In looking at the way things stand with the Chicago Cubs on June 9, it's pretty difficult to come away with a lot of positivity. In fact, it's a whole lot easier to slap a word like "embarrassing" on the thing and call it a day. It's enough to say that the seat of president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer should be warming up.
What is going on right now with the team is simply unacceptable, or at least it should be. It gets even worse when looking around the rest of the NL Central, at present.
Entering Friday, the Brewers hold down first place at 34-29. That's an 87-win pace and if they keep it up, they'll surely win this lackluster division. Given their bad offense and rotation injuries, the door to first place was left wide open, but no one else wanted to take it. The Pirates and Reds have had their bright spots, but neither entered the season planning on competing for first. The Cardinals did, but they head into Friday worse than the Cubs.
More succinctly: The Cubs could be in the first place right now with proper performance from the front office on down through the players. Organizationally, to be in the position they are, at a low-water mark of 10 games under .500 (26-36), instead of at least contending in this division seems, again, embarrassing.
Hoyer has been with the club since he joined in October 2011, serving as Theo Epstein's right-hand man until taking over as the president of baseball operations in November 2020. They built the team that would win the World Series.
With Hoyer in the top job, the Cubs have undergone a facelift. Difficult decisions needed to be made. The World Series core wasn't getting it done any longer, so there were defensible moves made in moving the club past reliving those glory years.
In looking to reload instead of rebuild, Hoyer specifically said this effort "is not going to be a 2012, '13 situation in any way" (via NBC Sports Chicago).
Common sense says what Hoyer was trying to do, then, was build up the farm system while putting together a roster that wouldn't completely bottom out at the big-league level. Finishing 74-88 last season while moving up to No. 12 in MLB.com's farm system rankings this spring (after being 22nd prior to the 2021 season) seems about right, so long as things continued to move forward toward a successful major-league team.
But things aren't moving forward. Right now, development appears to have stalled, if not gone a bit backward. The Cubs have been closer to having the worst record in the National League than first place for several weeks. While outlets are always going to have disagreements on farm system rankings, few believe the Cubs have an elite stockpile of minor-league talent waiting in the wings.
As for the big-league roster right now, well, there are issues.
The "boom or bust" offense hasn't disappeared from Wrigleyville as Hoyer has tried to remake the team. The Cubs have scored at least 10 runs in a game eight times this season. Only the Rangers have done it more often (a ridiculous 16, but that's a topic for another day). They've also scored two or fewer runs 21 times in their 62 games now, including five of their seven games in June.
Overall, the Cubs rank in the bottom third in batting average, slugging percentage, doubles and runs scored while carrying a high strikeout rate. There's hope things could turn around once Cody Bellinger returns and with the possibility that things click for rookie Matt Mervis along with a few other items, but overall, the personnel just doesn't feel like it's there.
Marcus Stroman has been one of the best pitchers in baseball this season. Justin Steele was mostly excellent before his injury. Drew Smyly has had his moments, too. Though there are some positive signs, Hayden Wesneski's season hasn't gone as planned while Jameson Taillon -- one of the big offseason signings -- has a 7.02 ERA through 10 starts. Kyle Hendricks is back from injury and has been uninspiring.
Minefield of a bullpen
The Cubs are second in the majors in bullpen losses with 17, trailing only the hapless A's (who have 18). There have been a litany of relievers used in high-leverage spots by manager David Ross and while some have been pretty good -- Mark Leiter Jr. and Adbert Alzolay in particular -- no one has been immune from a meltdown. At times, it has seemed that no matter who he throws out there is the wrong choice.
By most measures, it has been a bottom-third bullpen and by some, it's been one of the worst in baseball.
Manager David Ross
Ross is now in his fourth season as Cubs manager. He won the NL Central in 2020, but it's tough to get a read on that season for obvious reasons. The 2021 Cubs were in first place in late June, but then lost 11 in a row and were somewhat dismantled before the trade deadline. Last season, they went 74-88 and never really felt right.
