Hoyer sees bounce-backs from core hitters

February 8th, 2021

CHICAGO -- When it comes to the Cubs' offense, one source of optimism for president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer is the fact that a handful of key hitters are entering a contract year. From his experience, that can be a driver for potent performance.

"Listen, we just straight-out underperformed last year. There's no way around it," Hoyer said in a Zoom call on Monday. "Do I believe that that group is going to struggle in the same way? I don't. And maybe that's stubbornness, or maybe it's looking at the back of their baseball cards.

"But, I have a hard time believing this group of players, with a lot of guys in walk years, is going to struggle that way."

The question then arises: Do those players have to remain in their walk years? Specifically, the core trio of , and are poised to hit free agency next offseason. That could change if anyone within that group is willing to pen his name on a contract extension.

For what it's worth, Hoyer said he intends on using Spring Training as a chance to sit down with extension candidates to get a sense of where things stand on multiple fronts. Beyond Báez, Bryant and Rizzo, catcher (eligible for free agency after 2022) would fall into this category.

"Yeah, I'd love to have those discussions this spring. I think it's a good time for it," Hoyer said. "I think spring has always been a great time to have those discussions. And you talk to different players, some guys don't like it to bleed into the last couple weeks, because they want to sort of lock it in. And some guys are willing to have those discussions.

"We'll certainly have those discussions in spring. And there's a lot of uncertainty right now, and I think that makes it difficult on both sides."

Pederson vs. Schwarber
On the surface, the recently-signed has similar statistics to Kyle Schwarber, who was non-tendered by Chicago in December and signed as a free agent with the Nationals.

As an example, Pederson has turned in a .238/.349/.501 slash line with a 128 wRC+ against righties in his career, while Schwarber has hit .239/.345/.514 with a 123 wRC+ in the same category.

"They're different hitters," Hoyer said. "When you look at the aggregate numbers, they look fairly similar, but their strengths are different."

Hoyer did not want to dive too deep into a Pederson vs. Schwarber debate, but he did note one area in which the former could help the Cubs. On the whole, Chicago's lineup labored against fastballs in the upper portion of the strike zone in 2020, and that is something Pederson has excelled at in his career.

Last year, the Cubs posted a .360 slugging percentage (26th in the Majors) and .247 wOBA (25th) on four-seamers in the upper-third of the zone, per Statcast. Pederson had a .571 slugging and .372 wOBA in 2020 on the same pitches and has a .626 slugging and .370 wOBA in the Statcast Era (since ’15). In the same area, Schwarber had a .385 slugging and .250 wOBA in '20, and a .541 slugging and .335 wOBA for his career.

"I think he’s a good fit for the ballpark," Hoyer said of Pederson. "And he does some things that our lineup hasn't been great at."

Rotation depth still needed
The recent signing of brought the Cubs' starting rotation picture more into focus. is set to lead the way, with , and Williams behind him. Righty should head into camp as a favorite for one of the other spots, too.

Hoyer noted, however, that the Cubs are not viewing this as a strict five-man situation for 2021. Given the abbreviated nature of last season, and unknowns involved in the year ahead, depth will be crucial for the starting rotation. With that in mind, expect the Cubs to continue to look to supplement the staff.

"This year,” Hoyer said, “we're probably looking at it a little more as probably seven or eight guys, given the fact people are going to have some innings restrictions and stuff. We're going to continue to look to add to the rotation. I think that an area we can continue to build."

Worth noting
• Hoyer said his baseball operations team had a payroll "range" to work with this offseason. Without getting into specifics, Hoyer noted that some behind-the-scenes factors helped the team increase its spending more recently, helping lead to the signings of Pederson, Williams and .

"As we got a little deeper in the offseason and got some better news on a few things," Hoyer said, "we were able to move up a little bit into the higher end of that range. And so that helped us round out the roster."

• As things stand, , and look like the main contenders for playing time at second base. The Cubs could go with a rotation at the position, but Hoyer said the team's preference would be to have someone win the job and run away with it.

"You can have a number of guys that are rotating in a position," Hoyer said. "That gives you depth. But, I think we all want someone just to kind of grab hold of it and kind of force their name into the lineup every day."

• Hoyer indicated that the Cubs are not done adding to the roster, saying: "We're still having conversations with a number of other players. No guarantees anything gets done, of course."

"When you saw him at the ballpark, you knew it was going to be a good day. More than anything, I felt like he was always rooting for people to succeed. He wanted to tell a good story. He wanted to enjoy that relationship. You were able to let your guard down and enjoy the person. He'll certainly be missed." -- Hoyer, on baseball reporter Pedro Gomez, who died on Sunday