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If Cubs Fall Short in 2024, It Could be Time for a Change at the Top

Jed Hoyer took over as the Chicago Cubs President of Baseball Operations in 2021. Since then, the Cubs have built one of baseball’s top farm systems and spent heavily to bring in veteran talent. But despite this, the team is just 269-306 during his tenure and a paltry 41-48 so far this season. After finishing second in the National League Central last season, and acquiring manager Craig Counsell and starting pitcher Shota Imanaga, many thought the Cubs would win the division. This is prompting some to suggest maybe the problem is Hoyer.

If Payroll Was King the Cubs Would Be Winning

In a recent article for Fansided, Kinnu Singh argues that, carrying among the highest payrolls in the game, the Cubs shouldn’t have one of the worst records in MLB. He points out that Hoyer took a “win now” approach this offseason and that the Cubs are in last place in the NL Central despite spending outspending the rest of the division.

It’s a fair critique to be sure, and raises questions about Hoyer’s approach. Hiring Counsell is less “win now” and more win a lot, given his track record as a manager. Re-signing Cody Bellinger to a three-year deal and Imanaga out of Japan may likely prove to be a bit of both approaches. Bellinger has played well this season, but he’s not having the same type of season he had in 2023. That will affect both his trade value and his decision-making as to whether to exercise his opt-out clause at the end of the season. Signing Imanaga, 30, to a multi-year deal looks like it will pay off in the long run.

As for the lack of performance per dollar measurement, the Cubs aren’t alone in this department. The New York Mets at $309.6M have the league’s highest payroll, and yet they’re currently hovering around .500. In fact, five of the top 10 highest-spending teams are below .500 so far this season. It appears that it isn’t just spending, but what Hoyer has referred to as “intelligent spending,” that matters most.

Some Voices Are Still Predicting the Cubs Will Be Buyers

Singh also reports that MLB insider Robert Murray – also connected with the online publication – doesn’t think the Cubs are ready to sell yet. Former GM and columnist at The Athletic, Jim Bowden, agrees and adds that the Cubs are more likely to buy. Bowden cites bullpen support, catcher, and a middle-order bat as possible improvements Hoyer will be looking to make.

This suggests that to some around MLB, at least, the Cubs aren’t ready to start again just yet. The question is, can Hoyer negotiate the deals he needs to help the team improve?

Rating Hoyer’s Performance

In a detailed assessment of Hoyer’s tenure with the Cubs on his YouTube series, The Setup Man, Kyle Stanley breaks down 20 deals Hoyer has made since becoming PBO. Stanley attempts to answer the questions Cubs fans are asking about Hoyer: Is he a big market GM and can he make the tough decisions he has to make to bring the team into focus?

Rating each deal on a scale from +5 to -5, Stanley sets the grading standards such that a score of 20+ is all Hoyer would need to rate a good score. A score of 50+ is an elite score, and a score below 20 is rated as inadequate.

The Good

Excluding more recent acquisitions: Counsell, Michael Busch, Hector Neris, Yency Almonte, and Tyson Miller, Stanley begins with the Cubs’ big selloff during the 2021 season. Trading Javier Báez and Trevor Williams to the Mets for New York’s number five prospect Pete Crow-Armstrong was an unqualified win. Picking up right fielder Seiya Suzuki, and trades that brought Hayden Wesneski and Ben Brown received high marks, as did the deals that brought in journeymen outfielder Mike Tauchman, reliever Julian Merryweather, and the aforementioned Bellinger and Imanaga.

The Bad

Hoyer gets lower marks for trading Kris Bryant to the San Francisco Giants for the Giants’ No. 9 prospect Alexander Canario, and No. 30 prospect Caleb Kilian. While Canario and Kilian have yet to show if they can perform at the big league level, Bryant has struggled since leaving the Cubs. Hoyer gets similar marks for the trade that sent Anthony Rizzo to the New York Yankees for prospects Kevin Alcantara and Alexander Vizcaíno. Recently released catcher Yan Gomes and right-hander Jameson Taillon also received decent marks. Taillon has performed well as the Cubs’ number-three starter for most of the last two seasons.