There are rightfully people out there who would note that Ross hasn't been given the best group of talent. Of course, the balance to that is that this team sure seems to fail at big spots a lot -- the Cubs have been sub-par in situational hitting this season and the "clutch" stats are pretty bad -- and at some point, the boss isn't putting people in the right position to succeed. Like with the bullpen, it's possible to have Ross shoulder some of the blame when it comes to no one having defined roles.
Ross also had that first-place team totally collapse on him in 2021, triggering the big sell-off. Even this season, the Cubs started 11-6 and were 14-10 after topping the Padres in a series. They've gone 12-26 since, which is the second-worst mark in that span in baseball in front of, yes, the A's.
I'm still not sure Ross is a bad manager, but we've seen enough to know we can't say for certain he's a good manager. At some point, the negatives seem to outweigh the positives on the ol' resume.
Sellers at the deadline?
There have already been whispers about the Cubs selling at the trade deadline. It would probably start with Stroman and then -- assuming he plays well once he's back from injury -- Bellinger. In this division in 2023, several years since Hoyer said it wouldn't be a massive rebuild, that can't inspire confidence in the direction of the ballclub.
That brings us to the boss.
Was Hoyer planning on being a seller this deadline, which would be the third-straight trade deadline in such a role? If he was, that seems like malpractice. If he wasn't planning on selling but has been forced into the position by poor play, it's the team he assembled that is playing so poorly.
In signing Seiya Suzuki to a five-year, $85 million deal and Marcus Stroman to a three-year, $71 million deal before the 2022 season, it sure seemed like Hoyer was setting up to compete sooner rather than later. This past offseason saw a large outlay for Dansby Swanson and then Taillon's four-year, $68 million deal. There was also Bellinger's one-year deal. Since then, the Cubs have also signed Ian Happ and Nico Hoerner to contract extensions.
All this is to say that it doesn't seem like Hoyer was planning on this season going so poorly, even if it looks like he's still lining up to move forward more next year or the year after. To this point, his build of the big-league roster the last two seasons has had the look of a half-measure.
I just can't figure out how or when the proverbial hammer is going to be dropped. Why wasn't he more aggressive this past offseason? Is he saving a gigantic splash for this coming offseason or the one after that? It seems like his plan involves not spending big on relievers, so why isn't the bullpen better?
I don't have the answers and I'm not sure Hoyer even does. He's conservative with the occasional splash. He's building the farm system, but few are overly impressed with how that's going. He would certainly be due more leeway if there was a huge wave of elite prospect talent ready to hit the majors, but most indications are that isn't the case.
So is this actually moving toward something big or is it just kind of moving along, making some moves that feel "safe" and hoping things click at some point?
Again, I just don't know.
The interesting thing here with Hoyer is while technically this is only the third season since he took over, he was already a member of the front office that had a hand in acquiring every single member of the organization. It's tough to nail down something like blaming him for pre-2020, when he was still answering to someone else, but he was involved in all the decision-making.
In similar sentiment to Ross, I don't think there's enough here to say Hoyer has failed as the president of baseball operations or anything that definitive. I also don't see how anyone could be sure that he is 100% the person to lead this team back to the top.
Expecting this franchise to sit toward the top of the baseball world is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an unreasonable stance. The Cubs play in a mega-market with a gigantic fan base that travels all over the country. Once they elevated things to making the playoffs four straight years, a stretch that included three straight NLCS trips and a World Series, a massive rebuild should never again have even been a consideration. How often do the Yankees or Dodgers go through a radical rebuild? The Cubs should be there. They just aren't. Not even close.
Perhaps Hoyer is just one of the problems, even if not the biggest ones. We could point to Ross or a good number of players, but Hoyer is the boss. I can't stop going back to that factor. If his manager isn't good at his job, the manager should be replaced. If the players aren't good enough, why hasn't he acquired better players? Hoyer has been with the Cubs long enough that you can draw a line directly to him from pretty much any complaint.
At the very least, it's worth considering that he isn't the solution in the top job. Because right now, this just isn't good enough.