MESA, Ariz. — Jed Hoyer sat on the balcony of the Under Armour Performance Center, overlooking the Cubs’ spring training fields, struggling to find a less obvious answer to the question that was posed to him.
The general manager’s 2017 Chicago Cubs look nearly identical to the team that won the World Series just five months ago, a testament to the empire he and Theo Epstein have built in Chicago.
So how is this team different?
“Well, we get Kyle Schwarber back,” he said.
That’s all Hoyer had. Well, Schwarber, and a couple of new faces in the bullpen with Wade Davis and Koji Uehara. But that was it.
Indeed, Schwarber is the key offseason “acquisition,” an odd thought considering the Cubs might not have won the World Series had the 24-year-old slugger not miraculously returned from a torn ACL to post a .971 OPS in 20 plate appearances against the Cleveland Indians.
“He’ll make a big difference for us,” Hoyer said. “We did miss him last year even though it didn’t seem like it.”
He’s right. It didn’t seem like it (well, until he was back), but Hoyer explained how Schwarber’s injury completely changed the makeup of a team that went on to break the Cubs’ 108-year World Series drought.
“I think the team that we thought we were going to have last year was going to outscore our opponents by a ton. What we ended up having was a team that was really great at run prevention. We had a very different team than we thought,” Hoyer said.
And yet they still won — the result of insulating the ball club against the disaster of losing one of its best players to a torn ACL in the first week of the season. But Hoyer admits that the Cubs were still very fortunate in 2016 and received some breaks along the way. In fact, you could argue the biggest break was that the catastrophic injury happened so early in the season — allowing Schwarber to return for the World Series.
“Look at last year. We were the best team. We had an incredible run differential. We won a 103 games. We were healthy,” Hoyer said. “Pretty much anyone in baseball would have said, hey, the Cubs are probably the most talented and the best team in baseball. And it still took us until Game 7 in the 10th inning to win the World Series.”
Such is baseball. Jed and Theo understand that better than most. Going all-in on one season of baseball is borderline reckless. Imagine if the Indians don’t get back to the World Series, for instance. They appear to be built for another run, but if they don’t make that run, they might be left looking back at 2016 as the year they were undone by a rain delay.
“Baseball is a funny sport that way,” Hoyer said. “You play all season long and if you win 60 percent of your game you’re like an awesome team. So when you shorten up a series and you play against a bunch of really good teams in a collection of five- and seven-game series, you know, there’s a lot of randomness at play.”
Hoyer was reminded of that randomness while watching “Reign Men,” CSN Chicago’s one-hour documentary on Game 7 of the World Series. He got his hands on an advanced copy and watched in Arizona last Friday night as half of the Cubs took a trip to Las Vegas.
“I think that’s the one thing about baseball — that’s why you have to get there year after year to hope that you’re the team that gets some breaks,” Hoyer said. “And last year we got some breaks. I think that allowed us to win.”
Which brings us back to the present, and the challenge of repeating. Much like last year, it would be hard to argue that the Cubs are not the best team in baseball. In fact, they’re probably better. But that doesn’t mean they’ll win the World Series. Hoyer knows the challenge all too well, having failed in repeat efforts in 2005 and 2008 in Boston.
“The reason why it’s hard to repeat is it’s simply hard to win once and therefore winning twice in a row is really difficult,” Hoyer said. “And I do think health-wise we were really healthy last year, which allowed us to rest guys down the stretch, which really benefitted us in the playoffs. To do that twice in a row I think is very challenging.”
And yet, while the Cubs have built a large window for sustained success, this is Year 2 in a smaller two-year window. Losing Jake Arrieta at the end of the year is a very real possibility, and other changes/tweaks are going to be necessary too.
“That was very strategic,” Hoyer said. “We did go out between 2015 and ’16 and we kind of said, we’re going to do two years of shopping for one year because we didn’t like the free agent market (in 2017). So we were very aggressive in free agency. We had all these young kids coming up so we kind of felt like we’d have a very similar team in 2017.”
So what if the Cubs hadn’t won Game 7? The plan was always a five-year plan, but the depths of the Cubs’ rebuild ran so deep that Hoyer and Epstein purposely built the 2016 Cubs to look virtually the same in 2017 — you know, in case the skies didn’t open up in Game 7 of the World Series.
“The truth is, if we had lost in the World Series, we still would have brought back a very similar team,” Hoyer said. “And that was something we talked about was that there’s always this sense that when you lose in the playoffs you need to make big, wholesale changes. Luckily we won so people weren’t calling for that, but we knew we’d have a very similar team last year and this year. I think, had we lost, people would have looking for some more tangible changes and I don’t think that would’ve happened.”
Fortunately, it’s not something Hoyer and Epstein had to worry about, as their five-year plan was right on schedule, despite all the “randomness” and “breaks” at play. And in that sense, it’s still pretty crazy to think it all worked out — especially for a team that hadn’t won a World Series in 108 years.
“The scripts don’t often go that simply,” Hoyer admitted. “There were a lot of challenges along the way, but we achieved our goal, which was to be a really good team after five (years). A lot of different bumps in the road could have knocked that back to six or seven years.”
And, oh how close the Cubs were to getting knocked back to at least Year 6. Yet they still got it done in five, executing a near flawless plan. And now that the ultimate goal has been achieved, Hoyer can allow himself to be completely honest about whether or not he thought the plan was realistic.
“I had no doubt in my mind when I took the job that we were going to be really good, that we were going to be successful in building a really good team,” Hoyer said. “But to do it right on schedule is something I think that is almost surprising looking back on it.”
For the Cubs, the idea of winning the World Series was always considered “surprising.” Until now, that is.