Where it all falls apart for Stanley is in the deals that sent future Hall of Fame closer Craig Kimbrel packing for receiver Codi Heuer and infielder Nick Madrigal. He pans Hoyer for not dealing Willson Contreras and Ian Happ when both were at the top of their game in 2021. The deals for Tucker Barnhart, Eric Hosmer, and Trey Mancini did more to disrupt the organization than help it. Likewise, bringing in Jeimer Candelario at the trade deadline last season proved to go nowhere. And though it’s early in the life of his seven-year contract, Dansby Swanson has been up and down both defensively and offensively since coming over from the Atlanta Braves.

Adding and subtracting, Stanley comes up with a final score of 15 for the 20 deals Hoyer has made since becoming PBO.

Buying and Selling Isn’t the Whole Story

Stanley’s review and score are pretty fair overall. But the one area a GM can’t control is performance. Mancini had been the 2021 AL Comeback Player of the Year and won a World Series with the Houston Astros. Hosmer had won a World Series in 2015 with the Kansas City Royals, was a four-time Gold Glover, a Silver Slugger winner, and an All-Star. Barnhart is a two-time Gold Glove-winning catcher. But none of these guys panned out in a Cubs uniform.

Compare this with guys like Ian Happ and rookie Michael Busch. Both of these guys were asked to try different positions and have made the transition look relatively easy. Happ has two gold gloves and is currently tearing it up at the plate. Busch was just named the Cubs’ midseason MVP, slashing .263/.361/.450 with 10 home runs and 30 RBI while flashing the leather at first base.

The Cubs’ propensity for tinkering with their position players has had mixed results. This raises the obvious question about whether it’s better to shop for position players who can or will perform at given positions now or in the future, rather than cobbling the team together and seeing what happens. Given all the arguments above it isn’t clear that one method outweighs the other.

If Not Hoyer, Then Who?

Riding Theo’s Coattails

Before his promotion to PBO in Chicago, Hoyer had a proven track record as a GM. He was instrumental in helping the Boston Red Sox to two World Series championships alongside his longtime mentor Theo Epstein. After being overlooked for GM positions by the Pittsburgh Pirates (2007) and the Washington Nationals (2009), Hoyer landed a GM position with the San Diego Padres in 2009. The Padres had lost 99 games that season, and by 2010 they were 90-72, finishing second in the NL West.

After Epstein hired him as GM in Chicago, the Cubs turned in three consecutive 90-plus-win seasons with two division titles and breaking the 108-year World Series curse in 2016. Still, up to now, Hoyer’s successes have mostly come as second in command.

Who’s Getting It Done

Some have said the Philadelphia Phillies GM Sam Fuld might be a good pickup for the Cubs if Hoyer fails to deliver this season. But Fuld is working under PBO Dave Dombrowski, who is the brains behind the Phillies’ recent success. Dombrowski succeeds wherever he goes. He’s won World Series with both the Florida Marlins and Red Sox, two pennants with the Detroit Tigers to go along with seven division titles. Only Brian Cashman of the Yankees ranks higher among big-league GMs.

Cashman’s second in command, Brian Sabean, won three World Series rings, a pennant, and five division titles with the Giants before moving to the Yankees front office. Next comes Epstein, who doesn’t seem to have the stomach for the job anymore. The Los Angeles Dodgers’ young PBO Andrew Friedman probably isn’t going anywhere. But the St. Louis Cardinals PBO John Mozeliak, 55, who won a World Series with the Cardinals in 2011, might be lured away for the right price.

Then there’s Dayton Moore (World Series Champion Kansas City Royals in 2015), and Jeff Luhnow (Astros 2017). Both are in their 50s and might be available for the right price.

Hoyer’s Last Stand

With Cubs owner Tom Ricketts opening his pocketbook to help him build a winner, Hoyer’s ability to form a contender is in the spotlight. Ricketts is well aware that he has baseball’s highest-paid manager in Counsell on his payroll. If he was willing to lure Counsell away from Milwaukee, it just might be that he’s willing to dip in a little more to bring in a proven World Series winner. If the Cubs are unable to make the playoffs again this year, or better their record from last season at the very least, 2024 might be Hoyer’s last year in Chicago.


Photo Credit: © Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports


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