Paul Sullivan: Jed Hoyer has an unenviable task to fill Theo Epstein’s shoes without Cubs’ usual resources

CHICAGO — When introduced as Chicago Cubs president 14 years ago at Wrigley Field, John McDonough said his “singular” goal was to win the World Series.

“Not win the wild card or win the division or win the pennant,” he said. “It’s time to win. It’s time to win the World Series. It’s time to reward these tens of millions of fans who have waited for a long time.”

In case he hadn’t made himself perfectly clear, McDonough repeated his mantra eight more times during his 11-minute news conference, quickly separating himself from the corporate-speak philosophizing of predecessor Andy MacPhail.

Despite an offseason spending spree that brought in Alfonso Soriano, Ted Lilly, Mark DeRosa and others, the Cubs fell short of that goal in 2007 and were swept by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the National League Division Series. With Tribune Co. putting up the team for sale that April, McDonough resigned after the season to become president of the Chicago Blackhawks, where he oversaw three Stanley Cup titles before his ouster this past spring.

Jed Hoyer never mentioned winning the World Series during his introductory teleconference Monday as Cubs president, and for good reason — no one would’ve believed him.

“The truth is, given the service time realities that I mentioned, that eye might be a little bit more focused on the future than usual,” he said. “But that doesn’t take away from the goal … and the goal is always to make the playoffs and give this organization a chance to go deep in October.”

The audacity of nope.

That’s what the Cubs are selling, and Hoyer has the unenviable task of following in Theo Epstein’s footsteps without the requisite wheelbarrow full of cash to bring the organization another championship.

Everyone knows by now the Cubs will be undergoing significant roster changes this winter after three years without a playoff win and an offense so inept, it almost makes the Bears offense look semi-respectable.

Epstein, Hoyer’s mentor, friend and fellow curse-breaker, greased the skids for the new reality during his post-playoff autopsy in October, then jumped ship last week so Hoyer could make all the difficult decisions without Epstein looking over his shoulder.

That’s what friends are for.

Hoyer wouldn’t reveal his general manager, his budget or the players he’ll be getting rid of, which makes sense. He admitted there are no ongoing extension talks and vowed to be “transparent,” which means being candid about the challenges of putting together a championship-caliber team in 2021.

With the resources available to the Cubs, they’re one of a handful of teams, with the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers and Boston Red Sox, that many feel should always be in the title hunt.

But even before the pandemic, Chairman Tom Ricketts wasn’t willing to spend anything for another championship, having already accomplished that in 2016. The desire to win may still be there, but the hunger seemingly is gone. Ricketts might as well be one of those faceless Tribune Co. executives who constantly reminded us “there are shareholders to consider” when making out the budget.

“I don’t think anybody is tearing anything down,” Ricketts said Monday when asked about a possible do-over. “The fact is we have a good club. I think people are excited to see us back on the field next year.”

If a COVID-19 vaccine is widely available by the spring, hopefully the gates to Wrigley Field will be open to fans again. But would they flock back to the ballpark immediately or wait until 2022?

“I honestly believe, with the combination of vaccines and treatments and home testing and a few other ways people can be safer, and spreading people out around the ballpark and everything else, I think we’ll be able to get people back in the park,” Ricketts said. “But only time will tell if we get enough people in the park (to fill it). Whether we’ll get 10 percent or 20 percent or 30 percent, only time will tell.

“But I do think once people feel safe, we’ll be rolling again at Wrigley and I look forward to it.”

Whether the Cubs will be rolling at Wrigley is another question altogether.

The window of opportunity is closing with several core players set for free agency in 2021 or ’22, forcing Hoyer to deal with the “reckoning” Epstein first alluded to during the 2018 general managers meetings.

Should the Cubs be the kind of franchise that always thinks World Series, or is a semi-rebuild a necessity? Remember, the Yankees staged a sell-off in the summer of 2016 that both contributed to the Cubs championship (the acquisition of Aroldis Chapman) and helped put them in their current predicament (the loss of Gleyber Torres).

Hoyer pointed out that the “absolute most talented team does not win every single year,” though he admitted the last five years have shown it definitely helps.

“I don’t think every single year you can put together a team that is the favorite to win the World Series,” he said. “I don’t think that’s possible, and that’s probably a fool’s errand. But given our resources and our talent level, we should field a team that’s playoff-worthy every single year, and I think we can do that and field a team that’s positioned long-term as well.”

You can’t blame Hoyer for lowering expectations. He and Epstein painted themselves into this corner by not dealing one or more of their stars last offseason, when Kyle Schwarber was coming off a great second half, Kris Bryant was still Kris Bryant and Javier Baez was the only real untouchable on a roster Epstein claimed had no untouchables.

Now there really are no untouchables, but all three stars are coming off poor seasons and wouldn’t bring as much in return as they enter their walk years. Adding to the degree of difficulty for Hoyer is the vast uncertainty of the 2021 season, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic’s grip on this country.

But no one knows the personnel or the challenges better than Hoyer. And at least he didn’t make the bold guarantee MacPhail uttered to beat writers in spring training in 1998.

“We won’t be boring,” MacPhail said.

That’s one problem Hoyer doesn’t have to worry about.

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