Jed Hoyer has frequently been accused of operating the Cubs in a manner more befitting his NL Central rivals when it comes to spending, but he takes it all in stride. And he doesn’t just let it all roll off his back, he openly embraces the idea. Speaking to the media from the Sheraton Grand between Shōta Imanaga‘s introductory press conference and the Cubs Convention opening ceremonies, Hoyer explained his approach.
“I think that’s what I want to have,” Hoyer said. “When people say a small-market mentality, they’re talking about trying to find value in deals and undervalued players. I always want to do that. Yes, we have the ability to go out and sign a Dansby Swanson and that’s an advantage we have that others don’t. But you don’t want to be profligate with your money, you want to use it wisely. That’s really important to me.”
Before you reach for your dictionary, I’ll just tell you that profligate means being extravagant or reckless with money and resources. That part makes sense in principle, though most major free-agent pursuits require a break from rational thinking. Unless you’re Hoyer, in which case you can find a way to land Imanaga for around half of what some had been projecting.
Speaking Saturday morning from the CubsCon stage, Hoyer said they “have a few more [moves] in us for sure” while cautioning that meeting asking prices for every free agent would mean running out of money quickly. That could indicate that they don’t have another $50 million left in the budget, though it could simply mean they’re seeking a way to spread that remaining surplus around to more than two or three players.
“Our job is to get good deals, not just do deals,” Hoyer said.
My initial reaction to this is to cringe a little bit because his job is to add wins and build a contender, which can be made much easier by spending more money. But maybe I’m taking too narrow a view here and subconsciously adding “only” in front of “job” to create an intent that varies from what Hoyer is saying. Perhaps we can zoom out a little bit and look back to both the earlier quote and Hoyer’s tenure in Boston for more context.
What we see here is a nod to the evolution of Moneyball, to whatever extent that term still has any meaning. Not the Michael Lewis book or Brad Pitt movie, but a process Hoyer was part of when he and Theo Epstein were with the Red Sox. It started back in 2002, when Epstein, Hoyer, Ben Cherington, Josh Byrnes, and others were just beginning to reshape the way front offices do business.
While Epstein understandably got all the credit, Hoyer was right there as Lewis shared Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane‘s blueprint for building baseball teams. Once the idea of targeted statistical analysis — something we take for granted now — started to become commonplace, the Red Sox had to find ways to game the system. Well before the Dodgers deferred 97% of Shohei Ohtani‘s salary, Epstein figured out how to leverage Boston’s financial might to beat other teams to the punch.
Part of his strategy was to pay big overslot bonuses to high school players, like when they drafted a soft-bodied first baseman from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High in the sixth round of the 2007 draft and paid him like a third-rounder. Things seem to have worked out well all the way around for Epstein, Hoyer, and Anthony Rizzo. The Sox were also among the first teams to understand the value of draft picks, so they loaded up on them by trading for players in their walk years.
Those strategies have had to change as the rest of the league worked to close loopholes, hence stricter regulations on draft bonus pools and adjustments to qualifying offer compensation. As such, Epstein and Hoyer had to seek out new competitive advantages in their time together with the Cubs. And now that the former wunderkind who once strolled the streets of Boston in a gorilla suit is helping to oversee MLB’s operations, Hoyer’s been left to blaze his own trail.
Where Epstein was more of a free spender, opting for name-brands and damn the higher cost, Hoyer is a coupon-clipper who will gladly purchase generic if it’ll save him a few cents. He’s looking for steak that expires that day, milk that needs to be moved before going moldy, and dented cans that can’t be sold at standard retail prices. But maybe that allows him to purchase more groceries.
Going back to Swanson in particular, the Cubs got both a lower price and much better production than the other shortstops in last year’s class. The repeat Gold Glove winner finished fourth among all shortstops with 4.9 fWAR in 2023, half a win better than Xander Bogaerts and more than one beyond Trea Turner. Carlos Correa‘s 1.1 fWAR ranked 17th, for what it’s worth.
And hey, it may be worth next to nothing if Correa returns to something closer to his 2021 performance. But at an extra $8 million in AAV, he’ll need to outdo Swanson by more than 30% in order to achieve the same relative value. Bogaerts’ contract is nearly identical to Swanson’s in terms of AAV, but the Padres shortstop is nearly two-and-a-half years older with a commitment that runs four years longer. Turner only earns about 8% more and is less than a year older, though he too is under contract for another decade.
Deals like that are kind of like shopping at Costco in that you’re getting so much of something that it may go bad before you can finish it. Hoyer is doing his best to avoid that long-term risk, though he’s doing it at the cost of short-term impact. After all, this is the same guy who told Jesse Rogers at the Winter Meetings in 2022 that, and I’m paraphrasing here, the Rays have proven that you don’t need stars to win.
Even if that was more of a quip than an expression of his firm belief, Hoyer is probably never going to be paying full retail price. Instead, he’s perusing the butcher shop for a sale. If there isn’t a sale on ribeye, he’s willing to walk away or pivot to New York strip. And hey, flank steak is tender and delicious when you grill it up perfectly and slice it on a bias. But I don’t care how well you cook chuck roast, it’ll never be waygu. Yikes, I guess I just called Cody Bellinger, Matt Chapman, and Rhys Hoskins pieces of meat.
Setting aside the specifics of this whole grocery analogy, I think it’s fair to say Hoyer is acting like someone who grew up without money and still exercises frugality even though he’s got a measure of wealth now. We have yet to see exactly how that’ll play out because he hasn’t truly committed to building a winner during his time as the Cubs’ baseball boss, but that will change this season. It has to.
So the key for Hoyer won’t be spending like a small-market team, it’ll be using the same kind of ingenuity born from necessity and then putting more money behind it than the Reds or Pirates can muster.