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Over this past weekend, Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer spent time watching playoff baseball with his sons.
The Cubs missed the postseason for the second year in a row, the first time the club has failed to play past the end of the regular season in back-to-back years since 2013-14. So, while he watched other teams play on TV, he couldn’t help but realize how much he really wishes it was the Cubs on the field instead.
“I was struck by was just how much I miss it and just how much it hurts not to be there,” Hoyer said during his season-ending presser Monday morning at Wrigley Field. “Everything we do in these jobs is to play deep into October, to give the fans that thrill of October baseball. And I don’t like the feeling of being a spectator and watching on my couch. This sort of reconfirms all those things that we work for. I can’t wait to get back there.”
To truly get back there, the Cubs have work to do.
They finished the 2022 season 74-88, well out of contention for the National League Central crown and for one of the three NL Wild Card spots. There were certainly some individual success stories this year that make the Cubs believe they have some foundational pieces for competitive teams moving forward, but none of them led the Cubs back to the postseason this year.
That’s the No. 1 goal for Hoyer and company this offseason. The Cubs want to build a team that can at least make the playoffs next year. They want to supplement those break-out players with additions that fill holes on the roster. They want to give Cubs fans a team to be invested in.
“We want to make sure that what we build creates what we talked about before, which is year after year after year being in the playoffs and giving these fans what they deserve, which is October baseball,” Hoyer said.
A 39-31 record in the second half may have provided the front office with a reason to be aggressive this winter, because an offseason of quiet moves won’t move the needle any more. They need to be active in bringing in the right players to make this team one that can compete in 2023, and it appears that’s where things are headed.
Hoyer didn’t get into specifics on Monday, but he did lay out part of what this offseason might look like for the Cubs. And with that, here are four takeaways from Hoyer’s end-of-season press conference.
1. Contreras’ Cubs career likely over
Hoyer confirmed Monday what was already widely expected: the Cubs will extend a qualifying offer to Willson Contreras when he hits free agency this offseason.
That offer, which is estimated to be in the $18-19 million range, will net the Cubs a compensatory pick in next year’s draft should Contreras reject it and sign with a new team. Qualifying offers are due within five days of the end of the World Series, and players then have 10 days to make a decision on them. So, Contreras’ future with the Cubs will be finalized about a month from now.
What will happen isn’t a done deal, but the expectation is that Contreras will reject the offer and pursue a contract in free agency. In that scenario, that would make last Tuesday’s game against the Reds Contreras’ last in a Cubs uniform.
A different scenario would mean Contreras accepting the qualifying offer and returning to the Cubs for one more season in 2023. But it seems incredibly unlikely that that’s something that could actually happen.
At the beginning of the Cubs’ last homestand of the season, Contreras said atop his list of priorities when looking at potential suitors is being somewhere he feels wanted. Would the Cubs extending a qualifying offer and not engaging Contreras’ camp in contract talks give him that feeling of being wanted? Doesn’t seem like it.
So as of now, it appears Contreras’ Cubs career is coming to an end. The saying goes to “never say never,” but at this point, it seems about as close to “never” as it gets.
“We had a great conversation with Willson the other day, and we’ve always had a really good relationship,” Hoyer said. “I admire how he competes and I admire the passion. We’ll definitely make him a qualifying offer. We’ll be in touch with his representatives. As far as his comments and things like that, I’ll take the comments that he sort of makes to me directly, not [to the media].”
2. Pitching, pitching… and more pitching
The Cubs, like every other big league club, know there’s no such thing as too much pitching. Especially when it comes to starting pitching.
Throughout the season, 17 different pitchers started at least one game for the Cubs, which set the franchise’s single-season record. Every pitcher expected to be in the rotation to begin the season had at least one stint on the injured list this year, which forced the Cubs to go well into their starting pitching depth.
Those pitchers certainly stepped up, as evidence by the rotation recording the third-lowest ERA in the majors in the second half (2.89), and arms like Adrian Sampson, Javier Assad and Hayden Wesneski inserted themselves in the rotation discussion for 2023. But that’s not where the Cubs plan on leaving things.
They’re expected to be in the market for starting pitching in free agency, which could include a top-of-the-line starter such as Carlos Rodón. But they’ll also be looking to add more pitchers who can cover innings at the back end of the rotation, which might include bringing back either of their free agent starters in Drew Smyly and Wade Miley or promoting other minor league starters who are ready for the call.
