There may be a positive side to having a team’s core hitters hurtling toward free agency. The Cubs are counting on it.
“There's real stresses that come with being in a walk year,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said in a Zoom conference Tuesday. “There's also real motivations that come from being in a walk year.”
After talking about lineup diversification early in the offseason, the Cubs enter Spring Training with largely the same offense as last year. Joc Pederson has replaced Kyle Schwarber in left field, but the hitting core otherwise remains intact. Three of those core members --- Anthony Rizzo, Javier Báez and Kris Bryant – are in their final year of club control.
Hoyer plans to sit down with them for extension talks this spring, but it’s unlikely that the Cubs will bring back all three next year.
“These guys have been fantastic Cubs that did something historic together,” Hoyer said. “I think rightfully Cubs nation sort of owes that group a debt of gratitude, and they're always going to be legends for the Cubs. … I'd love to have that continuity and have some of these guys going forward. But we've said, financially it's impossible for any team to continue with that group indefinitely.”
It also wouldn’t be effective to bring back the same roster every year. The Cubs’ offense has enjoyed a fair amount of continuity since winning the World Series in 2016. But just two years later, when the Cubs suffered a Wild Card exit, former president of baseball operations Theo Epstein famously said, “Our offense broke somewhere along the lines.”
So, why should fans trust, after few additions, that it’s fixed now?
“It's a fair question,” Hoyer said. “… We believe in this group, and there's been moments that we've been proven right, and there were moments recently that we haven't (been) proven right. But ultimately, I think this is a really talented offensive group.”
The 2020 season was a down year for the Cubs offense overall. Rizzo (.222 batting average), Bryant (.206) and Báez (.203) all put up uncharacteristically poor numbers in the shortened season.
“Rossy (Cubs manager David Ross) and I have spent a ton of time over the course of winter talking about how we can you know get this group back to where they belong,” Hoyer said.
On Tuesday, Hoyer emphasized hitting hard fastballs – something the Cubs struggled with last season – and decision-making in the batter’s box as targets for internal growth.
Ross recast the Cubs’ past offensive struggles with optimism. The team still won the division in 2020, largely buoyed by their pitching and defense. They won the National League Gold Glove team award.
The Cubs won’t be able to count on the same performance on the mound after trading Yu Darvish this offseason, but their defensive growth should carry over. Then, add the potential effects of impending free agency.
“If they get their numbers offensively,” Ross said, “we're going to be monsters.”