For nearly an hour Wednesday morning, Chicago Cubs President Jed Hoyer dissected the good, bad and everything in between during his end-of-season news conference.
The wide range of topics closed the book on the 2021 season for the 91-loss Cubs as the organization’s focus shifts to the offseason. Four takeaways stood out among the various themes Hoyer discussed.
1. Expect manager David Ross’ contract to be extended this offseason
Hoyer confirmed preliminary conversations with Ross regarding a contract extension for the second-year manager have begun.
Ross, 44, mentioned Saturday that talks were underway. The Cubs are not under pressure to get a new deal done immediately. Ross remains under contract through the 2022 season and has a club option for 2023. The expectation is Ross’ option will be picked up with an extension tacking on additional years in a new deal. Ross is 105-117 with a postseason appearance in two seasons with the Cubs.
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“I‘ve said a number of times David has done a fantastic job as manager,” Hoyer said. “He’s learned a ton on the job and even while learning I think he’s excelled. He’s kept morale good, he’s running the staff very well. I love having him as a partner.
“Our hope certainly is David’s here for a long time.”
Naturally there is a learning curve for first-time managers and with that a belief as the years progress, they continue to grow. Cubs players spoke highly of Ross this year, especially with how he handled the clubhouse after the trade deadline. Following the significant roster turnover, Ross implemented pregame video sessions and schedule stretch times before road games.
During the final week of the season, Ross said he plans to further incorporate new ideas and approaches in spring training and into next season. These are the little things that allow a manager to put his stamp on the team.
2. Pitching is the Cubs’ No. 1 offseason priority
Heading into the season, the rotation and pitching depth were two of the Cubs’ perceived weaknesses, and 162 games later, those concerns were warranted.
Hoyer declined to reveal specifics of how the front office plans to attack free agency, but he made clear the Cubs will address their pitching.
“If you sort of look at the whole season, there’s no question that we have to acquire more pitching, better pitching this winter,” Hoyer said. “I think that’ll be the No. 1 priority because that, said simply, was the downfall of this season. Our rotation was short, and we weren’t effective enough in terms of run prevention.”
“Our starting rotation simply wasn’t good enough this year to compete. Our bullpen was excellent for a long stretch (before the trade deadline).”
The pitching staff’s numbers certainly support this approach. The Cubs finished with the third-lowest pitching fWAR while posting the fourth-highest ERA (4.88) and walk rate (9.6%). The rotation in particular needs to be upgraded after featuring three rookies for various stretches. Among teams’ starting pitchers, the Cubs ranked 29th in fWAR with the fourth-worst ERA (5.27) and rated last in average fastball velocity (91.2 mph).
3. That doesn’t mean the Cubs will go all-in to sign one of the top free-agent starting pitchers
Hoyer reiterated he does not want to reveal the Cubs’ potential free-agent strategy. He did acknowledge the team’s financial flexibility with only three players on guaranteed contracts for 2022.
But just as he explained near the end of the season, Hoyer wants the Cubs to spend in an “intelligent way.” That might mean the Cubs will not pursue the best available starting pitchers in free agency, a group highlighted by Robbie Ray, Max Scherzer, Marcus Stroman, Kevin Gausman and Zack Greinke.
“When you look at some teams out there that made huge splashes, they were aggressive, they were lauded for all the things they did and they’re not playing in October, just like us,” Hoyer said. “So as we build this I think it is really important to make one good decision after another, and that’s how I think about the offseason.
“We’re trying to build a roster that can compete but we’re also trying to do it not looking to win the offseason.”
Hoyer wouldn’t say whether the Cubs’ plan involves prioritizing volume or upside players versus the top-tier options, but clearly they plan to be judicious in how they utilize their financial flexibility. Perhaps their approach would be different if this roster were a star player away from making them a contender. But clearly there are multiple areas the Cubs must upgrade to field a more competitive team in 2022.
“We’re certainly going to be active, but we need to be active in a way that we feel like we’re getting the right value for the dollars we’re spending,” Hoyer said. “And we’re also making sure that we’re not hindering ourselves going forward with expenditures for right now.”
Look for the Cubs to target power arms, though. A rotation built around command instead of velocity, or at least more balance between the two, contributed to the pitching woes. Hoyer is optimistic about the power arms coming up through the system and the progress they’ve made in that area. But the Cubs need pitchers who more consistently can miss bats and take some pressure off the defense.
“The makeup of our staff was too contact-oriented, so to speak, and that’s something that needs to change,” Hoyer said.
4. Hoyer believes the Cubs can build another contending lineup quickly
It’s a story Hoyer said he has told a few times but sees relevancy to the Cubs’ current situation. He recalled being in St. Louis in the summer of 2013 comparing the Cardinals’ lineup to the Cubs’ “feeling like we were literally light years away from being able to compete with them.”
Two years later, the Cubs beat the Cardinals in the National League Division Series, officially kicking off the franchise’s six-year stretch featuring three division titles and a World Series championship. Hoyer pointed to that memory and what transpired after as an example of how quickly things can change.
“Whenever I think about changing an offense, obviously depth is really important, but usually you change one piece at a time,” Hoyer said. “When we didn’t get on base at all when we first got here we started to get on base when we started changing one player after another and improving like one player after another. I think it can happen quickly as you make those tweaks, and I’m sort of given comfort by what I witnessed last time, which is having that feeling of how are we going to catch up with the 2013 Cardinals that won a World Series in ‘11 and went to the World Series in ‘13?
“It happened probably more quickly than we thought with stacking one good decision on top of another.”
Infusing the organization with young talent was an important part of the Cubs’ transformation then, some of which was already within the organization by 2013 via trades, international signings and the draft, including Kyle Hendricks, Javier Báez, Willson Contreras and Albert Almora Jr., who already were working their way through their minor-league system. The Cubs’ high-upside prospects predominately played in the Arizona rookie league or at the A-ball level this year, which will require patience in the speed at which they can ascend to the majors.
The San Francisco Giants are an example of what can happen when a team makes good offseason moves while also maximizing their roster and getting the most out of their players, some of whom produced their best season in years. The Giants weren’t projected to be a postseason team coming into the season but went on to lead the majors with 107 wins.
“For me, of all the teams we played this year, I thought they were the most challenging because they didn’t give up any at-bats, so it was a grind from the first pitch to the last pitch in all seven games we played against them,” Hoyer said. “It’s a testament to their roster building into ... the way Gabe (Kapler) has gotten those guys to play.”
All of this sounds good in theory. But the Cubs roster doesn’t feature the level of All-Star caliber players the Giants had coming into the year. The Cubs’ framework currently centers on one proven, elite starting pitcher, upside but inexperience on the pitching staff, their starting catcher entering his final season before free agency and a lot of questions surrounding the other pieces around the diamond.
A quick turnaround will in large part require the organization to correctly assess the Cubs’ internal talent and then find the right complementary pieces through free agency.