Again, no team can ever have enough starting pitching, and the best teams in baseball have the depth that can help them withstand the loss if a starter does go down. As good as the Cubs might feel about their depth already, there’s always room for more. And augmenting that is going to be another area of focus this offseason.
“I think it’s important that we continue to add quality innings, I guess I would say, [without] putting the pressure on how I would define ‘top of the rotation,'” Hoyer said. “I think we’re actively looking for quality innings, pitchers we feel like we can work with and potentially make better.”
3. Power is a priority
The 2022 season was something a down year for the Cubs in terms of power. Excluding the 60-game season in 2020, the Cubs’ slugging percentage of .387 was the lowest it’s been since 2014 (.385), and they had just two players finish the year with 20 or more home runs (Contreras with 22, Patrick Wisdom with 25), the lowest number of Cubs to do so in the same season since 2015.
The inability to string together extra-base hits to score runs in bunches led to the Cubs stealing the fourth-highest number of bases (111) across the majors, but it also led to them perhaps getting a bit too aggressive to get runners in better positions to score, as evidenced by their 68 outs on the bases in 2022 (second-highest in the majors, per Baseball-Reference).
Hoyer said the team’s baserunning performance this season was “not good enough,” and that was due in part to that inability to hit home runs.
“There were times I think we pushed the envelope intentionally hard, because we don’t have the ability to hit a lot of homers, and so we tried to create some runs, manufacture some runs,” Hoyer said. “I think that part of it was understandable, but there was times I felt like we could be a little bit sloppy on the bases. That’s the stuff that winning teams don’t do, and we have to cut that part of it out.”
In turn, that led to a lot of those games where the Cubs just couldn’t put enough runs on the board to get enough breathing room, resulting in either close wins or losses.
“We played so many close games throughout the year because we couldn’t stretch games out,” Hoyer said. “That really taxes the bullpen, and it leads to more randomness. The best teams in baseball blow people out. One-run games are always going to center around .500. That’s a baseball truism, that one-run games are generally a 50/50 proposition. Sometimes, a little better if you have a great bullpen, but great teams blow people out.”
So, when Hoyer looks at areas to address this offseason, introducing more power into the lineup is a priority.
The Cubs attempted to do that when they claimed Franmil Reyes (who hit 30-plus homers in two of his first four seasons) off waivers in August, and manager David Ross recently indicated that Reyes is in the team’s plans for 2023, but that isn’t the last move the Cubs will make to get some slug on the roster.
“It’s certainly an area, as we’ve talked about throughout the season, we have to be a little quicker-strike offense than we were,” Hoyer said. “I liked the fact that we were making more contact. I did think there was times we grinded our at-bats, but we lacked the ability to pull away in different games. That’s something we have to get better about. … As we think about where we want to be eventually, that is a big focus. You got to be able to score runs in bunches, and we were not able to do that this year.”
4. Ball really is in Jed’s court
In early September, Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts told a small group of reporters that “the ball is in Jed’s court” in terms of how the team will attack this offseason. Whether that’s shelling out big contracts or making smaller moves to bolster depth, Ricketts said he’ll leave those decisions up to Hoyer.
On Monday, Hoyer was asked for his thoughts on what Ricketts had to say.
“It’s a great feeling,” he said. “I think that it’s what someone in my position wants. You want the autonomy to make what you feel are the right decisions, the best decisions.”
Hoyer isn’t naive enough to think Ricketts will just open the checkbook and allow Hoyer to offer any sum of money to any player on the market. He said the front office will do the research and present valid reasons why the team should use its financial resources in whichever way he sees fit. If that happens to be a big-money splash to bring in a star, he’ll provide Ricketts with the answers to whatever questions he may ask about the move.
Hoyer appreciates that Ricketts holds him and the rest of the front office accountable, in terms of asking the right questions and making sure they’re thinking about things properly. But based on Ricketts’ comments, ultimately, the results of any move will fall squarely at Hoyer’s feet.
It’s the part of the job that Hoyer signed up for, where he’ll be held accountable for the success or failure in how the Cubs’ resources are doled out. But it’s also the part of the job that he believes his boss has confidence in him to do the right way to make the Cubs better in the long-run.
“I have total confidence that if we get to a place where we ask for a significant amount of money to sign one player or several players,” Hoyer said, “I have no doubt that we’ll have his blessing and I have no doubt the resources will be there.”