The Cubs are preparing for what has the makings of an interesting and fun, but unpredictable season at the big league level. The front office has given Joe Maddon a lot of young talent to work with and it will be up to Maddon and his staff to put the players in position to win ballgames.
There is a lot of excitement and expectation surrounding the Cubs and it’s all justifiable after the last six years of well, bad baseball. Final record aside, the maturation process of the players will not be boring. Some days the Cubs are going to look like the best team in baseball, but there will be stretches where the young players look like they’ve never played the game before.
The front office, manager, coaching staff and players are all on the same page. The Cubs goal this season is to win the National League Central Division. And while that should be the goal, a .500 record for a team than won only 73 games a year ago would be a big step forward for an organization that lost more than 100 games three years ago.
Jed Hoyer recently addressed several topics with just over three weeks left to go in the Cubs’ exhibition season.
In an interview on Mully and Hanley (670 The Score) following the Cubs’ spring openers, Tom Ricketts said that anything short of a division title would be a disappointment to the organization. And Jed Hoyer was asked to respond to his boss’ statement when he joined Mully and Hanley later in the day.
“As far as from a competition standpoint there’s no doubt that we want to get to the top of those five teams. They are going to be our competition for a long time and certainly in the case of the Cardinals and Pirates, they’ve both been really good the last two years and the Cardinals for a long time.”
“That’s a real challenge for us to getting to the top of that group and I think obviously the bar we’re going to measure ourselves by,” Hoyer said on Mully and Hanley. “At the same time we do have a lot of young players and a lot of guys that there’s a lot of different things that we are going to be looking for this year and there’s some positives that can come out of things that may seem like negatives.”
“We can give a lot of these at bats to young players and watch them develop knowing that their best years are probably ahead. I think we are going to be one of the youngest teams in the league this year. I think our upside is tremendous. Certainly the goal is to win the division.”
“The goal is to play in October and no one has ever shied away from that but I do think this is going to be an interesting year,” Hoyer said. “We are going to be competing really hard and also we’re going to have to be somewhat patient as some of these young guys break into the league. It’s hard to compete and win when you have so many young players. We’re going to try to do that.”
At times this season the Cubs will be starting three or more players that are 22-23 years old, Hoyer thinks a lot is being expected of players like Arismendy Alcantara, Javier Baez, Jorge Soler and Tommy La Stella to come up to the big leagues and hit right away. There is a lot of really good pitching in baseball. Hoyer is obviously not ruling out the young players performing and producing right away. But in all likelihood it’s going to take time for each of them to get acclimated to the majors.
One of the young players the Cubs are looking to produce this year is Javier Baez. And Hoyer thinks Baez can change his approach and shorten his swing when the situation calls for it.
“I think it’s a little bit of a mindset issue. Take your shot to do damage early in the count, but when you get two strikes I think it’s important to put the ball in play. I think that we’ve gotten to a stage in baseball unfortunately where we overlook the negative aspect of strikeouts.”
“A strikeout with two outs and no one on is not a big deal but a strikeout with guys on base when you have a chance to move runners or have a chance to drive in a run with less than two outs that is a big deal,” Hoyer said. “I think he has to understand that there are times where you can’t strikeout. You have to put the ball in play. He’s worked hard. When people have asked me about Javy [Javier Baez] this spring I’ve kind of looked at [Anthony] Rizzo.”
“When Rizzo came up to the big leagues in San Diego in 2011, very similar struggles. Once things started going the wrong direction they really plummeted that direction. He had to come back that next spring and really revamp his swing to really catch up with better fastballs that he saw in the big leagues, and he did that.”
Adjustments can be really hard to make when they are being done in the big leagues. Hoyer thinks that is exactly what Baez is going to have to do. Hoyer feels if Baez can make the adjustments that will allow him to make more contact then the Cubs will have a player that can play second base or shortstop in the majors capable of hitting 30-plus home runs a year.
With Jon Lester, the Cubs feel like they have a rotation that can compete with the other rotations in the division. But if the players hadn’t performed the way they did after the All-Star break last year, the Cubs might not have pursued Lester. The team performed a little better after the break than was expected and the optimism about the way the young guys produced made the front office think that with the right additions to the roster (starting pitchers, veterans) the team should be able to compete.
