Cubs' positive play aiding Hoyer's decisions

Happ hit two home runs as Chicago took three out of four from Washington

May 20th, 2021

CHICAGO -- More than two months remain until baseball's Trade Deadline, but the clock to that moment has been quietly ticking beneath each Cubs game this season. Even dating back to the winter months, the importance of a fast start on the field was clear.

So when president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer met with media via Zoom in the hours ahead of Thursday's 5-2 win over the Nationals, it made sense that the July 30 Deadline dominated the conversation. There is still uncertainty over the direction Hoyer will take, with both this October and future years front of mind.

"I really do, personally, try to have a very open mind about it," Hoyer said. "This team, I think we've had moments of struggle, but I think we've also had moments of playing pretty well. I think we're playing well right now."

Behind a two-homer performance from Ian Happ, the Cubs picked up three wins in the four-game series and have now won five of seven. That pushed Chicago over the break-even mark (22-21) on the eve of a weekend set with the rival Cardinals (25-18), who lead the National League Central.

The Cubs have more than a dozen players -- including core pieces like Javier Báez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo -- who could hit the free-agent market next offseason. That creates a situation where each win and loss over the next two-plus months could influence Hoyer's approach.

The Cubs’ on-field results have Hoyer and his front office planning for multiple scenarios right now. And if the determination is to become a buyer at the Deadline, Hoyer again expressed confidence that the front office would have more payroll flexibility to do so.

"Rushing that decision doesn't seem prudent, you know?" Hoyer said. "Hopefully, we continue to perform well and make that decision obvious, and I think we should give it time to see that out."

In the meantime, here are three things Hoyer is weighing when it comes to the Deadline:

1. A reshaped offense
Over the first few weeks of the season, the issues that plagued the Cubs in recent years were still present in an exaggerated form. The contact rate was abysmal and the lineup looked like it was constantly waiting on a home run.

The last month has included a much more balanced offense, as exemplified in Thursday's win. Happ provided damage with his two homers, but there were also a pair of small-ball rallies in the second (two singles and a sacrifice fly) and fourth (one walk and two singles) to generate runs.

"We've had a lot of guys take really incredible at-bats," Happ said. "The whole thing collectively has been really impressive."

Prior to April 21, the Cubs hit .189/.286/.366 as a team with a 71.4 percent contact rate. From there, contact-based hitters Matt Duffy and Nico Hoerner have helped add a different element beyond the core group of hitters. Entering Thursday, Chicago had a .265/.342/.431 team slash with a 76 percent contact rate going back to April 21.

It has been a more versatile lineup -- led by Bryant, plus recent surges from the likes of Happ, Joc Pederson and others. That gives Hoyer some things to think about as he evaluates the position-player side of the Deadline equation.

"One of the things that's been really fun to see," Hoyer said, "is that we've been putting the ball in play more. I think that's been a challenge for us historically, with the striking out and relying too much on homers to score.

"Homers are great. But you have to have more than one club in your bag."

2. A need for pitching?
Outside of two wind-assisted homers in the opening inning on Thursday, Cubs righty Trevor Williams logged a solid enough start by 2021 standards. With slugger Juan Soto looming in the fifth with two outs, Cubs manager David Ross made the move to the bullpen.

"Trying to manage the game the best way I know how to give us a chance to win," Ross said.

The bullpen did its job with 4 1/3 shutout frames -- lowering the relief corps' ERA to 3.16 (second in the NL) on the season -- but the short starts could catch up with Chicago eventually. The Cubs have logged 17 starts consisting of fewer than five innings (second most in the NL) and the rotation as a whole has a 5.07 ERA (28th in MLB).

"The bullpen has done a great job of stabilizing," Hoyer said. "The starting pitching has struggled early in the year -- there's no doubt about that. We haven't pitched well enough in the rotation. We haven't gotten deep enough in games. The bullpen has really sort of kept us afloat."

Hoyer added that the bullpen "can't get 12-plus outs a night," and that was before the group was asked to cover 13 outs in the latest win.

"Our pitching depth is still something that I think about every day," Hoyer said. "I think we always have to be wary of that. You can never have enough. You can never have enough pitching. There's never a night that you go to bed in this job or David Ross' job and you feel like, 'OK, we're good. Our pitching is all set.' This is not the nature of it."

3. Core conversations
Bryant had a well-earned day off on Thursday, given how he has fueled the offense and spent the past several weeks manning five positions. He has very much looked like an MVP candidate again, keeping the contract extension issue in focus.

Hoyer was asked for his message to fans who are holding out hope that the Cubs will sign Bryant beyond this year.

"Listen, we'd love to keep Kris long-term," Hoyer said. "I don't think there's ever been any question about that. I guess I'd say, 'Enjoy watching him right now,' and obviously we will have those discussions in the future."

Hoyer said he remains open to having a dialogue with Báez, Bryant and Rizzo (or their agents) about their respective futures during the season, but knows the preference is to keep the focus on the games at hand. That said, there will need to be some level of discourse in the weeks before the Deadline as the club plans its path forward.

"We'd love to continue to have those players going forward," Hoyer said. "Nothing has changed that feeling [with] the way this year has started."