The Braves wanted to add a veteran to their rotation. They landed a former familiar foe.
Left-hander Cole Hamels and the Braves agreed to a one-year, $18 million deal Wednesday.
Hamels, who turns 36 later this month, produced a 3.81 ERA with 143 strikeouts against 56 walks last season for the Cubs. He pitched 141-1/3 innings after being limited by a left oblique strain, failing to log over 190 innings for only the second time in 10 seasons. He also was stalled by a more serious oblique strain in 2017 with the Rangers.
Before the recent injury, Hamels was brilliant. He owned a 2.98 ERA across 17 starts (99-2/3 innings). When he returned over a month later, he posted a 5.79 ERA over his final 10 outings.
“I attest a lot to just trying to be healthy,” Hamels said. “I put in a lot of time. I know sometimes it doesn’t always directly have the results, but I really do put a ton of effort into being healthy. I put in effort into studying the game, trying to learn the new influences of what analytics can do on top of what I’ve been able to feel and learn from the in-game adjustments that I really feel like I’m pretty good with. It’s just being able to stay on top of everything.
“I really tried to get down to the bare bones of who I am as a pitcher – a four-seam fastball guy with a good change-up, curveball and the occasional cutter. It was just a matter of being able to throw it at the right timing and then being effective with it. I felt like that was a lot better off when I was able to locate those pitches before I had my injury. Because once I had the injury, I could just never really establish the feel, and then I was actually trying to overthrow and force pitches and nothing was going right.”
Hamels made a name for himself in Philadelphia, where he pitched from 2006 through part of 2015. He was a three-time All-Star for the Phillies, winning National League Championship Series and World Series MVP honors in 2008.
“We think he has a chance to pitch at a high level for a long time,” Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos said.
The Braves lost two veterans in their rotation when Dallas Keuchel hit free agency and the club declined its option on Julio Teheran. Hamels fills part of that void and brings a comparable resume to Keuchel, who’s unlikely to be re-signed.
Hamels wasn’t attached to a qualifying offer, meaning the Braves didn’t relinquish a pick for signing him. They could still pursue Madison Bumgarner, who comes with a qualifying offer attached, or another seasoned starter to complete their rotation.
It’s worth noting the Braves already have two lefties in their rotation with Hamels and Max Fried. Sean Newcomb also is a rotation candidate. An abundance of southpaws could be especially useful in the postseason.
It hasn’t been a quiet offseason for the Braves, who already had signed relievers Will Smith, Chris Martin and Darren O’Day, along with catcher Travis d’Arnaud before the Hamels deal.
The team has spent over $45 million for 2020 salary in free agency. Total contracts, including those given to mainstays Nick Markakis and Tyler Flowers, exceed $80 million. Yet only Smith’s deal runs beyond two seasons.
The Braves have made it clear: They’re ready to take the next step, and they’re willing to spend to do so. They’ve led the charge this winter, attacking their needs in free agency while most other teams have played the waiting game.
While the team could use further pitching help, the glaring hole is at third base (or rather the cleanup spot). Last year’s difference maker Josh Donaldson remains unsigned.
“We are going to continue to make the club better,” Anthopoulos said. “We didn’t have an order about how we were going to go about doing some of these things. It’s just as the opportunities present themselves, we were able to get things done. I think we’ve been pretty open. We are still going to explore third base. That hasn’t change. Beyond that, we just have to continue to look for opportunities to make the club better.”
It’s unclear how the Braves’ spending splurge relates to their slugger, but the franchise has been adamant regarding its hopes to retain him. The Braves should still have over $20 million in payroll flexibility, though their financial ceiling is unknown. The team will want to leave room for potential mid-season acquisitions as well.
If Donaldson leaves, the Braves will be forced to turn elsewhere to address their clean-up spot. They’ll need a big bat, be it at third or in the outfield, to replace Donaldson’s offense. The Braves have Johan Camargo and Austin Riley as internal options at third should they add proven power at a different position.
In the meantime, the Braves have aggressively strengthened their pitching stable. The club had invested heavily in its relief group, and now adds Hamels to a rotation headlined by youngsters Mike Soroka and Fried.
“We were open to any sort of possibility but truthfully when it really came down to it, I wanted to play on a contender,” Hamels said. “It’s something where I was very familiar with the Braves, obviously watching them in the postseason and what they’ve been able to create. So, I’ve always been following them with hopes of maybe having an opportunity to pitch with some of those guys because they have such good, young talent and I know that this stage in my career, for what I could provide, could be beneficial for the same similarities of when I was with Philly and a lot of the veteran guys came over and we were able to then win with that being sort of encompassed.
“They were one of six teams that I was really, really following in and really rooting for. It was great to be able to make this happen.”
- Staff writer Chris Vivlamore contributed to this article.
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