In the last few days, Cubs President of Baseball Operations Jed Hoyer sure has said a lot, heard a lot, and said a lot more. But in-between his explanation of the trades, the lack of extensions, his regrettable comments, and his relationship status with Anthony Rizzo and the gang … he commented on a lot of important threads regarding the future of the franchise. So that’s what we’re going to get into today.
You can catch his full comments at 670 The Score, The Athletic, The Athletic, Marquee, NBC Sports Chicago, and Cubs.com. and we’ll separate everything below by topic. I’ll even throw in some of my own thoughts, free of charge.
When Will the Cubs Be Good Again?
The question on everybody’s mind takes many forms, but it all boils down to the following: When will the Cubs actually be good again? Because while I don’t necessarily think trading away Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, and Kris Bryant, all of whom are free agents at the end of the year, means a long rebuild is in order, I can understand why it may seem that way to some.
And that’s where Hoyer starts:
“When you say it doesn’t look quick, that to me is very unclear,” Hoyer said on the Bernstein & Rahimi Show on Monday morning. “People expect a declaration of when we’re going to be good, and the honest answer is I don’t know yet.
There’s a lot the Cubs *can* do to shorten their timeline of competitiveness — chiefly, spending big in free agency — but there’s also some things that are out of their control. For example, for the Cubs to be good next year, you know what needs to happen? Nico Hoerner needs to be healthy and good. Willson Contreras needs to be healthy and good. Nick Madrigal needs to be healthy and good. Adbert Alzolay needs to figure out lefties. Kyle Hendricks needs to keep dealing. AT LEAST one of Justin Steele/Alec Mills/Keegan Thompson need to turn into rotation options. And so on.
If that stuff doesn’t happen, even a big free agent splash won’t necessarily take the Cubs where they need to be in short order, and so Jed Hoyer says he doesn’t know.
New Rules, New CBA
But that’s not all. There’s also the impact of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. The good news, such that it is: After the financial impact of COVID-19 and the shortened 2020 season, both the union and league are going to be FAR less willing to push things past the brink and into a work stoppage (it’s still possible, but it’s less likely than before). The bad news is that until an agreement is met, I suspect the offseason will grind to a halt almost immediately. And that means teams won’t know the rules (for example, do the Cubs need to sign/plan for a DH?) and free agents won’t want to sign (Which teams actually want me and how much can they afford to spend?) until that’s all settled. And that makes any declaration of competitiveness a little difficult to pin down.
“We don’t know exactly the rules of the game going forward. I think that’s important …. I think part of it is trying to figure out what does the next CBA look like? What do the free-agent markets look like going forward? … I think the idea that we know exactly what the puzzle looks like right now, we don’t.
But if you’re looking for a silver lining here, I may have one: The Cubs financial commitments for next season – including all of the estimated arbitration raises, options, pre-arb players, insurance, etc. – is right around $80M (give or take). And that doesn’t just leave the Cubs with a ton of room to spend (which, yeah, obviously that part is great if they choose to use it). It leaves the Cubs with FAR more flexibility to spend strategically in the world of the new CBA than any other team, especially the big market teams, in MLB.
This is NOT an excuse for not extending any of those guys (I still wish one of the big three were here to stay), BUT if you could have your choice to extend a player now or extend him to the same sort of deal after you know the new rules, you’d pick the latter 10 times out of 10.
So IF (and I know that’s a big if) the Cubs do actually spend once these new rules are in place, I think you’ll find that those deals are better than their counterparts signed before the CBA changed.
I’ll give Jed Hoyer this much. He really seems to be trying his best at being honest. He repeated that over and over and in different ways. For example …
“I never want to be disingenuous and say, ‘here’s the exact plan,’” Hoyer said. “When the fact is, you can’t really lay out an exact plan when there’s so many things that are uncertain in front of that.”
“I never want to be misleading when it comes to what we’re going to present to the fans,” Hoyer said.
“…When I say I don’t know exactly when we’re gonna [be World Series contenders again], it’s more because I’m being honest. We have the ability to be opportunistic and we have the ability to pivot if things come up.”
In retrospect, Theo Epstein’s best quality may not have been running a baseball operations department, it may have been communication. He was such an effective orator, when he spoke, you often felt in-the-know without knowing anything at all. I think Hoyer is trying to emulate that part of Epstein here. He could have said Oh, we’re totally going to win the division next year.” But instead, he said “I don’t know exactly when ….” I’m not going to fault him for that. That part is appreciated.
No, Really: This Isn’t 2012-2013
The one line he has repeated, however, is that this WILL NOT be another rebuild.
“But I will tell you, I’m very confident that it’s not going to look anything like it looked in 2012 and ’13. That’s not what we’re looking at. That’s not what we’re going for.”
“This is not gonna be a 2012-13 situation in any way,” the Cubs president of baseball operations said. “We’re gonna be looking to compete right away.”
And frankly, why would it be? This organization is ENTIRELY different than it was back in 2012-2013. For example …
Front Office: The front office may have lost a lot of talent over the last year+ (and that really sucks … for human reasons and for competitive advantage reasons), but it’s also far more established at the top and it’s lightyears ahead in terms of infrastructure.
