Hoyer: Pitching 'No. 1 priority' this winter

October 6th, 2021

CHICAGO -- As he watched the American League Wild Card Game on Tuesday night, Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer saw two familiar faces launch home runs.

Of the two blasts -- one off the bat of Red Sox slugger Kyle Schwarber and another by Yankees first baseman Anthony Rizzo -- it was Schwarber's that had memories flooding in. Schwarber had done the same for the Cubs off Gerrit Cole in the 2015 National League Wild Card Game, igniting the Cubs' multiple-years run through October.

"I was having 2015 Pittsburgh, PNC Park flashbacks," Hoyer said in a Zoom call with reporters on Wednesday. "I can't say I'll watch every single game -- I probably wouldn't be a very good dad if I did that. But, I watch as much as I can, because this is why we do this."

For only the second time in the past seven years, the Cubs are not part of that October stage. Schwarber and Rizzo helped power that run of success, but that core group has been dismantled over the past year. Hoyer is now tasked with constructing a new group capable of reaching similar heights.

In the wake of a franchise-altering 91-loss season -- one that saw Hoyer trade Javier Báez, Kris Bryant and Rizzo amid stalled extension talks -- Hoyer is hoping for a swift turnaround. And the Cubs' top decision-maker knows what the top item on his roster wish list will be in the months ahead.

"There's no question that we have to acquire more pitching, better pitching," Hoyer said. "I think that'll be the No. 1 priority, because that, said simply, was the downfall of this season."

Hoyer is nearing the final phase of an interview process for hiring a new general manager. He is also in preliminary talks with manager David Ross on a contract extension (beyond picking up the 2023 option in Ross' current deal).

Once those leadership moves are in order, and all 30 MLB clubs learn how the new Collective Bargaining Agreement will play out, Hoyer and his front-office team can begin tackling the slew of holes on Chicago's roster.

When that time comes, Hoyer said his goal will not be to "win the offseason," even as the Cubs' current payroll only has just north of $40 million in commitments for '22 on the books.

"I've said repeatedly that we do have financial flexibility," Hoyer said. "We have money to spend this winter. But, I think it's really important that we do that in an intelligent way."

That is typically front-office speak for shying away from the top tier of the free agent class, where long, lucrative deals are doled out. Shorter, more value-driven contracts seem to be in the cards for the North Siders this offseason.

Realistically, the Cubs are not positioned like they were going into '15, when veteran Jon Lester arrived as a missing piece via his six-year, $155 million pact. The Cubs were clearly on the rise at that point. Right now, it is hard to predict what Chicago might look like in '22.

"We're certainly going to be active," Hoyer said. "But I think we need to be active in a way that we feel like we're getting the right value for the dollars we're spending, and we're also making sure we're not hindering ourselves going forward."

In terms of the rotation, the Cubs have Kyle Hendricks under contract through '23 with an option for '24. Alec Mills appears to have a leg up on a rotation spot, while internal options like Adbert Alzolay, Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson will also be viewed as starters or multi-inning relief weapons.

Hoyer noted that the Cubs are keeping an open mind about how to build a rotation, too. While having a workhorse or two is ideal, Chicago will consider carrying a group of arms capable of shorter starts or swing roles. Adding a power arm or two to a staff that ranked 30th in MLB in average fastball velocity (91.5 mph, per Statcast) will also be a goal.

"The most important thing is, how do you get 27 outs in a game?" Hoyer said. "I think the way that's happening in baseball is evolving and I think that's, in a lot of ways, a good thing."

The Cubs cycled through a dozen starters in 2021 with a contact-based staff that ended the year 15th in the National League in FIP (5.21) and 14th in strikeout rate (18.7 percent). Chicago's 5.27 rotation ERA was its third-highest in a season in the Modern Era (since 1900) and no Cubs starting staff has logged fewer innings (781 2/3) in a 162-game season.

"Really, we need to dramatically improve our pitching," Hoyer said.

Hoyer will have his eye on the NL Wild Card Game on Wednesday, when the Cardinals take on the Dodgers. Back in '13, he remembers watching St. Louis and feeling "light years" away from catching the Cubs' rivals in the standings.

"Two years later," Hoyer said, "we beat them in the Division Series and kind of kept going from there. So, I think things can change quickly. I think that's the goal."