The outcry over the trade of several star players has subsided over the last year, giving Chicago Cubs President Jed Hoyer a chance to breathe.
It has been almost 10 months since Hoyer dealt Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javier Báez and other name players for a boatload of prospects at the trade deadline, starting a new era of Cubs baseball that had neither a label or a timeline.
Hoyer no doubt put his stamp on the team after years as Theo Epstein’s wingman. Have Cubs fans finally started buying in to the Hoyer’s game plan?
“I’m really proud of the way the minor leagues in general are playing,” he said Thursday before the Cubs opened a four-game series against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Wrigley Field. “You look at our record and performance at every level and it’s been really strong.
“You can never have enough depth or get to the point where you feel our system is good enough, but I feel like we’re on the right track, so hopefully fans know that by how well (we’re) playing.
“Ultimately, those trades are not going to be evaluated in the middle of May 2022. They’re probably going to be evaluated in 2027 for real, and that’s the way it should be. I don’t think anyone should be looking at it as a passing grade at this point. They should be looking at it as what does that net down the road. But on the basis of those trades and some good drafts and good international classes, I feel we’re definitely moving in the right direction in the minor leagues for sure.”
Many of the players Hoyer projects as part of his “next great Cubs team” are either in the minors or still waiting to be drafted or signed. But he has been able to watch pitchers Keegan Thompson and Justin Steele develop in the big leagues, much like Jamie Moyer and Greg Maddux in the late 1980s, and versatile infielder-outfielder Christopher Morel made a great impression in his first few days as a Cub.
The next big thing might be Triple-A Iowa starter Caleb Kilian — acquired in the Bryant deal — who reduced his ERA to 1.31 in his second win Thursday. Kilian was still being stretched out, but Hoyer didn’t discount the possibility of a call-up this season.
Hoyer’s most glaring decision is whether to trade popular catcher Willson Contreras, who will become a free agent after the season. Contreras is off to a great start and could bring back a few top prospects, but most Cubs fans are hoping he gets a deserved extension.
Hoyer said “our relationship is good” and he “loves the way” Contreras has played and led in the clubhouse but wouldn’t tip his hand about the catcher’s future as a Cub. In fact, Hoyer said thinking about trade-deadline decisions was “not at all where I’m at mentally.”
Give him time. If the Cubs aren’t in postseason contention in mid-July, Drew Smyly, Wade Miley, David Robertson, Mychal Givens and others likely will become available. The Cubs need to continue restocking the farm system, whether Contreras is traded or not.
Entering Thursday, the Cubs were 15-21 and eight games behind the division-leading Milwaukee Brewers but had won three straight series and seen the starting pitching come around — a 2.68 ERA from starters over 10 games before Marcus Stroman’s return Thursday.
Hoyer said he can’t be satisfied with the record but was happy with the overall effort.
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“The challenge for us is having that consistency and not falling back in a rut like we did before,” he said.
Things don’t always go according to plan, even during the Epstein rebuild that started a decade ago. Báez was called up to great fanfare in August 2014 but hit only .169 in 52 games and started 2015 at Iowa. Hoyer took a similar risk by bringing Morel up from Double-A Tennessee, but the 22-year-old homered in his first at-bat and showed off his defense and strong arm Wednesday night at third base before moving to second Thursday.
“He’s stronger now, and that makes a huge difference at the upper levels,” Hoyer said. “That’s probably the biggest change I see. The personality is awesome. I feel like he walked into the clubhouse the other day and all the veterans came up to him. That’s pretty rare for a young guy.”
Watching Morel and Brandon Hughes make memorable debuts Tuesday are the kinds of moments Hoyer said he lives for this season. The future is uncertain, however, and Hoyer wouldn’t speculate about whether the Cubs could contend by 2023.
“We did trade for a lot of guys in the lower levels,” he said. “And a lot of people felt like because of that, ‘OK, they’re signaling exactly when they’re going to be competitive.’ Waiting on the development of minor-leaguers is really challenging. I don’t think you can tie a team’s competitiveness to a group of guys in the lower minors.
“I think a lot of those guys are going to play big roles here. But I don’t want to just think about their timeline to our timeline.”
Epstein received the benefit of the doubt from Cubs fans when he started the rebuild because of his reputation with the Boston Red Sox. Hoyer might have to prove himself before reaching “Theo status” in Chicago, but he already has shown he’s not afraid to do things his way.