For Hoyer, pitching tops to-do list as Cubs try to regroup

Watching Kyle Schwarber launch another long home run against Gerrit Cole in a wild-card game brought back memories of the slugger’s drive to Allegheny River in 2015 for Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer.

Back then, Chicago was on the way to the NLCS. A year later, the Cubs won their first World Series championship since 1908. This time, Schwarber helped Boston knock out Cole and the Yankees in a game where another former Cub also homered — Anthony Rizzo for New York.

"I was having 2015, Pittsburgh, PNC Park flashbacks with Schwarbs," Hoyer said Wednesday. "Some people put down baseball in October. To me, I can’t say I watch every single game; I probably wouldn’t be a very good dad if I did that. But I watch as much as I can because this is why we do this."

The question for Hoyer is how quickly the Cubs can get back to the playoffs after missing out for the second time in seven years. A 71-91 mark left them with their worst record since finishing 66-96 in 2013 and ended a string of six straight winning seasons. They dealt championship core players Kris Bryant, Javier Báez and Rizzo at the trade deadline with the team in a freefall after grabbing the NL Central lead.

Now, Hoyer has a lengthy to-do list. Topping it is bolstering a starting rotation that ranked among the worst in baseball.

The Cubs also need to find a new hitting coach after Hoyer confirmed the team is parting with Anthony Iapoce. A contract extension for manager David Ross could be in the works, with the sides having held preliminary talks. He agreed to a three-year deal with a club option for 2023 when he was hired to replace Joe Maddon following the 2019 season.

The search also continues for a new general manager. That spot opened when Theo Epstein stepped down in November after nine seasons and Hoyer was promoted to replace him.

As for how close the Cubs are to a turnaround?

"I think it’s hard to put timelines on things," Hoyer said. "I remember sitting in St. Louis in the summer of 2013 and looking at their lineup and looking at our lineup and feeling we’re light years away from being able to compete with them. Two years later, we beat them in the division series."

Hoyer said the Cubs will have the financial flexibility to be active in free agency. The question is whether they try to make a big splash by signing a star or fill more gaps through lower-profile moves.

Either way, he identified the rotation as the top priority after Cubs starters combined for a 5.27 ERA. Only Texas, Pittsburgh and Baltimore were higher.

Kyle Hendricks set career highs with a 4.77 ERA and a major league-leading 200 hits. Zach Davies, acquired from San Diego for Yu Darvish prior to the season, went from a personal-best 2.73 ERA in 2020 to career-worst 5.78.

Hoyer said Adbert Alzolay, Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson will play "significant" roles, whether they’re starting or relieving.

As for potential free agent signings, Hoyer said the Cubs are not necessarily "trying to win the offseason" by making a big splash.

"There are teams out there that made huge splashes, they were aggressive, they were lauded for all the things they did, and they’re not playing in October — just like us," Hoyer said. "As we build this, I think it’s really important to make one good decision after another."

Hoyer would also like to see more contact and consistency on offense, a sore spot for the Cubs in recent years. They set a major league record with 1,596 strikeouts and ranked 21st in runs.

Iapoce oversaw Chicago’s minor league hitting program from 2013-15, helping Bryant, Báez and Schwarber develop as they moved through the system. He spent three years as the Texas Rangers’ hitting coach before the Cubs hired him for that role in 2018. Iapoce’s replacement will be Chicago’s seventh hitting coach in 11 seasons.

Hoyer also said associate pitching, catching and strategy coach Mike Borzello will not be back after 10 years on staff.