dominican Republic on Jan. 22. That fact weighed on the mind of Hammel on Wednesday, so much so that he opened his press conference by spending a few moments on Ventura.
“I feel like I need to express my condolences to, first of all, Royals Nation and the Ventura family,” Hammel said. “Just because, I truly feel that if that unfortunate passing doesn’t happen, you guys aren’t talking to me. So I’m going to do my best here to — not necessarily replace him, because he had quite the bright future ahead of him — but I know what I bring to the table. And I want to win.”
Sitting aside Hammel, Moore echoed the sentiment. Three weeks ago, the Royals were not in the market for a starting pitcher. But the death of Ventura left a void, both off the field and on. And club officials felt a responsibility to fill the hole with a piece that would help the Royals’ homegrown, championship core compete in 2017.
“We were very surprised, truthfully, that he remained on the market as well,” Moore said. “Once we got through, I guess, the shock of Yordano, obviously we’ve got to move forward. We’ve got a baseball season to play. We’ve got a team that we’re responsible for and players that we’re committed to.”
As the Royals sifted through potential solutions in the starting rotation, club officials kept coming back to one name: Hammel.
“There’s one guy out there that really makes us better,” Moore said.
From a baseball perspective, the Royals have acquired a starting pitcher who has posted a 3.68 ERA while exceeding 500 innings the last three seasons. He will slot somewhere in the middle of the starting rotation, occupying a space behind Danny Duffy and Ian Kennedy, and offering depth alongside Jason Vargas and whoever emerges from spring training as the club’s fifth starter. For now, it appears right-hander Nathan Karns is the favorite to win that spot after being acquired from the Seattle Mariners in an offseason trade for Jarrod Dyson. Moore said Karns’ status in the rotation was “not a slam dunk”, but it appears a likely course of action.
By slotting Karns in the rotation, the Royals could use left-hander Matt Strahm in the back end of a revamped rotation. For now, though,Strahm will be stretched out like a starter during camp and compete for a spot in the rotation. Others could impress, too, Moore said.
“It solidifies our rotation in a way that we’re very comfortable at this point,” Moore said on Wednesday, while introducing Hammel. “We like the consistency of the rotation. I think this rotation is certainly every bit as good as any rotation that we’ve had, truthfully, as far as consistency is concerned and what it possibly can bring us.”
For the Royals, the addition of Hammel also signals a minor shift in offseason philosophy. By adding $5 million to the 2017 payroll, the club is expected to once again surpass $140 million in total salaries. The figure could approach last season’s club record total of more than $140, which Moore said was unlikely to happen when the offseason began. The Royals were able to backload Hammel’s deal to defray the cost, but Moore still had to get owner David Glass and team president Dan Glass to sign off on the investment. They told Moore to “do what you need to do.”
“It’s his job to validate our judgment, substantiate our judgment, ask tough questions,” Moore said. “But obviously, based on the circumstances, where we are with this group, with these players, we feel that we will win. But without acquiring a pitcher like Jason, it would have been very, very challenging to get out of the gate good.”
For Hammel, the signing offered a measure of relief after a frustrating and somewhat confusing offseason. All winter, Hammel had waited for the right deal. And with spring training approaching, he remained unemployed.
Hammel believes the lack of interest, in part, stemmed from an elbow issue that surfaced in September. As the Cubs ran roughshod over the National League, Hammel developed tightness in late September. He was scratched from his final start and did not pitch in the postseason. But Hammel said his elbow was “100 percent healthy” by the postseason and he was left off the playoff roster because the Cubs had a rotation that featured Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jake Arrieta and John Lackey.
“That was kind of holdup with a lot of teams, is my guess,” Hammel said. “So the fact of the matter is I’m 100 percent healthy and I had been. I wasn’t on the postseason roster because we had a really good team. And I missed my last start, but I was actually able to make that start, but we discussed that it would be better to not make that start than risk injury and not be available for the playoffs.
“It’s kind of an embarrassment of riches, I guess, if you got a 15-game winner not even active on the postseason roster.”
The Cubs, of course, would go onto win the World Series, and Hammel celebrated a title that had eluded him during his career. Just days later, Chicago would opt to decline a $12 million team option and grant him free agency. At the time, it seemed like a gift from the Cubs. By last week, Hammel wasn’t so sure.
“Obviously, it was a strange offseason,” Hammel said. “It really didn’t go according to plan.”
By last Sunday, though, Hammel had found a suitor that intrigued him, agreeing to a deal with the Royals. On Wednesday, he passed a physical and signed the deal at Kauffman Stadium, bumping into Duffy near the clubhouse.
“The first thing he said to me was: ‘You ready to get weird?’ ” Hammel said. “So that pretty much says it all right there.”
More than two years ago, Hammel was here at Kauffman Stadium for the American League Wild Card Game, throwing the final pitch to Salvador Perez in the 12th inning. He was a member of the Oakland A’s then. The pitch was a slider. Perez hooked it past third baseman Josh Donaldson. The memory still irks him, he said. But now he’s ready to start throwing to Perez on a regular basis.
“I’d like to kind of think of my career path as the aging of a fine wine,” Hammel said. “I’m getting better with age.”