The Rundown: Hoyer Must Heed History Lessons, Happ Gets Leadoff Assignment, Montgomery Signs With D-Backs

“There’s battle lines being drawn. Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.” – The Buffalo Springfield, For What It’s Worth

I took a stab yesterday at predicting the outcome of this year’s NL Central race and, as I see it, the Cubs should enter the 2024 playoffs as division champs. I’m still unsure whether it will be an edge-of-your-seat race through the final month or a woebegone derby between mediocre teams fighting for the opportunity to be among the first-round elimination candidates.

The division itself may be a cesspool of inferiority as compared to the league’s East and West divisions, and peculiar scheduling will prevent compelling late-season tilts that tend to weigh heavily on placing. The odds seem to be against a five-way tie, but what happens if everybody finishes 81-81? The Sporting News projects that the Cubs, Cardinals, and Reds will all finish at the .500 mark with the Brewers a game behind, followed by the Pirates with 79 wins.

Give the assist to Rob Manfred and his desire for league parity. Nothing would rock his socks like an 81-win team winning the World Series to arm him in his quest to make the MLB postseason a 32-team tournament.

The Cubs are TSN’s favorite with a 24% chance to win the division, while the Pittsburgh sits at 14.5% as the No. 5 team. This has all the makings of a thrilling divisional chase in 2024, right? If my memory serves correctly, a similar happenstance occurred in 2019. That year, coming out of the All-Star Break, the entire division was closer to the lead than nearly every second-place team in the majors.

A lot of strange things happened in the second half of the ’19 season. That was the summer Robel Garcia had his five minutes of fame while Addison Russell started his long walk of shame. Jed Hoyer gave his “Hope is Not a Plan” speech, and the front office acquired Nick Castellanos and also traded Mike Montgomery for Martín Maldonado, who took Garcia’s spot on the roster. Two weeks later, Maldonado was traded for professional journeyman Tony Kemp. Chicago also dealt for David Phelps because Brandon Morrow was in the middle of his career-ending stint on the injury list.

Nico Hoerner made his debut that September because several shortstops were hurt and they had no choice but to promote the young middle infielder ahead of schedule. How did it all play out? The Cubs finished third, seven games behind the Cardinals and five behind the Brewers. Chicago relinquished its division lead after being swept by the Nationals at home August 23-25. Joe Maddon was replaced by David Ross the following season and Theo Epstein passed his baton to his understudy.

Hoyer has built a team this season that is just good enough to win the division, though not by much. He has a much stronger farm system than Epstein had in 2019, so reinforcements this season will likely come from within. That said, Juan Soto, Pete Alonso, Paul Goldschmidt, Anthony Rizzo, Nolan Arenado, Alex Bregman, Max Scherzer, Gleyber Torres, and Kenley Jansen could all be available this July. Every contending team will want Soto, but the rest of those players fill potential needs. How does Hoyer resist engaging in trade talks, and should he?

The point I am making is that a tight race does not favor the long-term plan Hoyer started after the 2019 collapse. If the Cubs aren’t going to spend like the Dodgers in the offseason they cannot chip away at a top-two farm system for little more than a quick fix. In that respect, I hope Ol’ Jed avoids making rash decisions unless the Cubs are a legitimate World Series contender. Hope is indeed not a plan, visions sometimes become nightmares, and history too often repeats itself.

Cubs News & Notes

Odds & Sods

Admit it, you still miss the bullpen dance. I say we repurpose it this summer and do the Soul Train Line with every home run.

Climbing the Ladder

“I feel so good, woo, and that’s a real good sign.” – Hank Ballard, Finger Poppin’ Time

Let’s take a look back at Chicago’s 2023 offensive leaders based on league minimum playing time requirements.

  • WAR: Hoerner 5.1
  • BA: Bellinger .307
  • Doubles: Happ 35
  • Triples: Seiya Suzuki 6
  • HR: Bellinger/Christopher Morel 26
  • RBI: Bellinger 97
  • SB: Hoerner 43
  • OBP: Happ .360
  • OPS: Bellinger .881

I’ll cover pitching in this section tomorrow.

Central Intelligence

Rounding Third

Are you prepared for Opening Day? The answer is no unless you have access to my “Today is Baseball Day” Spotify playlist.

How About That!

Holy Bob Feller, Batman! In 2023, 1,010,999 attendees flocked to Opening Day in stadiums across the country, according to MLB. You cost us a nice, round number if you’re the fan who stayed home to watch on TV.

More than 70 million fans attended games last season, the league’s largest increase since 1998.

Record attendance did not help Jordan Montgomery, who agreed to a one-year deal with the Diamondbacks for $25 million. Outfielder Tommy Pham is the last of the top 50 free agents to remain unsigned.

J.D. Martinez is a surprisingly good fit for the Mets and Citi Field.

You could have a C-Level job that allows you to attend games at every MLB stadium this summer if you’re a wiener enthusiast. I promise this doesn’t link to an article at The Onion, but it sure sounds like something they’d post.

Spring Training MVPs

  1. Orioles – They played .793 baseball and look like they’re ready to be the top dog in the American League.
  2. Suzuki – The Cubs’ right fielder had a 1.593 OPS in 15 Cactus League games with six home runs and 12 RBI. He enters the ’24 season as a dark horse MVP candidate.
  3. Spencer Strider – The Braves ace struck out 35 batters while allowing just two earned runs in 22.2 Grapefruit League innings. Just give him the Cy Young Award today.

Extra Innings

Happy Opening Day Eve to those who partake. Make sure you’re stocked up on Big League Chew and sunflower seeds.

They Said It

  • “It’s just so hard when you’ve been to the top of the mountain to get compared to anything else but what’s at the top of the mountain. What Cody proved last year — and this is the same thing that Christian Yelich has proved — is there’s a really good player who’s not necessarily at the top of the mountain. That’s a really, really good player. You know it’s going to come out. Even when Cody struggled, that’s what you thought: He’s going to be a great player again. When it’s in there, it’s not a fluke. You can’t be the MVP as a fluke.” – Counsell
  • “There was obviously a lot of talk about [Bellinger’s] expected numbers and exit velocities, But when you watched him every day, it was very clear he was sacrificing power for contact. Given where he’s going to be hitting in the order — and given the way it worked last year — I’m great with that trade-off.” – Hoyer
  • “Yeah, Ian will lead off on Thursday. He’s gonna hit at the top of the lineup. His skill set and the people around him, I think it’s a good spot for him. This is a guy that walked 99 times last year, which in today’s game, a really, really impressive number.” – Counsell
  • “Whatever he thinks is the best lineup construction, I’m open to it. I don’t think you’re gonna see the same lineup run out there for the first 10 games of the season. There’s probably gonna be some figuring out exactly what this looks like with our group and with [Counsell] as manager.” – Happ

Wednesday Walk-Up Song

I’m ready for the regular season. How about you?

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