Big League Talent: This is night and day. I’ll just list some people I think will be useful next season: Kyle Hendricks, Adbert Alzolay, Justin Steele, Keegan Thompson, Alec Mills, Manny Rodriguez, Codi Heurer, Willson Contreras, Nico Hoerner, Nick Madrigal, Patrick Wisdom. And that’s not including potentially bench+ guys like Ian Happ, Rafael Ortega, David Bote, and Sergio Alcantara. And I could’ve named like 10 more relievers. The difference between that group and the 2012-2013 group is night and day.
Prospect Talent: I won’t do the list thing here, but the Cubs group of prospects right now is also miles ahead of where we were in 2012. It’s a jump start on the rebuild and the best prospect, Brennen Davis, is probably going to hit Triple-A by the end of this year. It is just not the same.
Financial Resources: Who knows when we will be back at the top of the mountain, but we do know WHAT the top of the mountain looks like. The Cubs payroll maxed out at about $237M at its height, so when the time comes to spend, you can shout at them to get there again. And personally, I believe we will see payrolls at that level before too long.
About those Prospects:
The biggest (legitimate) criticism of the Cubs prospects right now is that while it’s perhaps among the deepest groups in baseball after the Yu Darvish trade, the 2020 and 2021 MLB Draft, and the trade deadline, it’s also thin at the very top.
I do think that the perception of the top will change when the offseason re-rankings come out (scouts are still catching up from the lack of a 2020 Minor League season and all the new draft prospects), but it’s still a fair criticism from the outside.
But from the inside, Jed Hoyer sees things a little differently:
“When you make all these different bets on prospects, you know that you’re not going to hit on every one,” Hoyer said. “But we hope that we can hit on a couple guys in trades and maybe one or two can be the next Arrieta, the next Hendricks, the next Strop, whoever that might be. There are a lot of prospects that we acquired last time that people aren’t talking about. But we nailed a few of those and that really had a massive impact on our championship.”
Hoyer is right that Kyle Hendricks and Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop weren’t these wildly heralded trades at the time, even though they eventually became cornerstone pieces of the World Series team. You can’t COUNT on that happening, though. You can just put as many chips on the table as possible and hope some of them hit. So in that respect, the Cubs are in the game.
Using the Rest of the Season Wisely
You might be ready to check out on the Cubs over the next two months, but I won’t be and the Cubs certainly cannot afford it. There are KEY developmental tracks (many of which we’ve already discussed) and the Cubs have to be ready to figure that out.
“I’ve talked to Rossy about that a lot,” Hoyer said of the next two months of baseball. “[We’ll be] using this time to sort some things out for the offseason. … Even though it is dangerous to evaluate in August and September, I think we can get a sense for exactly what we have.
Aside from the starting pitchers, which is probably the biggest item on the agenda, the Cubs will need to see what they have in Manny Rodriguez and Cody Heuer. They could already have their next two late-inning arms if things break their way. I’m also fascinated to see if Patrick Wisdom really can develop into an everyday player. So far, he might be showing exactly that:
— Michael Cerami (@Michael_Cerami) August 3, 2021
But What Does It All Mean?
And ultimately, Jed Hoyer knows what fans want – we want and deserve a winner … ASAP – but also recognizes that tough decisions are sometimes necessary. He shouldn’t make tough decisions that piss everyone off, of course (this is entertainment, after all), but these things aren’t easy. We’ve played the patch-up game before and it doesn’t usually work. At least not for long.
“I don’t have any interest in just sort of patching things up and saying this is good enough,” Hoyer said. “The legacy of this group ultimately is that we changed the expectations here. That would’ve been perfectly acceptable before — to compete for a Wild-Card was OK.
“And now people want to see what ’15 and ’16 and ’17 was again. And that’s what we owe these fans now. … People should understand the long-term goal is to build the next great Cubs team but certainly in the short term, I believe we’re gonna be very competitive.”
With that said, I will concede two points: We weren’t supposed to have to play the patch up game. That was the point of that big rebuild in the first place. And also we should have been able to patch things up along the way by flexing the additional financial might that wasn’t there after the 2018 season. The Cubs didn’t HAVE to trade everyone. They could have gone in on one or two of them, supplemented externally, and kept rolling. They didn’t. They picked their path and now we have to live with it.
So to answer my own question there (What does it all mean?), I say this: The Cubs are going to use this offseason to spend on short-term free agents that could make the Cubs competitive as soon as 2022. Maybe you get ONE big free agent in there (my target would be Carlos Correa). But the focus will be on short-term bridge pieces that give the Cubs a direction and some time for the prospect to catch up. Then, after 2022, you go big in 2023 and beyond. Spend a ton. Trade from your horde of prospects. Make the splashy deals. Promote some guys and go all in.
Maybe the next window of dominance isn’t until 2024, but there is NO REASON the Cubs can’t compete in 2022 and especially 2023. Full stop.