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Nico Hoerner proving to Cubs he’s up for the challenge

2 years agoTony Andracki

Nico Hoerner saw the opportunity in front of him and he jumped at it.

After a season in which he hit the Injured List 4 separate times, Hoerner came into 2022 with a clear goal to stay healthy and on the field.

As Spring Training started and the lockout ended, the Cubs signed Andrelton Simmons to add a veteran presence and elite glove at shortstop. But Simmons has been held back due to a shoulder injury and as the spring progressed, Hoerner stepped up to fill the void for the team.

Simmons was placed on the IL just before Opening Day and was on track to do some throwing this weekend. The earliest he could return to the lineup would be late next week and the Cubs hope it’s not a long process for the 4-time Gold Glover.

Meanwhile, Hoerner has grabbed the shortstop job and run with it.

There was this Derek Jeter-esque play toward the end of spring:

And then he connected for the first homer of the MLB season on Thursday — off the reigning NL Cy Young winner, no less:

“Nothing shocks me when Nico does something,” David Ross said in spring. “This guy works really hard and puts a ton of thought into his work and preparation. He’s a guy that we’re gonna count on at shortstop and rely on. He’s up for that challenge.

“He prepared for that challenge this offseason and wants to continue to grow as a player and be on the field as consistently as possible and help us win ballgames. He’s a real winner and he’s got real leadership qualities.”

The leadership qualities line is interesting, if only because Hoerner is 24 years old and has just 114 MLB games under his belt (including Saturday) since he debuted late in 2019.

“If you watch in-game, he’s moving other infielders around, the spacing — communicating that,” Ross said. “When guys don’t hit the cutoff man or aren’t in the right position, he’s the first one to address it and take that leadership role from holding his teammates accountable to the conversations in the dugout.

“This guy’s a baseball rat. He just loves every nugget he can possibly get. He talks the game all the time. There are natural leadership qualities [that] are definitely coming out the more he gets comfortable. Especially in the middle of the diamond, we need that.”

Nick Madrigal has worked as Hoerner’s double-play partner up the middle in the first 2 games of the season. The two have a long history of playing together and against each other, dating back to when they were teenagers in California.

Over that time, Madrigal has seen Hoerner grow as a leader.

“He leads by example and if he does need to get vocal, he will,” Madrigal said. “He’s a complete player. Whether that’s on the leadership side or whatever you need, he can do it.

“A big part of this team goes through him.”

Hoerner was a Gold Glove finalist at second base in 2020 but when the Cubs traded for Madrigal last summer, that meant an opportunity was there at shortstop.

When Simmons returns to health, Hoerner will probably move to more of a utility role — playing shortstop, second base and maybe even outfield or third base. The Cubs want to ensure all three middle infielders stay as healthy as possible, especially with Hoerner’s and Madrigal’s injury histories and the way Simmons’ 2022 has started.

Simmons is only on a 1-year deal and Hoerner is out to prove he could be the Cubs’ long-term answer at shortstop.

“The arm strength is really impressive,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said. “That’s always been something — as far as shortstops go — he doesn’t have the strongest arm. He’s really showed off good arm strength. That jump throw was really impressive.

“He’s a great athlete. I think he can do it. He really wants the opportunity, which I love. We’re gonna give it to him. I hope he can stay on the field. He’s had such an incredibly unusual development path, which is our fault — not his fault. Hopefully he can have a nice, solid year where he’s able to play every day.”

Hoerner has a quiet air of confidence about himself and that has served him well early in his career.

“He has a really high baseball IQ and understands that he’s a pretty darn good player and I think he believes in himself,” Ross said. “In any aspect of life, that’s a hard thing to do to continue to believe in yourself. Especially in this game of failure.

“He has a lot of confidence there for him, which is great. It shows in any aspect — any conversation you have with him, any time you talk baseball on or off the field stuff, he’s very prepared and works his tail off to be ready in any situation.”

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