Cubs president Jed Hoyer is still open for business as focus on free agents continues 


MESA, Ariz. — Chicago Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer isn’t known for the metaphors and one-liners that agent Scott Boras uses to market his clients and create headlines. But Hoyer does have a go-to phrase whenever the Cubs leave the Winter Meetings without making a deal: We’re probably in the second or third inning of our offseason. It also works on the restless fans at Cubs Convention: We’re probably in the fourth or fifth inning of our offseason. Plus there is usually a reminder about how winning the offseason is more of a curse than a blessing.

That won’t be an issue at the Sloan Park training complex, where there isn’t the media circus that now surrounds the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Cubs aren’t in danger of crashing and burning like the New York Mets, last year’s $445 million failure. This is Year 4 of a methodical rebuild that has generated one of the baseball industry’s best farm systems and a major-league nucleus that appeared headed to the playoffs last season before a September collapse.

The astonishing offseason that seemed possible when Hoyer fired David Ross and hired Craig Counsell never came together. The Cubs correctly believed that Shohei Ohtani wanted the Dodgers all along. The Cubs did not make a strong push for Yoshinobu Yamamoto, who also chose the Dodgers and signed a 12-year, $325 million contract before throwing his first major-league pitch. Besides, this class of free agents was viewed as relatively weak. Improving from within, “solving for wins” and preserving roster/payroll flexibility are all part of the new Cubs Way.

Wait, what inning is this again? Because Cody Bellinger still hasn’t found a new team and Boras is also trying to close deals for Matt Chapman, Blake Snell and Jordan Montgomery.

“The closer’s definitely warming up at this point,” Hoyer said. “There’s a lot of good free agents out there. Certainly, it’s been a really late, evolving offseason. Every day, we’re in contact with different free agents. We may well add one or more players to the roster. But at this point, as we sit down and think about it, it is Feb. 14. It is Day 1 of spring training. We’re trying to focus on the guys that are here.”

Good luck with that. Bellinger, who grew up in Arizona and made an offseason home near the team’s Mesa facility, remains the free agent with the ability to change the perception of this modest offseason and give the Cubs the left-handed power hitter they’ve been seeking.

“The guys that played with Belli last year obviously want him here again,” Cubs pitcher Justin Steele said. “He was just such a great friend, great teammate, great clubhouse presence for us. Obviously, what he did on the field was really special. I would say pretty much everyone who played with him last year (feels that way). It’s a widely known consensus that we all would like to play with him again.”

Cubs second baseman Nico Hoerner said Bellinger’s uncertain status doesn’t change the players’ individual plans to get ready for the season, “but obviously things do kind of fall in place once some bigger names get involved.”

“Cody’s going through the process,” Cubs outfielder Ian Happ said. “He’s earned the right to be a free agent and go through the entire process. Wherever he lands, it’s going to be a good situation for him. We’re all rooting for him because we like him as a person.

“There are plenty of guys who have gone late into spring training, late into February or March before they sign contracts. That’s the way the market shaped up this year. These guys are going through it. That’s the way they’ve chosen to do it. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

The Cubs were right to invest in Bellinger, signing him to a one-year, $17.5 million contract that would give him a platform to show he could again perform at an MVP level. Bellinger re-entered the free-agent market at the age of 28, but the megadeal that Boras historically delivers for his top clients hasn’t materialized yet.

“I’ve said dozens of times at this point that I have nothing but admiration for Cody,” Hoyer said. “He came in last year coming off two poor seasons in LA. He wanted that fresh start. He worked incredibly hard here every day with (hitting coach) Dustin Kelly in the offseason. It’s gratifying to watch someone’s hard work pay off.”

For now, the Cubs appear to be going with a top prospect (Pete Crow-Armstrong) and a veteran role player (Mike Tauchman) in center field. First base, another position where Bellinger showcased his defensive skills, could be handled mostly by Michael Busch, an ex-Dodger who couldn’t take consistent at-bats away from the stars in that lineup. There are also six weeks until Opening Day. Stuff happens. Plans change.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to feel complete,” Hoyer said. “In my 20-plus years (in the game), I’ve never gotten to a place where it felt like you just turn it over to the manager and go play golf. That’s not how this thing works. We’re always going to be looking for upgrades, both now and all season long. That’s our job.”

The Cubs acquired Busch, a first-round pick, and reliever Yency Almonte in an under-the-radar deal with the Dodgers that kept their farm system largely intact, leaving them in a good position to add at the trade deadline. RosterResource estimates the Cubs are currently carrying a luxury-tax payroll around $208 million; Major League Baseball’s first threshold this year is $237 million. Hector Neris, another addition to Counsell’s bullpen, is exactly the kind of experienced, dependable reliever that Ross needed last season.

Counsell has already demonstrated an ability to stay one step ahead of the rest of the National League Central, regularly maximizing those Milwaukee Brewers teams that never won the offseason. The Cubs are hoping for a more consistent performance from Shota Imanaga than the ups and downs with Marcus Stroman in their rotation. The Cubs are banking on full, productive seasons from Jameson Taillon and Kyle Hendricks on a pitching staff that last year saw a breakthrough in homegrown talent. With or without Bellinger, the Cubs will need more players to emerge.

“That natural maturity and growth of our young players will add a lot,” Hoyer said. “I look back on where we were a year ago and some of the players that have stepped forward. Now we’re considering those guys as established big-leaguers. (Counsell) mentioned Justin Steele. A year ago, I don’t think we were talking about him in the same way. The hope is that we look back a year from now and there’s five, six of those guys who have now established themselves as Cubs. I’m excited about where things are right now.”

(Hoyer and Counsell at a spring training news conference: Matt York / Associated Press)

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