Chicago Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer hit the road for spring training this past weekend. In between paying his respects at Ernie Banks' memorial on Saturday and arriving in Mesa, Arizona for a two-month stay, Hoyer talked all things Cubs -- and a little football.
Jesse Rogers: I’m curious, being an outsider from the New England area, whether it was growing up or once you got into baseball, what was your perspective on Ernie Banks before you got to know him?
Jed Hoyer: What struck me with guys like (Roberto) Clemente or (Stan) Musial or Banks is how much they meant to one city. That always stuck with me. Ernie Banks is Cubs baseball and his demeanor and his enthusiasm, even from the outside, was obvious. Like everyone said at the funeral, it seems so cliché, but he had no enemies. The first thing I thought of when he passed on that Friday night was every Cubs fan from that era probably felt like he lost a relative.
JR: OK, let’s talk baseball. Are you, like the rest of Cubs nation, as excited as you’ve been in years for spring training?
JH: It’s really exciting. We knew over the last three years it was really a puncher’s chance to compete. We knew that our best days were ahead. We were focused on developing players. A lot of those things haven’t changed, but certainly our talent level and our expectations have changed and that’s exciting. We do these jobs because you want to win. So it’s exciting to make that transition and it does feel different coming out here from Chicago than the last three years.
JR: The unknown, of course, is when does it all come together? There is talent there but does it come together on April 1, 2015. July 1 or even April or later of 2016? Are you curious like the rest of the baseball world?
JH: Our biggest challenge is going to be how young hitters adjust to big league pitching. Some guys have started to make that transition, some guys haven’t. That’s our biggest unknown. I think anyone’s guess is as good as ours. We want it to happen as soon as possible but we’re also not naïve, we know there will be some ups and downs. Hopefully the veteran guys perform at or above expectations to help ease what our young players are going to go through. But yeah, when it happens we don’t know exactly.
JR: The vibe with this team has really done a 180. Even though some have been on-board with your plan from the beginning, last-place finishes bring out negative feelings no matter what the future holds. But seemingly overnight, everyone is loving the Cubs' potential here. Did it happen that way in Boston?
JH: The (fan) convention felt a lot different. There is a lot more excitement going into the year. Boston in 2001-02 did have some negativity. They weren’t rebuilding but there was negativity and then quickly that 2003 team really came together and made Boston a destination people wanted to go to. I really look at Jon Lester taking a chance on us, he had a lot of great options, he believed in our vision and what we were doing. That meant a lot to us and will be big for others going forward.
JR: What I think is interesting, as hard as it was to rebuild and bring in the right young players over the least three years, is now comes the hard part, right? Finishing this 100-plus year quest off is the hardest part. And now you have a lot more people believing in you and eyes on you.
JH: No question. We haven’t won anything or done anything. Yeah, we feel good about the health of the organization and it’s nice to get recognized from various prospect rankings and stuff, but ultimately that doesn’t mean anything. This is about winning and losing. You’re right, that is the hardest part. Putting those final pieces together. And we’re still far from those final pieces. We’re still very much in that developing stage. But the expectations are the fun part, because you do want people looking at you and saying this is a good team and good organization.
JR: Here’s an important question in my mind, how do you balance those high expectations with letting this -- using a word you guys have used -- grow organically? You don’t want guys squeezing the bat too tight because they feel like they have to do it all right away.
JH: Joe Maddon is going to be a big part of that. In Tampa he did a great job of transitioning those guys. We knew that Rays team was going to be really good. Now, they didn’t have the same expectations, but they made that transition. Joe has a lot of skills, but one of his main attributes is creating a great atmosphere and creating a great dynamic where guys want to play. You know his saying: Don’t let the pressure exceed the pleasure. I think he’ll stress that so guys aren’t squeezing the bat too tight.
JR: Is it something you and Theo do as well when you talk to players? Remind them to relax and let the game come to them?
JH: Yeah, we meet with every player every spring and that’s the forum for that. There is a balance. You want people expecting you to win every year and it's something these guys need to get used to but at the same time the Rizzos and the Castros and the veterans like that, they can take some pressure off the young guys.
JR: I know there are things ongoing with Cuban players like Yoan Moncada but can you count the Cubs in or out in regards to him about anything?
JH: I really can’t comment on that right now. It’s ongoing.
JR: OK, let’s talk pace of game. Fox Sports had a report recently that you or Theo may have brought up the idea of relievers having to face more than one batter to limit pitching changes, speed up the game and even increase offense, I suppose. What can you tell me in regards to this issue?
JH: I’ll be honest. All ideas should be on the table. Baseball is the greatest game, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tinker with the offense/defense balance. Run scoring is dropping a lot and I do think we should be at least willing to explore new ideas to increase offense or quicken things up a little bit. We can’t pretend we operate in a bubble so I think it’s important to have those discussions. Given the trend line of offense in the game I think it’s right to put some ideas on the table and see how they would impact us going forward. Other sports do it.
JR: In terms of pace, would you agree it’s not the 10-9, three-and-a-half hour game that’s the problem. It’s the 2-1 game that goes that long.
JH: There’s that, but more than anything what fans want to see is excitement. The more the ball is in play, the more action that’s happening, the better. Whether that game is 2-1, 3-2 or 10-9, having the ball in play more and things happening is really important. Having significant lulls in the at-bat or lulls with pitching changes, that’s not good for the experience. To me, the more we can take care of some of that dead time is better for everyone.
JR: It sounds like you’re also talking about too many strikeouts which, of course, applies a little bit to your own team. Too many swings and misses, right?
JH: Yeah, the ball is in play less than ever before. I don’t think that’s a positive for the game. Some of that is based on trends but some is based on how we are teaching our hitters. I’m not one to sit here and comment specifically on strikeouts but the game on a whole is better when the ball is in play.
JR: Last thing, I know we’re talking on Sunday but people are going to read this on Monday or Tuesday or later in the week, give me a final score for your beloved Patriots against the Seahawks and we’ll see how it turns out after the fact.
JH: With my New England roots I’m going with the Pats and will say they win by four and it will be a great game. This is the matchup that we wanted and expected all season. I think the Patriots win by four. Hopefully I don’t look bad tomorrow morning.