Even with the focus squarely on Cubs’ potential involvement with the biggest names on the market, there’s been a ubiquitous “yeah, but” regarding other moves. More specifically, folks point to the glaring need for improvements to a bullpen that fell apart down the stretch. This isn’t just a matter of improving performance, the Cubs have to flat-out replace several players who were on one-year deals.
That’s been the case every season and it’s part of Jed Hoyer’s M.O., which is to avoid risk and bank on upside with cheaper acquisitions and bulk depth. Though it’s far from glamorous, things have tended to work out fairly well.
“You have to be creative in the bullpen,” Hoyer said during the GM Meetings. “You have to find guys who have good stuff, find guys on bounce-back years, find guys coming off injuries. You take all those demographics and then a couple guys that might provide ‘certainty’ so to speak and you blend that all together. I do think taking a lot of shots on goal can help.
“In a bunch of those offseasons we signed a bunch of guys to small deals, you know going in the hit rate is not going to be 100 percent. There’s just no way. But if you get two or three of those right, that can really benefit you. Attacking all those demographics is something we’ve tried to do.”
But now as the Cubs enter a period during which mediocrity will no longer be good enough, Hoyer may have to shift his strategy to ensure that all the pressure isn’t squarely on his new manager. Craig Counsell was brought in to replace David Ross because the Cubs felt they left wins on the table from a tactical standpoint, but Counsell took the job because he was never going to have a big-time roster in Milwaukee.
“I think he manages the bullpen exceptionally well,” Hoyer explained. “I do think you’ve gotta give credit to the front office in Milwaukee. They’ve done a really good job of putting together really good bullpens as well. I don’t think it’s straight alchemy on his part.
“I think as a team, the Milwaukee front office and Craig worked well together to have some really good bullpens and that’s how I see it here. We’re going to have to provide him talented pitchers in order for him to manage the bullpen well. But I do believe his instinct for doing it is very good.”
It helps that either Josh Hader or Devin Williams have been closing games in Milwaukee for several years, but the Brewers have long put more focus on the pitching staff than the lineup. That’s how they were able to win more regular-season games than expected in several of Counsell’s seasons there, and it’s also why they came up short in the postseason. As important as it is to prevent runs, you kinda have to be able to score some as well.
And while the Cubs aren’t going to follow the Brewers’ lead too closely, it’s likely we’ll see them do more than just cobbling together a bullpen out of spare parts and bailing wire. As Sahadev Sharma and Patrick Mooney wrote, “There’s a sense that Hoyer will be a little more flexible with his preferred philosophy of not giving out multiyear contracts to relievers.” That probably doesn’t mean going big for Hader, and we’ve already seen Reynaldo López snapped up, but there are plenty of other hard-throwing relievers who miss bats.
That’s how you build in more of the certainty Hoyer talked about. By securing multiple high-leverage relievers, you reduce some of the inherent volatility with bullpens and create a little room for young pitchers to be brought along. Counsell talked during his introductory press conference about facilitating development at the big league level, something that needs to take place with pitchers and position players alike.
Hoyer isn’t trying to build a surefire championship contender in one offseason, but locking in a back-end bullpen arm or two for multiple years will allow him to focus elsewhere as construction continues.