Six degrees of Jason Hammel

CHICAGO -- Maybe the link to everything happening with the Chicago Cubs these days is right-handed pitcher Jason Hammel.

Hammel, 32, officially signed-on with the team for at least two more years Friday and he has ties to the most bold and current moves the team has made recently. He broke into the league with the Tampa Bay Rays last decade as Joe Maddon became his first manager. Last year the Cubs traded him to the Oakland Athletics for a top prospect in Addison Russell. And while in Oakland he played with lefty Jon Lester, who will officially be introduced next week as the Cubs' biggest free-agent signing ever. Hammel only helped the cause by talking Chicago up to the All-Star lefty when they were teammates last season.

And now Hammel’s back, to finish what he started, after a stellar first half in 2014.

“It shows the commitment,” Hammel said Friday. “This is Step 1 of who the Cubs want to be … We’re tired of the old Cubs. This is the new Cubs. We want to change the feel.”

Hammel, Lester and fellow newcomer Miguel Montero join the youngest team in the league with the arrow seemingly pointing in the right direction. So let’s talk about those connections. Hammel played under Maddon just as the latter was becoming a household name in the dugout.

“Joe is the epitome of a player’s manager,” Hammel stated. “He understands that we’re young and we’re going to do things stupid but he also expects you to be ready at 7 pm. If you don’t get the job done he’ll get someone else for you.”

The “player’s manager” line has been repeated often by Maddon’s former pupils, but that can be a cliché. There’s something more that makes Maddon stand out.

“He knows how to make guys feel important,” Hammel said.

There it is. The subtle difference between a nice guy in the dugout who can manage a game and one that can bring out the best in all 25 players. It helps to have talent as well. When Lester signs his contract next week the Cubs will have instant credibility on the mound. This is a World Series winner. How many times has that been said of a new Cubs acquisition that’s still in his prime?

“We definitely talked about it,” Hammel said of coming to the Cubs. “And he (Lester) was asking too. I think the Theo/Jon bromance was going to happen anyway. He was definitely interested.”

As it turns out, Lester may have been interested in the Cubs long before anyone knew. It prompted Hammel to declare that Epstein may have “gotten him a little cheap.” That drew a laugh considering Lester will make $155 million over the next six years. But Hammel thinks he deserves it and knows what can happen from here.

“You win championships with pitching,” he said. “The only thing we need is consistency.”

And maybe a little more experience. That brings the consistency. Hammel had a rough start in Oakland after the trade as his ERA ballooned, but he chalks that up to getting himself and his family settled there. His final handful of appearances was much better. And if he returns to his Cubs form of early last year, then the team could have an All-Star No. 3 pitcher on their hands. He was that good, mostly by pounding the lower half of the strike zone.

“This was something that we both hoped would happen,” Epstein said. “Jason really blossomed here. Also provided tremendous clubhouse presence and leadership for us.”

So like Lester, Hammel checks a few boxes for the Cubs and simply makes them a little better today than last week. And the Cubs still have Russell -- along with outfielder Billy McKinney, who came over with Russell, and they're due one more player next week to complete the deal -- which makes that trade July 4 trade look even more lopsided. And if you add Hammel’s hand in Lester joining the cause, the organization really made out. Hammel’s happy to be back and knows next week’s press conference is still the main event.

“Was there another big signing or something,” he joked when he first walked into the press room Friday. “It really is a good time to be in Chicago right now.”