Earlier today, the Cubs President of Baseball Operations, Theo Epstein, jumped on 670 The Score to talk about a whole range of Cubs topics, now that we’re on the other end of Yu Darvish signing and announcement.
Soon thereafter, his second-in-command, General Manager Jed Hoyer, jumped on ESPN 1000 to do the same. You can check out the full interview right here at ESPN.com, and I’ve highlighted some of the most pertinent stuff, together with my own thoughts …
- Like Epstein, Hoyer mentioned that while the Cubs have loved watching Darvish from afar, they didn’t quite enter the offseason under the assumption that they’d be able to make it work while remaining far enough under the luxury tax threshold to make the sort of in-season moves that are always necessary. In fact, Hoyer said that had you asked him in November, he would’ve guessed that the Cubs filled their rotation spots by signing one guy (someone like Tyler Chatwood) and trading for another. But given the way the offseason played out and the deal the Cubs were able to get on Darvish, they’re very happy with the way things played out.
- On that last point … hey. That’s a fair bit of candor from Hoyer, right? He wasn’t hoping the Cubs could find a trade partner for a starter this winter, he was expecting it. And again, like Epstein, I think this all underscores just how happy they were to get a top-of-the-rotation arm like Darvish in the fold on this particular deal. It just doesn’t usually work out this well.
- Hoyer went on to point out that the Cubs really think they’re getting Darvish at a good point in his career, given what he’s learned (about himself, his pitches, his health, etc.), and that the World Series thing doesn’t bother him at all. Hoyer also pointed out (to those that still have concerns about his abilities in the postseason), that Darvish didn’t have any trouble dominating on big stages in the first two rounds. And later, after the interview, Kaplan seemed to get the sense that Hoyer believed the World Series blow up was actually a big plus for the Cubs – it scared some teams away just enough for the Cubs, who were more focused on the big picture, to get in there at the right price.
- As expected, now that Darvish is in the rotation, Mike Montgomery will be pushed back to the bullpen, and Hoyer is well aware (and understanding) of his concerns. At the same time, they can’t stress enough how much value he has in the swing role – he likened him to Javy Baez and Ben Zobrists – and hopes that they can find the right balance in 2018. Indeed, Hoyer even mentioned that they’ll try to bounce him back and forth less than they did last year, which, to me, meant more prolonged stretches as a starter and as a reliever, not that he wouldn’t be doing both. (Montgomery himself discussed this issue, and the physical toll bouncing back and forth too much can take.)
- In other words, if the Cubs just need a single start at some point early in the year (or whenever), it’s possible you might see someone else come up from Triple-A to take it, meaning that Montgomery would only become involved in the rotation if one of the top five was about to miss several starts in a row and/or the Cubs were going to switch to a six-man rotation for a while. I think that’s perfectly fine, even if it saps some of the versatility value. Versatility isn’t valuable if the guy is too taxed to pitch well or gets hurt. We’ll see if it plays out that way.
- On the addition of Chili Davis, Jim Hickey, and Brian Butterfield to the coaching staff, Hoyer couldn’t have sounded more excited. While he greatly appreciates and respects guys like Chris Bosio and John Mallee, he also believes it was time for a new voice and a different message in the clubhouse, and the new staff is going to be perfect for that. Later on, he mentioned something about how the new voices in the clubhouse could “add some friction,” in a totally positive way, and that really stuck out to me. Most importantly, on this point, Hoyer is hoping that the Cubs’ new coaches can help the team get back to the grind-it-out reputation of their 2015-2016 teams. Obviously, Hoyer recognizes that the Cubs no longer have Dexter Fowler at the top of the order or even a top-of-his-game Ben Zobrist, but he thinks the Cubs will have to get back to that in 2018 (and that it got away from them last season).
- To that end, do you remember the grinding at-bats of 2015 season? The Cubs were SO GOOD at wearing pitchers down. I remember not being afraid of facing any starter in the league, because even if he held the Cubs scoreless, he was always out by the sixth inning. Obviously, the Cubs’ bats have matured since then and they have a better chance of scoring runs now than they did three years ago, but that’s still an important mentality. Hopefully, they really do get back to it this year, because Hoyer believes that it’ll turn this roster into “a really special” offense. The upside up and down the lineup is nuts.
- In the end, though, the Cubs’ defense and run prevention will be just as critical to the Cubs’ success in 2018. On that, Hoyer thinks the Cubs are ahead of schedule. Obviously, the Cubs’ rotation is looking like one of the best in baseball, but Hoyer was particularly excited for the defense up the middle. With Javy Baez and Addison Russell fully expected to hold their own in the infield, Hoyer made it a point to highlight the expected quality increase of the center field defense with Ian Happ and Albert Almora, as well as Willson Contreras behind the plate. According to Hoyer, Contreras adds a layer the Cubs didn’t always have back there in 2015 and 2016. He’s not sure if the Cubs defense will ever live up to its historic 2016 level, but he seems to believe they have a chance.
- And finally, Hoyer said that the Cubs have some remaining financial flexibility to make moves during the season. He said that was important to them, because things are going to come up that we can’t necessarily predict right now, and no roster is static. Good to have confirmed that the flexibility has been preserved for in-season moves.