CHICAGO — Amid the organization’s “multi-system failure,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer issued a full vote of confidence for manager David Ross and his coaching staff and acknowledged that chairman Tom Ricketts has been asking questions about the team’s underperformance.
While Cubs officials didn’t go into this season planning World Series parade routes, they did stick to a primary talking point after last year’s sell-off at the trade deadline: This reset would be different than the full-scale rebuild that started in 2012 The Cubs wanted to put a competitive product on the field in 2022 — without spending to their maximum big-market capabilities or guaranteeing too many long-term contracts — while building for the future.
Threading that needle is extremely difficult, if not impossible, and the 162-game schedule always exposes your strengths and weaknesses. The Cubs were nine games out of first place by the first full weekend in May. The Cubs didn’t win back-to-back series until the middle of May. Selling at the trade deadline became a foregone conclusion before Memorial Day. President of business operations Crane Kenney surely has noticed the attendance numbers at Wrigley Field, where the Cubs have lost 24 of their 35 games so far, averaging crowds of 31,717, a steep drop from 38,208 in 2019, Joe Maddon’s final season as manager and the last pre-COVID-19 reference point.
With the losses mounting — 10 in a row after Thursday’s 6-4 loss to the Padres in the 91-degree heat — Hoyer felt compelled to sit down in Wrigley Field’s home dugout before the game and answer questions from the Chicago media for almost 33 minutes .
“I talk to Tom and Crane all the time,” Hoyer said. “Everyone has questions. I have questions. Rossy has questions. You’d be sort of not paying attention or not doing your job if you’re not asking questions about why we’re struggling in certain areas. Some of it, I think, is obvious. And some of it, I think, is more nuanced. But I think everyone’s asking questions and they should be asking questions.”
Hoyer downplayed those conversations as part of the ongoing dialogue he’s had with Ricketts since Theo Epstein lured him from San Diego to become the Cubs general manager after the 2011 season. Kenney, the former Tribune Co. lawyer who oversaw the Wrigley Field renovations and pushed for the launch of Marquee Sports Network, is now in his 29th season in the Cubs organization.
“I talk to those guys all the time,” Hoyer said. “Of course, when you’re losing, it’s the basic questions that we’re all asking: ‘Why are we struggling? What can we do about it? What are we working on?’ Those are the questions I’m here late at night asking as well.”
Epstein resigned after the 2020 season with one year left on his contract, in part, so that Hoyer could have more freedom to make the long-range decisions that would reshape the team for a new era. The Cubs went into this season with a $143.4 million Opening Day payroll, according to Baseball Prospectus/Cot’s Baseball Contracts, which ranked 14th out of the 30 major-league clubs.
Will those internal questions from Ricketts and Kenney lead to any immediate changes or adjustments to how Hoyer thinks about what he has to do this winter?
“Right now, the focus is very much on today, tomorrow, and then getting through this,” Hoyer said. “Of course, you’re always thinking about the future. You’re always thinking about how this is going to impact those things. But certainly right now the focus is on really stabilizing the area that’s been a strength for us and getting them back on track. I do think that the bullpen has been really good for us all year and suddenly their struggles have sort of taken center stage. But, listen, I think as with any losing streak, it’s sort of a multi-system failure.”
The Cubs now have 60 percent of their hoped-for Opening Day rotation on the injured list and no firm timetables for Marcus Stroman (right shoulder inflammation), Wade Miley (left shoulder strain) or Drew Smyly (right oblique strain). The Cubs also could have used a big hit with runners in scoring position from someone like Seiya Suzuki, who has not played since May 26 while dealing with a sprained left ring finger. Someday, Frank Schwindel can tell his grandchildren that he pitched at Wrigley Field and Yankee Stadium.
“Injuries can never be an excuse,” Hoyer said. “Everyone deals with them, so I think it’s sort of a loser’s mentality to sit there and (focus on that). It’s like complaining about umpires. It doesn’t really do you any good. That said, I do think that the stabilizing effect of those starting pitchers is real. When you are on a losing streak, you’re always looking for that starting pitcher to go out and have a good start and end that.”
Matt Swarmer, a 19th-round draft pick out of Kutztown University who gave up six home runs in his last start at Yankee Stadium, couldn’t finish the fourth inning on Thursday afternoon while matching up against emerging Padres ace/soon-to-be free agent Joe Musgrove (8-8, 1.59 ERA). The Cubs won’t get a break this weekend, either, when the defending World Series champs visit Wrigley Field. Atlanta has a 14-game winning streak and Charlie Morton, Kyle Wright and Ian Anderson are lined up to face the Cubs.
All these forces have created momentum toward a Willson Contreras trade that feels inevitable by the Aug. 2 deadlines. Why keep Contreras around on a losing team when everyone already assumes he’s gone and there’s so much work to do with the overall roster?
“That’s not something I’m going to answer,” Hoyer said.
Hoyer appears to be trying to stay on good terms with Contreras and keep open the remote possibility of trying to re-sign the All-Star catcher as a free agent after the season.
Have you talked to Contreras?
“I talk to him all the time,” Hoyer said.
Have you talked to Contreras about his future?
“I wouldn’t talk about that,” Hoyer said.
Hoyer already handed Ross a contract extension heading into this season, a deal through 2024 that includes a club option for 2025. Ross, a leader on the 2016 World Series team, is paid to be the daily spokesman with the media and a connector for the different departments in baseball operations. The job responsibilities are shifting more toward player development/evaluation and asset management leading up to the trade deadline. It’s impossible to blame the manager when the on-field product is closer to Triple-A Iowa than “The Next Great Cubs Team.”
“He’s the same person every day,” Hoyer said. “Every conversation we have is about how to make guys better. I don’t see any issues with him whatsoever. It’s difficult. Some of the matchup stuff we had planned out — or some of the platoons or some of the things that we had hoped for — haven’t materialized. So there are probably times he’s not getting the matchups he would want or things haven’t lined up the way we probably planned.
“Understandably, fans don’t always know who’s down, who’s injured, who’s available, who’s not. I know those things, so I know the various constraints he’s had to work under because of our injuries and things like that. All things considered, I think he’s done a great job.”
(Photo by Jed Hoyer: Associated Press/Nam Y. Huh)