Why the Chicago Cubs restructured their hitting coach setup on the big-league staff — plus updates on Willson Contreras’ and Drew Smyly’s futures

Why the Chicago Cubs restructured their hitting coach setup on the big-league staff — plus updates on Willson Contreras’ and Drew Smyly’s futures

Hitting coach instability has been a staple of the Chicago Cubs big-league staff over the last decade.

The Cubs believe they have created a more extensive coaching staff structure that will yield better cohesion and collaboration.

Greg Brown lasted only one season in the lead hitting coach role, replaced by Dustin Kelly late last month shortly after Kelly became the organization’s minor-league field coordinator. Kelly was the minor-league hitting coordinator the last two seasons.

Included in Tuesday’s official announcement of the 2023 coaching staff were four notable changes to the hitting coach structure. In addition to Kelly’s promotion, Juan Cabreja (assistant hitting coach), Jim Adduci (assistant hitting coach, game planning) and Alex Smith (data development and process) will join the major-league coaching staff. Johnny Washington also returns as an assistant hitting coach.

“We think the world of Greg Brown. He’s a tremendous hitting coach,” president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said Tuesday at the general managers meetings. “With the current major-league guys and the young guys coming up, it wasn’t the right fit in the majors. We certainly hope he stays in the organization and can have a big impact on the franchise.

“Going with a guy in Dustin Kelly that we think the world of and has relationships with all those young hitters, that was really important. We felt like Dustin was the right fit.”

Brown could remain with the organization in a minor-league coordinator position. Hoyer acknowledged the challenging situation of the lockout going into effect only four weeks after Brown was hired, cutting off any communication with players on the 40-man roster.

“It definitely didn’t help him,” Hoyer said. “It was not an ideal way to transition to a new coach for sure.”

The Cubs now feature five hitting-focused coaches on the big-league staff, a distinct effort to replicate the collaborative success of how the organization has built the pitching coach side at the major-league level. Hoyer’s vision centers on utilizing each hitting coach’s skill sets to create a total team effort, just as they do with pitching coaches Tommy Hottovy, Daniel Moskos and Chris Young.

“What we want is a hitting department with different areas of strengths, and ultimately everyone has a plan to make players better together,” Hoyer said. “We want to have different people working on different things, whether it’s one guy might be more of a mechanics person, one guy might be more game planning, the mental side, things like that.

“But ultimately it’s important that you have a pitching coach, a hitting coach that have (emotional intelligence), that have the ability to allow them to work with someone else, have experts in different areas and not feel like they have to be the final arbiter or the best coach, the best game planner or the best mental guy.

“That’s really important in becoming more collaborative. We definitely have it on the pitching side right now, and getting the hitting side to that place was really important to us.”

Acquiring better hitters also is an important part of the equation for the Cubs the next few years. That’s unlikely to include catcher Willson Contreras. The Cubs have not yet extended a qualifying offer to Contreras, but as Hoyer has stated multiple times, the team will do so by the Thursday deadline. Once Contreras receives the offer, he’s expected to decline it before the Nov. 20 deadline.

The Cubs had a deal in place shortly before the trade deadline to trade Contreras to the Houston Astros for right-hander José Urquidy; however, a source confirmed ESPN’s report that Astros manager Dusty Baker nixed the deal.

Outside of free-agent signings or trades, finding middle ground to offer contract extensions to key players such as outfielder Ian Happ and shortstop Nico Hoerner could be in play too. But if that happens, it likely would be before the Cubs report to Mesa, Ariz., for spring training.

While not speaking about specific players Tuesday and noting, “Don’t hold me to this,” Hoyer said he doesn’t love negotiating during spring training. He alluded to seeing many deals fall apart during that six-week stretch. In 2021, Anthony Rizzo’s contract extension details played out publicly during camp.

“The more I do it, the more I think it causes tension,” Hoyer said. “Guys want to start the season. ... I just don’t think it’s a great way to start the season. I’d like to push that up a little bit. And if we get it done, great. But (not) doing it in spring training, at least (not) starting the process and trying to end it.”

In other Cubs news, left-hander Drew Smyly declined his mutual option for 2023, worth $10 million, and will receive a $1 million buyout. Smyly, 33, still could return to the Cubs, who have connected with Smyly’s side about negotiating a new deal, though the veteran might be looking for a multiyear contract.