A lot was made in the media and by segments of the fan base about the Cubs starting 0-6-1 in the Cactus League. Jed Hoyer is obviously not worried about wins and losses in the spring. He would like see the roster he helped assemble play better for the remainder of the exhibition season.
“There is literarily zero correlation between Spring Training wins and regular season success. I wish we were playing better. I think that it’s been sloppy,” Hoyer explained to Jesse Rogers. “I don’t really care about the wins and losses. You care about the sloppy play. So that’s the part that I hope turns around.”
“I always feel like the last 10 days or so is where you want to look like you’re in regular season shape. I’ve seen a lot of teams come out of the gate hot in Spring Training and then get sloppy late as their attention weans. We definitely didn’t do that. Hopefully we can peak later in the spring, getter a little sharper focus as we get later in spring and play well.”
Jed Hoyer thought at the time, despite the excitement over the three consecutive longballs, the game in Goodyear against the Indians was the worst game the team played all spring. Hoyer was looking for a mistake and error free game against the Dodgers and for the pitchers to throw strikes.
Hoyer admitted it was fun to watch Jorge Soler, Javier Baez and Kris Bryant launch home runs. The Cubs goal, however, is to have guys on base for the power hitters to turn those solo homers into multiple-run homers.
“We haven’t gotten on base enough. We’ve had some power. We’re going to have a lot more power coming. The challenge is to get that lineup working together, get some synergy there where guys get on base in front of these guys. And know all of a sudden we can start having some big innings.”
Jason Hammel thinks the Cubs have a chance to have more of an America League lineup with players that can produce in the 1-8 spots in the batting order, just not 1-6.
“That’s been our goal. To get that point where you feel like the starting pitcher never has an inning off,” Hoyer said. “I think there is definitely National League lineups, we’ve been guilty of this in the last couple of years, where you sort of look up in the second or third inning and seven, eight, nine is not a free inning, but it’s pretty close to it. Mentally from a starting pitcher or even a relief pitcher to have that and to know that’s a pretty easy inning that you can maybe pitch at 90 percent, conserve your bullets.”
“I don’t think that’s a good thing for us. You need to have a lineup where the pitcher feels like he has to go 100 percent the whole time. Maybe that tires him out more in the sixth inning and we get to him. Having a deep lineup, in addition to having some bigger innings, I just think mentally from a pitching standpoint is really hard on the other team.”
Jed Hoyer is happy with the way Welington Castillo has played this spring. Castillo has been showcasing the aspects of his game that he does well. Castillo has a strong arm, can throw runners out and can hit really well in stretches.
The Cubs have reportedly been listening to offers for Castillo but there has not been a team, yet, to offer the front office what Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer believe is fair value for Castillo. The Cubs have not ruled out beginning the season with three catchers and have discussed scenarios on how the team would handle three catchers on the active 25-man roster.
If Miguel Montero and David Ross avoid the injury bug, it’s believed the Cubs would like to move Castillo prior to Opening Night.
“Most trades happen later in spring. We have definitely talked a lot about the idea of carrying three catchers and it’s something we can do,” Hoyer said. “We know we’re going to get calls about Wely [Welington Castillo]. But usually I expect those things to happen, this year the season starts so late, I think those things will happen even into April as teams start to round out their roster.”
Once teams starting making spring roster cuts is when trades are usually made, around the time teams’ rosters are in the 30-player range.
Speaking of catchers, the Cubs have been very impressed with Kyle Schwarber this spring.
“Everything he’s done this spring has been outstanding. Really the pitchers are really responding to him behind the plate. The catching instructors have really noted how hard he’s working and obviously in the batter’s box he looks so comfortable. Every at bat is a battle.”
“I was actually saying this morning, I don’t think he’s had a single at bat where I felt like he looked overmatched or didn’t have a single at bat where he looked like he didn’t compete,” Hoyer said. “And it’s a battle for the pitcher every time and that’s ultimately what we want out of our whole lineup is a battle every time.”
The Cubs, like the other 29 teams, would like to start off the season with a winning month and carry the momentum throughout the season that will come with the confidence generated by winning ballgames. The key at this point of the process is patience because the ups and downs of a big league season are just around the corner.