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Hammel pitching like an ace for Cubs

MILWAUKEE -- If Chicago Cubs pitcher Jason Hammel thought the trade speculation swirling around him was excessive during spring training and the early portion of the season, wait until the next two months get going. If the right-hander keeps pitching as he did in Saturday's 8-0 win over the Milwaukee Brewers, there won’t be a contending team that doesn’t want him.

“I know my own value, and my value is right here with the Cubs,” Hammel said. “That’s the way I see it. I’m not going to play into the whole trade talk. It can happen to anybody.”

If you’re new around here, you might not understand why a last-place team like the Cubs would want to trade its victories leader, who just happens to have the second-best WHIP (0.87) in all of baseball. It’s the same reason they might trade Jeff Samardzija, the league's ERA leader at 1.68: A rebuilding team has more use for youth than it does proven success.

Hammel is 31 and Samardzija is 29. The story starts and ends there. Would locking them both up to huge, multiyear deals be smarter than trading them?

“I love it here,” Hammel said. “I’m not going to say I wouldn’t be honored [to stay]. I just want to continue to pitch and compete like I have been.”

Hammel has competed to the tune of a 6-3 record with a 2.78 ERA after allowing just four hits in seven innings to an extremely hot Brewers team.

“I think it’s a right-handed-heavy lineup that gives me a little bit of an advantage,” Hammel said.

He’s being modest. Saturday might have been his best effort of the season -- and in several seasons, in fact. According to ESPN Stats & Information, his 94.5 mph average fastball is tied for the hardest in he’s thrown in two years. His 19 swings-and-misses was his most since 2009 and five of his eight strikeouts Saturday ended on a slider -- a career high. And Hammel faced just one batter with a runner in scoring position. He was that good.

Other than one hiccup against the St. Louis Cardinals earlier this month, Hammel has earned every penny of the one-year, $6 million deal he signed last offseason. But almost since the day he inked that contract, observers have wondered where and for whom the Cubs would trade him. That’s the mode Chicago is still in -- unless Cubs brass has a drastic change of heart for a pitcher who claims he can be every bit as good as he’s been so far.

“A hundred percent,” Hammel said. “I knew two years ago, before I got hurt. I had made some adjustments and really figured out how to pitch and figured out who I was as a pitcher.”

It’s the same maturing process Samardzija has gone through over the past couple of seasons. But it appears other teams might reap the rewards of their labors in Cubs uniforms. The Cubs will certainly get a hefty return for both pitchers, but the only thing they can be sure of afterward is that the team got younger. We’ll know if the Cubs are better in the years to come. For now, health is Hammel’s No. 1 priority.

“Injuries can derail you,” said Hammel, who missed time the past two seasons with knee and forearm issues. “[I’m] obviously healthy. And it translates.”

It did again Saturday.