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Even in a season where the Cubs didn’t make the playoffs, there can be some successes to take away from it.
A former MVP returned to MVP-like form (and when he hits free agency this winter, they should have a good shot to re-sign him). A homegrown pitcher turned into a Cy Young contender. The clubhouse culture evolved into one where the players never gave up on winning, even when the season looked over early in the summer. There were positives that made it feel like the Cubs did take a step forward.
But when they don’t reach their goals, you can’t really call it a successful season. So it was refreshing to hear the one in charge acknowledge that, before reporters even had a chance to ask.
“Painfully, we did not finish the race,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said at his season-ending presser Tuesday. “Certainly, there’s positives to take from the season both organizationally and as a major league team, but right now, we’re sort of stuck thinking about what could’ve been and thinking about the painful last two and a half, three weeks. You can’t call something that falls short of your goal a success.”
That echoes what Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts said Sunday during the team’s final game of the season. Even if outside expectations were less optimistic, the Cubs went into the year with the goal of making the playoffs. That didn’t always look realistic, particularly when the team fell 10 games under .500 on June 8.
But the team never gave up hope. The Cubs rallied to claw their way back into contention. They convinced Hoyer to not break up the group, and roughly three months later, they’d reached a season high 12 games over .500 on Sept. 6. That day, a team that a few months earlier was on the verge of selling at the trade deadline for the third straight year was given 92.4 percent odds to make the playoffs (according to FanGraphs).
Everyone knows what happened next. A swift three-week collapse saw them lose their lose their grip on a playoff spot. And rather than getting ready for a postseason game Tuesday, Hoyer was busy talking to the media about what could’ve been.
“Ultimately, we have to live with that,” Hoyer said. “I know it’ll motivate me all winter, and I know talking to our players and coaches and front office, I know it’s going to motivate them. But you can’t define something as a success when you fall short. I think as Tom said, those things are consolation prizes, and that’s not why we’re here.”
When collapses like that happen, the manager is often the first person to get the blame. He’s the head of the team, after all, so he becomes the scapegoat. And if you take social media with anything more than a grain of salt, it seems like Cubs fans are ready for someone new.
But like his boss and the players, Hoyer voiced his support for David Ross as the team’s skipper. Hoyer pointed out the successful summer, the clubhouse culture and Ross’ willingness to learn (considering his lack of managerial experience before taking the job) as big positives from the manager’s own performance in 2023.
Will they disagree on some things? Obviously they do (as they should). But at the end of the day, Hoyer still believes in Ross.
“Do we have disagreements and do we have no heated conversations? Of course we do, but you will with any manager,” Hoyer said. “They have to make so many different decisions. They have so many things to weigh, so obviously, we work hard all the time to give him the right information. And if there are things that we disagree with or things that we can do better, he’s very open-minded to that. He’s constantly trying to improve. Ultimately, we’re very pleased with the job he did this year, and I think that he should be proud of the fact that that group kept fighting for him.”
So, if it’s not “fire the manager” time for Hoyer, how do the Cubs improve? They barely missed the playoffs and ended up nine wins better than 2022, but that won’t be good enough next season — not for fans nor for anyone in the clubhouse or front office.
It starts with supplementing the roster. Hoyer pointed out the team’s overall offensive success (48.8 offensive runs above average, ninth in baseball, per FanGraphs’ metric). But we also saw the offense stall in September, repeatedly failing to get the “big hits” or add onto leads.
That probably hurt others areas of the roster. The pitching staff — especially the bullpen — lost expected contributors to injury or ineffectiveness both early in the season and in September, and the depth the Cubs thought they had ultimately wasn’t enough. So when the offense wasn’t clicking late in the year, that depleted staff ended up pitching in a lot of close games, where they weren’t able to hold enough leads to win enough ballgames.
That’s not all on the offense, as there were games when the hitters put up enough runs to win but the pitchers couldn’t keep the opponents at bay. That’s only to say that on the margins of the roster, there wasn’t enough depth at the end of the season to pick up the slack if another group was faltering.
Still, a solid group of players stood out as a foundation to build on. Whether it was a high-priced free agent (like Dansby Swanson), some homegrown arms (like Justin Steele and Adbert Alzolay), extended hitters (like Ian Happ and Nico Hoerner) or unexpected big contributors (like Javier Assad, Julian Merryweather and Jordan Wicks), the Cubs think they have guys who can be a part of winning in the immediate future.
“The shell of a really good team is there,” Hoyer said. “Obviously, we have to make additions and we have to find ways to improve, but I feel really good given where we were a year ago. The number of pieces we have that are contributing players on a really good team is there, and we just need to supplement that and play very similar baseball to this year — we just have to find a way to avoid the ups and downs as much and finish the race a lot stronger.”
But not all of those contributors may be around. Cody Bellinger will enter free agency this offseason, and he’s certainly played his way into being one of the top options on the market. The rotation should remain mostly intact, with Kyle Hendricks (2024 club option) expected to be back and Marcus Stroman (2024 player option) having to decide if he’ll still opt out after a rough second half, but neither are total guarantees just yet.
They didn’t go over the competitive balance tax threshold this season, but to keep some of their own players and also make other additions to supplement the roster, that may be necessary.
The Cubs aren’t tipping their hand, of course, and Hoyer was clearly not ruling that out.
“We’ve shown a willingness to do it,” he said. “I think it’s both a budgetary question, but it’s also just, we want to make sure that, strategically, you do it at the right time. We’ll have those discussions, but there’s no organizational mandate against it, as has been shown in the past.”
Those are all questions the Cubs will have to answer this offseason.
Next year, they want to get to the playoffs and beyond. To do that, they’ll have to make smart decisions to build a roster that can hold up over 162 games and finish strong. They didn’t do that last winter, but the stakes and expectations are higher now. Being in the same place next year — watching from their couches while other teams start playing October baseball — can’t be, and won’t be, good enough.
So while postseason play got underway Tuesday, 2024 begins now for the Cubs.
“I was hoping to have less of October to do offseason planning,” Hoyer said, “but certainly, we’ll get right to work.”
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