23 for ’23: After career years with Cubs, what’s next for Ian Happ and Nico Hoerner?
Between position battles, roster additions and new rules, there are plenty of questions surrounding the 2023 Cubs. We attempt to provide answers for 23 of the most intriguing questions heading into the season.
Entering 2022, it was evident Ian Happ and Nico Hoerner were big parts of the Cubs roster.
But even established big-leaguers can take a big leap forward and that’s exactly what we saw from both players in Chicago last season.
Happ entered the year with 6.5 career WAR (Baseball Reference) and put up 4.4 WAR in 2022 alone, making his first All-Star team and winning his first Gold Glove in left field.
Hoerner had accrued only 2.1 WAR in his MLB career entering 2022 but more than doubled that with a 4.4 mark while setting career highs in almost every category including games played (135), homers (10), runs (60) and stolen bases (20).
So what does 2023 have in store for the pair of core players?
Let’s start with Happ.
At 28, he’s smack dab in the middle of his prime and he’s also in a contract year as he’s set to hit free agency this winter. He sacrificed a bit of power for more consistency at the plate and the end result included a career high batting average (.271) and strikeout rate (23.2%).
Happ still flashed some power (42 doubles, 17 homers) and his defense took a huge step forward as he was afforded a consistent spot in left field as opposed to moving around the diamond in a utility role defensively.
And he did all that while dealing with persistent trade rumors throughout the season.
Both Happ and Hoerner are prime extension candidates but with Opening Day less than two weeks away, the Cubs have not yet been able to reach an agreement with either player. That’s not a big deal with Hoerner, who still has three years left of team control. But Happ is staring down another year of uncertainty.
The Cubs don’t expect that to affect his on-field performance, however.
“Happer’s very tough mentally,” David Ross said. “I think he’s gone through some times in his career where it hasn’t been easy for him. Some send-downs, some times of struggles on really good teams and the up-and-down road of his major league career. Last year, I thought he handled it great. He was very unemotional and very business-like.
“Knew he couldn’t control any of that and went out and made an All-Star team and won a Gold Glove and was probably our most consistent hitter. He handled it phenomenally. I thought he just went about his business and stayed true to his routines and continued to try to get better and he did that in all facets of his game.”
Happ has seen his own situation play out already with longtime teammates in Chicago as Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javy Báez and Kyle Schwarber have all been in similar spots in recent years.
Happ has been able to observe each situation and learn from it and the Cubs not only believe he will be able to avoid distraction this year, but they’re confident he can thrive. He spent the offseason taking even more ownership in every facet of the organization.
“He’s a huge leader for our team,” Ross said. “He’s a huge leader in our organization. He’s helped our R&D group and continued to grow some of our outfield positioning stuff. He’s helped the new coaches that have come on board transition. He’s very much a guy around here that digs his feet in in a lot of different areas in a great way.”
.@ihapp_1 puts the Cubs on the board! pic.twitter.com/BSSgtfOoQh— Marquee Sports Network (@WatchMarquee) March 17, 2023
For Hoerner, he has flashed his potential since he debuted late in the 2019 season but the big issue was staying on the field. He dealt with a variety of injuries in 2021 but came into last season with a clear focus at posting up on a daily basis and proving he could handle shortstop. Apart from a fluke ankle injury suffered when he stepped on an umpire’s foot, Hoerner remained healthy throughout the year and ascended to stardom not only in Chicago but around the league.
“A huge factor is just the number of at-bats I was able to have last year,” Hoerner told Cole Wright and Joe Girardi on “Cubs 360” early in camp. “You can always work hard in the offseason but until it’s really based on the game itself, it’s not worth that much. So to have that feedback, start facing guys multiple times again this year and all that stuff really compounds into overall improvement. I think I was able to drive the ball a little bit more last year without setting out like, ‘oh I gotta hit X number of home runs.’ It was kinda as a byproduct of good at-bats.
“Didn’t walk as much last year but I’ve also walked more in the past in kind of a passive way so it’s not always, ‘I’m gonna set out and walk more this year kind of a thing.’ Just the mental consistency of playing every day and knowing that I can do that for 6 months and just improve in small ways that turn out to big differences.”
With the arrival of Dansby Swanson, Hoerner moves back to second base, where he was a Gold Glove finalist in 2020.
And with new rules in place that prohibit shifting, that places a premium on defense in the middle infield. Combine that with Hoerner’s success on the basepaths last year (20-for-22 in stolen bases) and MLB increasing the sizes of the bases and limiting the number of pickoff attempts and the new rules have the 25-year-old primed to become even more valuable in 2023.
“[Last year] was the most that I’ve been able to run in a season and I feel like I was able to learn a lot,” Hoerner told Wright and Girardi. “…[The rules are] all stuff that honestly plays to my favor and works with my style of play. It’s promoting athletes in the middle of the field.”
Ross is also going to give Hoerner a shot at leading off this year, plugging a hole that has been a revolving door since Dexter Fowler left town six years ago.
Hoerner is a big part of the Cubs’ present and future and throughout his career, he’s shown that his top priority is winning.
Early in his career, he was around a bunch of players that helped end the 108-year championship drought in Chicago. Now, he’s ushering in a new wave of players who have won before — from Swanson to Trey Mancini to Eric Hosmer — and Hoerner is soaking it all in.
“We’ve got a lot of guys that have won a World Series with many different organizations,” Hoerner said. “You start getting those kinds of personalities together and I think it’s a special thing. It’s not just a hope, they’ve actually done it. They’ve seen it happen around the best in the game and the biggest situations. As a young player, those are the things I haven’t experienced yet but the most that this game has to offer. Just excited to be around guys that have actually done it.”
23 for ’23 series
What will the Cubs’ new era at catcher look like?
What is the Cubs’ plan at third base?
Who steps up in the wake of the Seiya Suzuki injury?
What role will Christopher Morel have on the 2023 Cubs?
Who will win the Cubs’ 5th starter spot?
Where does Nick Madrigal fit on the roster?
Who will close for the Cubs?
What kind of impact will Dansby Swanson have in his first season in Chicago?
What is the plan for Matt Mervis?
Who are some under-the-radar players that could make the Opening Day roster?
What will Trey Mancini and Eric Hosmer bring to this team?
Which young Cubs pitchers will take the next step this season?
What can we expect from Kyle Hendricks when he returns this season?
What does the Opening Day bullpen look like?
Will the Cubs’ pitching staff pick up where it left off?
What will the Opening Day lineup look like?