The nature of things like a season-ending press conference from Chicago Cubs President Jed Hoyer is such that we are all going to take away different things. Hoyer is guarded enough in his word choice that if you want to divine any meaning at all, you will have to do some inferring. Some tone-reading. Evaluating what was said and what wasn’t said. You have to be careful.
That leaves people like me vulnerable to hearing more of what we want to hear, rather than what was precisely said. I admit it. I came into the thing with an expectation that the Cubs would be aggressive this offseason in free agency – they have many, many reasons to do so – and that informed how I perceived various Hoyer statements, either consciously or unconsciously.
Still, I’ve seen a lot of feedback on the press conference that took issue with Hoyer once again using the phrase “intelligent spending” to describe part of what animates the way the Cubs front office looks at free agency.
When Hoyer mentioned the phrase, I took it to be pretty darn generic, rather than instructive of any actual plans. It was about being appropriately cautious, with an emphasis on avoiding the kinds of super-long-term deals that can cause more damage down the road than they are worth in the near-term.
“To me, ‘intelligent spending’ involves making decisions that make sense for the 2023 season but also aren’t going to hinder what we’re trying to build,” Hoyer said. “The nature of baseball contracts is challenging that way. We’ve all seen contracts of certain lengths that can really tie a team down. It’s easy to talk about the player you’re acquiring, but if that contract ends up hindering the ultimate goal here, which is to build something special and sustainable and lasting, then it wasn’t a good transaction.”
Every single front office in baseball could say the very same thing. SURPRISE! We don’t want to have contracts that are a net negative. Sound the trumpets.
Consider an opposite phrasing: “Yup, we’re going to spend like idiots this offseason.” Setting aside how facially absurd that would be, that kind of statement – or anything more serious that remotely implies that the Cubs will be so spend-happy to the point of recklessness – does nothing to actually help the Cubs execute a successful offseason! It allows other teams and agents to hold their feet more to the fire than they otherwise might. Why give up 1% leverage if you don’t have to?
To me, it was much more telling how Hoyer talked about the holes on the roster (via The Athletic):
“I want to build on the momentum that we created at the end of the year, but I know we have some holes to fill,” Hoyer said. “We’ll be aggressive to try to fill those holes in the best possible way. I think we can definitely compete next year, and we also want to create something lasting and special. We’re always going to have to keep those two things in mind. But I do believe a successful offseason does involve filling those holes that I know we saw.”
It’s never a good team-building idea to make moves based on the whims of a fan base. But adding this winter wouldn’t be a sign of desperation or acting too early. The play on the field should dictate how a front office acts, and as Hoyer said, he’s looking to carry on the momentum this group started in the second half of the season. Doing so would mean spending aggressively on the right players.
The right players. That *is* intelligent spending. That doesn’t imply some arbitrary level of free agent or price point where a deal is off the table.
Getting Marcus Stroman last year on a three-year, $71 million deal? That is very intelligent spending. Getting David Robertson on a one-year, $3.5 million deal? Yup, also very intelligent spending. The Cubs have to be flexible enough and prepared enough to evaluate all kinds of players on all kinds of possible deals, and determine which ones line up as “intelligent,” and which ones just don’t make sense.
Sometimes that means low-key, low-dollar, short-term contracts. But sometimes it means a whole lot more.
Landing the right free agent shortstop, for example, could very well fall into “intelligent spending.” Given how impactful such a player could be for the Cubs in the years ahead, I think the range of possible deals should be pretty darn wide. Let’s not forget the reports from the pre-lockout part of the offseason last year that had the Cubs trying to land Carlos Correa on a seven-year deal. They would have seen that as “intelligent spending.” I would’ve, too.
You know what else the Cubs consider “intelligent spending”? The six years and $155 million they gave to John Lester after the 2014 season.
In the end, nothing that was said yesterday changes my thinking on where the Cubs are right now. They have built up a deep and quality farm system that will bear fruit over many years to come. But what they are lacking in the near-term are truly impactful, superstar players. There are a number of those types available now in free agency, and the Cubs have the dollars and overall depth available to justify that level of spending. If the Cubs believe in the strides they’ve made in player development, then they will also believe they can keep backfilling needs at the margins for years to come (in a cost-effective way). That leaves open the ability to use your biggest dollars right now on free agent signings (or otherwise absorbing large contracts from other teams).
I believed going into yesterday that the Cubs are very aware of their situation. They know they can be competitive in 2023 with the right moves this offseason, and can do so in a way that helps they compete in 2024+, rather than obstacles. They know that the fans are not going to fill the stadium or turn on the marquee without a competitive team. They know they have substantial payroll dollars available for next season and the years ahead. They know the NL Central will remain a particularly winnable division for the foreseeable future. They know the quality of the depth and infrastructure they’ve built up, which can be even more impactful if used to buttress truly impactful players on the roster.
You can’t ever guarantee that you’ll land a specific big fish. That’s just the reality of players being able to choose their destination in a competitive marketplace. But you can guarantee real and meaningful pursuits, and you can expect an organization like the Chicago Cubs to spend significant dollars to improve the team. The Cubs will do that this offseason.
And it will be “intelligent spending” when they do.