Cubs President of Baseball Operations Jed Hoyer spoke to the media yesterday, and hit on a wide range of topics, including the lack of guarantees that there won’t be a big trade before the regular season (boo!), the presumption that Spring Training will be a good time to talk about extensions (yay!), and the indication that the Cubs are still looking to add to the roster, particularly in terms of pitching depth (good).
But Hoyer got into a lot more than that, and so we will as well.
Walk-Year Performance Bumps?
Let’s start with my least favorite of Hoyer’s comments: The expectation that players entering their walk-years will be more effective – Sahadev Sharma (The Athletic) and Jordan Bastian (MLB.com) got into it most specifically.
It’s a theory as old as time, and not a particularly terrible one; when a player enters his walk-year (the one before he hits free agency), he tends to “play up” relative to expectations. And the Cubs, of course, have several key players in that position, so … SUCCESS! Right?
“I expect these guys to have big years,” Hoyer said. “You could look at guys in walk years as a negative or you can look at it as a positive. My personal experience with guys in walk years is really positive.”
Hoyer pointed to the two walk years the Cubs had with Dexter Fowler as an example. And, sure, they were good. But I have all sorts of problems with this logic (or messaging, if that’s all it is).
(1) I’m not really sure that this theory is statistically sound (I don’t have the data one way or another). There’s at lease one HUGE selection bias here, as the best walk-year performances usually lead to the biggest contracts (Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer, etc.), which we tend to remember. And another bias occurs because many walk years coincide with a players’ prime. So to suggest that having guys on expiring contracts is a good thing because they’ll play better almost seems … condescending? I doubt Hoyer meant it that way, but there’s just something about suggesting that a guy will do better only because he’s headed for free agency that could probably be better stated.
(2) Meanwhile, I thought the Cubs were trying to extend these players this spring? And if they do, they will no longer be in walk years. Which means they will suddenly be worse in 2021. Right? (See how this can get a little silly?)
(3) What kind of message does this send your players? We know you deserve contract X, but we’re not giving it to you because we think you’ll perform better if you go out there and earn it? Does that sound like a player-first organization? Does that sound like somewhere you want to stay long-term?
Again, I doubt Hoyer meant it quite like it came off, but the thing is, now that he’s the new boss, his words will be parsed a little more closely. Heavy lies the crown.
One more gripe. The longer quote about walk years also felt lacking: “Do I believe that that group is going to struggle in the same way? I don’t. And maybe that’s stubbornness, or maybe it’s looking at the back of their baseball cards. But, I have a hard time believing this group of players, with a lot of guys in walk years, is going to struggle that way.”
These aren’t unusual quotes for a typical front office leader, but he kinda said it himself: it sounds like stubbornness in relation to this group of players. We’ve heard this kind of thing for years from the front office about this group, and the progression never really came.
Second Base Options
Second base has been a bit of an issue for the Cubs these past few years, as Addison Russell struggled before making his exit, and Ben Zobrist hit a decline, then left the team, then retired. One of the Cubs’ top prospects, Nico Hoerner, was forced into a role he probably wasn’t ready for offensively in 2020 (the glove is more than there), and the Cubs didn’t do much to address the need this offseason.
But Hoyer is hoping someone can solve this problem for him:
Jed Hoyer, on the second base options (Bote, Hoerner and Vargas):
"You can have a number of guys that are rotating in a position. That gives you depth. But I think we all want someone just to kind of grab hold of it and kind of force their name into the lineup every day."
— Jordan Bastian (@MLBastian) February 8, 2021
David Bote provides so much value in a bench role, and, by contrast, you worry about him getting exposed on both sides of the ball if he’s forced to start for extended periods of time. Hoerner sure seems like the long-term solution to the problem, but could plausibly use time at Triple-A to improve his plate approach before taking over.
As for Ildemaro Vargas, well … he can hit lefties at almost a league-average clip, but him coming together as a full-time contributor would be a surprise at age 29.
Point here being, the Cubs depth is fine. It’s the lack of a starter that’s the problem, and that’s disappointing in early February, because there WERE a lot of affordable, intriguing options.
I guess Brad Miller is still out there. Go get him?
Let me be less cynical for a moment. Even in a world where you say Nico goes to AAA Iowa to develop, it's not as if you would *HATE* Bote getting a chance to become a regular – I really like Bote! I believe in that bat!
And also, Vargas is the *type* that sometimes breaks out.
— Bleacher Nation (@BleacherNation) February 8, 2021
Pederson v. Schwarber
Nolan Arenado Trade
There’s not a TON of meat to it, but Hoyer does address the Cardinals trade for Nolan Arenado (and the Brewers signing of Kolten Wong, for that matter), hitting on all the beats:
“He is a great player and star. As far as the Cardinals getting him, it is a bitter pill. They certainly got better. This was not a surprise to us in any way. All winter there were rumors it was going to happen, so it was not a surprise. The Cardinals are a very good team. Arenado makes them better.”
Hoyer confirms that the Cubs did have conversations about Arenado with the Rockies, but nothing came of it. He also reiterates a belief that reacting to your rivals big moves with big moves of your own is a bad idea. He had a related message at his initial press conference, about how the big, exciting moves tend to be the worst ones, while the lesser heralded deals end up being the most productive.
The Cubs did an excellent job managing the COVID-19 protocols last season, finishing as the only team without a positive COVID test among its players the whole year. But if you ask Hoyer, 2021 might be even more difficult – at least, in the spring and early parts of the season:
“It’s a concern,” Hoyer said. “Is it going to be a lot more difficult than it was during the season last year? Absolutely,” Hoyer said. “Our [personnel] numbers last year were so much lower than they’re going to be in spring, and we have real challenges ahead. And it is a concern.”
With fans in attendance, more people around in general, and the increasing COVID fatigue (you see it around), I can see why he’s concerned. But it’s actually more than that. There seems to be a lot of additional uncertainty at the moment, about every aspect of camp including organizing workouts. I’m guessing the recently approved health and safety protocols will cover much of this, but I don’t blame Hoyer for reacting the way he did.
Porter and Hiring
In the wake of the Jared Porter (and Mickey Callaway) scandals, the Cubs are planning to change their hiring process (ESPN), including more thorough background checks on any potential employee (remember, the team still needs a GM, though that’s not coming anytime soon).
Specifically, Hoyer hopes to get more references from a “broad range of people,” not just the “handful of bosses” that a person has to talk through/work under to get a job.
Here’s a whole bunch of thoughts from Hoyer.
Porter developed a reputation for building a "great culture" and that was supposedly the case with the Cubs. So I followed up and asked Hoyer if that means how they define a "great culture" needed to be re-evaluated. His response: https://t.co/MNDAHeiNNd pic.twitter.com/yi4hsj0Dsk
— Sahadev Sharma (@sahadevsharma) February 8, 2021