Jed Hoyer makes Super Bowl pick, talks pivotal year for Cubs

Every year during Super Bowl week -- and especially when his New England Patriots are playing in the game -- Chicago Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer picks up the phone on his drive to spring training to talk baseball and football. Most of all, he makes a Super Bowl prediction -- usually a good one.

In Super Bowl 49, he picked the Patriots to win by four over the Seattle Seahawks. They won 28-24. Last year, Hoyer was at it again when New England came from behind to beat Atlanta 34-28. Hoyer predicted 35-27.

Can he be on the money a third time? And what does he think of his Cubs coming off their "hangover" season? We will get to all that, but we begin with the passing of a popular executive. Kevin Towers was close with both Hoyer and Theo Epstein. He died earlier in the week after a battle with cancer.

You and Theo had close relationships with Kevin Towers, who has received some great tributes since his passing. What was special about him?

JH: The things that have been said about him that resonate with me are that he was one of those people that was impossible not to have a good time with. He was happy all the time. You always felt like he was focused on you when talking to him. It was a gift, really. I had the unusual situation of taking over for him as GM in San Diego. He could not have been better to me. We ended up living just a few blocks from each other, and a number of times we would grab beers together before he ended up going to the Diamondbacks in 2011. We would meet for beers at his corner place and talk. I think that was pretty rare: to sit down with someone who used to have your job and talk. It shows what he was like. I always appreciated it. He will be dearly missed.

Well said. Let’s get to what continues to be on everyone’s mind: the slow-moving free-agent market. Front offices, obviously, are part of that equation, along with agents and players. Lorenzo Cain said he finally signed when Milwaukee offered him a fifth year. My point is: Can’t the narrative change for any team, like it did for Milwaukee, through the team changing it themselves? In other words, couldn't they increase their offer and end the stalemate?

JH: There’s a bit of a freeze right now because both sides feel good about their position and justified in their position. That’s why it has been so slow.

Do you feel like you are in a position of strength in the market, considering there is so much inventory out there at this late date? In other words, you don’t feel like you have to budge?

JH: I wouldn’t characterize it that way. Every team has their internal rankings. Every team has their evaluations which they will never reveal. Those rankings guide them through the market. Both sides of the market can always move or activate and free things up. To this point, we haven’t gotten there. Like everyone, as the calendar has gotten toward February, I keep thinking that there will be movement. I never expected to be driving to AZ with this much of the offseason left.

Every year, I’m curious, on your long drive out to Arizona, between listening to the radio or some podcasts, when your mind wanders back to baseball, what do you think about most regarding your team and the coming season?

JH: A few thoughts. We still have this excellent, young core. I think 2018 is the year where our guys are going to take a big step forward. Most of our guys are in their mid-20s, entering their prime years. I think this group is really going to come together. I’m excited for that part.

On the pitching side, I like the additions, but we’re still looking to add depth. That’s an annual thing you think about. You prepare for injuries even if some years you go unscathed.

And then the new coaching staff. I’m looking forward to working with them. We do have a lot of stability, but injecting some change into that can be a good thing.

Follow up to that: How does the dynamic in spring change with new coaches? In this case, the front office and Joe Maddon know the players better than the new coaches -- at least right now.

JH: It makes those early spring meetings that much more important. The last few years has been same players, same staff. Generally, it makes those meetings a little easier. Those meetings will be more in depth this time around. More questions. Everyone talks about spring being too long. This year it’s probably a good thing to have the time for players and coaches to get to know each other.

Speaking of coaches, if your team improves five-to-10 spots in the rankings regarding situational hitting -- like man on third and less than two outs -- will Chili Davis have done his job?

JH: I’m not sure how you would define it, but we all saw the same thing last year. We struggled in those spots. We struggled in situational-hitting moments both in the regular season and in the postseason, and we probably did become a little home-run dependent. Chili really preaches a team focus on offense. Trust the guy behind you, pass the baton. We all want to get back to that grinding offense we had in 2016.

At this time last year, you were on-board with Kyle Schwarber leading off. I know you’ll defer to Joe, but who might you tab this time around? Just your personal opinion.

JH: It’s a good question. I do feel like leadoff is a position where some guys like it and thrive doing it. And some guys don’t like it. They put different pressures on themselves. You have to keep that in mind. We’re not going to have a natural leadoff guy on the roster, it doesn’t appear. We have to have some guy grow into that spot. Ben Zobrist has the skill set. Maybe we do something different versus lefties than we do against righties. Remember, we scored 800-plus runs last year without a natural leadoff guy ... we’ll have a long lineup, and hopefully we’re grinding throughout the lineup and not just at leadoff.

Last winter you mentioned liking a switch-hitter -- meaning Zobrist -- in the middle of the lineup, but I would assume having the potential high on-base guy at the top is more important than a switch-hitter in the middle, correct?

JH: Yeah, but I always go back to what I believe about lineup construction. Just let your best hitters hit most often. That solves a lot of problems. Let’s not get too cute with how we lengthen it out. Let’s put the best guys up there, and if you do that, you’ll score a lot of runs. We have plenty of hitters who are good hitters.

During the winter you guys talked about the Cardinals' making big moves, but now Milwaukee has. That rebuild might have been quicker than even yours. Are the Brewers coming for you?

JH: Yes. They made a big leap last season, and they’re looking to build on that. It’s going to be an incredibly competitive division, not unlike 2015. There is a reason that the baseball regular season is so much better than any other sport: The stakes are so high. Nothing has changed from our end, though. Our focus has always been on getting off to a good start, unlike last year, and playing cleaner baseball.

OK, time to get to your prediction. You’re 2-for-2 in the years we’ve done this when your Patriots have played in the Super Bowl. What’s your take this year against the Eagles?

JH: I would take the Eagles with the spread, but I think New England is going to win. I think it will be really close, but I think the Patriots really know how to win, and they just come up big. I say 24-20 Patriots. It should be a fun one.

Follow up to that: Last year, you really did give Atlanta a chance, so let me ask you: Do you feel better this year going into the game or last year?

JH: It’s hard for me to say. The Falcons were really good last year. They were formidable and had a great quarterback. That said, the Eagles have played well on both sides of the ball as well. It should be a good one again.