Jed Hoyer has been pretty transparent this offseason about what the Cubs needed to do and how they are planning to go about it. Though they didn’t meaningfully pursue the most expensive free agents on the market, they were engaged with Scott Boras on both Xander Bogaerts and Carlos Correa before landing Dansby Swanson as the centerpiece of a broader strategy based on depth. Some will call it quantity over quality, but the Cubs have signed more new free agents than any other team and they spent over $300 million to do it.
That’s just the next step in an evolution that effectively began shortly after Anthony Rizzo pocketed the final out of the 2016 World Series. The Cubs were on top of the baseball world and it looked like they’d be there to stay for a while, something the front office may have taken for granted. A lack of foresight and perhaps too much emotional attachment led to stagnation, which in turn resulted in a systematic dismantling of the roster.
Jed Hoyer discussed that and much more regarding the future of his team this season and beyond with Joel Sherman and Jon Heyman on the NY Post’s The Show podcast.
“We had so much young talent on the books and we’d just won a World Series and I think you just felt like, ‘Okay, we’re gonna be back here every year,'” Hoyer said. “And to me, it’s one of the best lessons of my career, and there’s a couple lessons. Number one, it’s really hard, really hard, to win. We went to the NLCS in ’15, ’16, and ’17. In 2018, we finished tied for the team with the best record in the National League but we got caught by the Brewers at the end of the year and we lost two one-game playoffs.
“That four-year run was a really good run, but only one time were we able to get to the World Series and win it. I think a lot of factors contributed to us not being able to sustain that, I think we could do three podcasts on all those. I think that some of those were unique to having won in Chicago for the first time in 108 years, I think some of those were mistakes we probably made, things we could have done better or different.”
Later in the show, Hoyer went into a bit more detail about how winning impacted the club’s inability to keep any of its young stars. He reiterated that the team approached Rizzo, Javy Báez, and Kris Bryant with extension offers the Cubs thought were at or above market value at the time, but that none of them were particularly receptive. Part of that was having recently achieved rock star status and wanting to capitalize on the moment.
There’s no use in re-litigating just how fair those extension offers may or may not have been because that water’s long since spilled over the dam, but the fallout is still affecting the Cubs. Failing to re-sign any of them meant trading them for prospects, which in turn meant having to fill spots on the active roster via free agency. As he explained in a note following the announcement of his resignation, Theo Epstein walked away because he was either unwilling or unable to do what he felt would have to be done under the circumstances.
“When I took the job, I knew there were going to be some really challenging decisions,” Hoyer said. “Theo left a year early, in part because he felt like these should be my decisions moving forward and so I knew there’d be some hard decisions.”
The writing was on the wall, but it was only in chalk prior to the deal that sent Yu Darvish and Victor Caratini to San Diego. That trade was Hoyer going out to Wrigley’s brick exterior and tagging it with several cans of Krylon, especially when it came a few weeks after the Cubs had chosen not to tender Kyle Schwarber a contract for 2021.
“We did have to take the payroll down after COVID and I think when we did that, we were sort of transitioning this group,” Hoyer continued. “We traded Darvish for young talent and then in some ways I knew that was potentially gonna set up us needing to make some trades midseason if we weren’t competing. And of course, those were brutally hard decisions to have to make. These are guys that won the World Series here, they’re iconic Cubs players.
“But ultimately, you have to have the conviction to make hard decisions in these jobs and I believe very much in what we accomplished as a staff and in resetting our farm system, getting young talent for those players. And we’ve reinvested the money in our roster, so I think we’re on the front — we’re not there yet, we’re not churning out those players every year, we’re not at that place that I just described where we don’t have a lot of holes every year — but I feel like we’re at the front edge of what I feel like is gonna be a really good run of success.”
Ed. note: I wrote at the time that the Darvish trade signaled the Cubs’ willingness to punt on at least two seasons. Looks like that was unfortunately correct.
The start of that run could be triggered by a healthy Cody Bellinger getting back to form and playing great defense in center. He’s a transitional piece by the nature of his deal, which is fine because there should be a number of outfielders coming up from the system shortly. Then there’s Swanson, who the Cubs believe has the winning pedigree to cultivate a new culture on the North Side.
“My expectation is that [Hosmer] is certainly gonna play first base against right-handed pitching and be given that shot,” Hoyer said. “We had talked to San Diego a number of times over the last couple of years I knew this was a place that I think he was excited to play.
“He loves the idea of playing at Wrigley and I’m excited to — you know, he was in a tough situation at San Diego, constantly being rumored in deals and things like that — so I’m excited to get Eric here, make him comfortable.”
Hosmer doesn’t offer much power, however, so the Cubs went out and landed former Home Run Derby participant and all-around good dude Trey Mancini. That’s not the ideal solution to an oft-mentioned shortage of pop, but it’s a little fizz. It’s also a sign that Matt Mervis, the team’s Minor League Player of the Year and formerly their presumptive starting first baseman or DH, may start the season back at Iowa.
“We signed Mancini — he can DH, he can play first, play a little corner outfield — but we really needed more power,” Hoyer explained. “We have a team that does some good things offensively, but lacked sort of like the punching power last year. We struggled to score runs in bunches and we struggled to hit homers, and adding Mancini was really exciting for us.
“And then obviously Mervis had a great year in the minors and you can’t have enough depth. I think if there’s one thing you learn year after year, it’s whatever lineup you write out on paper going into spring training, it’s probably the last time you’ll write that lineup out. The course of the year is always an exercise in what is your depth, what does your roster look like, and having a lot of guys to fill different holes, I think, is really important.”
I still think Mervis should be given every opportunity to win the job, though I also understand why the front office might be treating him the same way they did Rizzo in 2012. On the whole, I have to agree with Hoyer about the value of depth and the on-paper success the Cubs have had this winter when it comes to improving the roster in most areas.
One of the downfalls of their would-be dynasty was assuming everything would just work out and then either failing or refusing to reassess and change direction. They sailed their ship into frozen waters and ended up stuck. Now, however, it appears as though the captain is willing to steer a little more aggressively.
“My biggest takeaway is that the way to sustain things is to continue to make changes,” Hoyer said. “And I think if you try to keep things the same or if you’re stubborn to what you did before, I think you’re gonna lose out.”