Cubs Spring Training Notebook: A leadoff option emerges
MESA, Ariz. — Thursday’s Cubs lineup revealed a pretty big clue as to how David Ross might line his team up throughout 2023.
Nico Hoerner’s name was written in at leadoff for the 4th time already this spring and it appears as if the Cubs have a new tablesetter.
The Cubs’ leadoff spot has been a popular topic in recent years, ever since Dexter Fowler left a hole at the position following his departure after the 2016 season. The Cubs have tried a variety of options since then, including Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Anthony Rizzo.
The Cubs don’t have a player with much leadoff experience on this year’s roster but Ross likes Hoerner’s ability to be a sparkplug for the team.
“When I look at Nico, it’s about setting the tone for our group to start a game,” Ross said. “He’s as ready to go as anybody I’ve ever been around. There’s something about the way he plays that sets a great tone for our team. So I like him starting things off.”
Hoerner helped set a tone Thursday with a leadoff double in the 3rd inning:
Nico sets the table for the Cubs in the 3rd with a leadoff double (later came around to score on Happ's RBI single). pic.twitter.com/oPV9MaoXU4— Tony Andracki (@TonyAndracki23) March 2, 2023
Hoerner has started just 3 regular season games in the leadoff spot and has found success hitting with runners in scoring position throughout his career (.330 AVG, .855 OPS).
“I haven’t done it a lot at the big league level,” Hoerner said. “I’ve done it here and there growing up in college and summer ball and things like that. Probably hit second most in my life but leadoff feels good.
“It’s an exciting opportunity. I know the Cubs haven’t really had a stable spot in that lineup in a while.”
He’s ready to embrace the new role and possibly bring some stability to the top of the Cubs lineup.
“Yeah, absolutely,” Hoerner said. “If that’s a part of the lineup they don’t have to think about matchups or anything. I’m just plugged in there and ready to go, I think that helps our team out a lot. All for it.”
He enjoyed a breakout season last year across the board, showing strong defense at shortstop and setting new career highs in games played (135), homers (10) and stolen bases (20).
Even hitting in a new spot, Ross wants Hoerner to keep his same approach and not try to take away from his strengths as a hitter.
But Hoerner acknowledged some minor things will change in his approach. Leading off requires a different level of readiness, especially on the road to be prepared for the very first pitch of the game.
Ross will still probably play the matchups and tinker with the lineup throughout the season and players like Happ, Nick Madrigal, Christopher Morel and Zach McKinstry could factor into the leadoff mix at some point.
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Stroman settling in
In final start before heading off for the World Baseball Classic, Marcus Stroman looked to be in midseason form.
He struck out 4 Oakland batters Thursday in 2.1 shutout innings, allowing a pair of singles and a walk.
0 ER | 2.1 IP | 4 K@STR0 👏 pic.twitter.com/ci4DWAJXzQ— Marquee Sports Network (@WatchMarquee) March 2, 2023
Marcus Stroman, Swords. ⚔️⚔️ pic.twitter.com/AZxwCWFFKa— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) March 2, 2023
The veteran pitcher will now head to join Team Puerto Rico for the World Baseball Classic and return to the Cubs after the international tournament (or if his team is knocked out before the Finals).
Stroman will leave Cubs camp Friday and head to Ft. Myers, Fla., to train with Puerto Rico for a couple days before heading to Miami.
The Cubs know it’s an injury risk for Stroman to take part in the WBC but injuries are unpredictable and it can also be a benefit for players to get such intense competitive experience before the regular season hits.
“I’m a big feel guy,” Stroman said. “At this point in my career, I take care of my body and I know my body very, very well. I would never compromise myself and put myself out there in a position where I wouldn’t be able to come and pitch for the Cubs.”
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Stroman is currently on schedule to be ready for Opening Day and very well could get the ball for that game on March 30, though Ross isn’t ready to commit to that yet.
“I would love it, but at the end of the day, I’m not someone who’s over here like I need to be the Opening Day starter,” Stroman said. “Whatever’s best for the team. We all pitch once every five days. We all end up getting the same amount of starts.
“I’m not prideful in that sense but if he wants me Opening Day, I would love that. I feel like I have the pedigree, the confidence to go out there Opening Day and take the ball every fifth day after that.”
Possible new addition?
Opening Day is exactly four weeks away and the Cubs may not be done adding to the roster just yet.
When asked if the team is done with moves, Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer teased a potential addition.
“Generally done but if someone came into camp, I wouldn’t be shocked,” Hoyer said. “There are some players out there — in particular, some relievers out there.”
The Cubs currently only have one left-handed reliever (Brandon Hughes) on the 40-man roster, though there are several non-roster invitees in camp this spring. Several veteran southpaws remain on the open market, including Zack Britton, Brad Hand and Will Smith.
Thursday was a good showcase for the bullpen, as seven different relievers appeared in the game after Stroman.
Bailey Horn, Michael Fulmer, Rowan Wick, Anthony Kay, Tyler Duffey, Julian Merryweather and Ryan Borucki combined to allow just 1 run in 6.2 innings, striking out 9 Oakland batters.
The Cubs added Fulmer (free agent) and Merryweather (waiver claim) over the offseason and invited Kay, Duffey and Borucki to camp as non-roster invitees.
Justin Steele will make his spring debut Friday as the Cubs kick off a night game on the road. Steele was scratched from his first start last weekend with general arm soreness.
First pitch Friday will be at 7:40 p.m. on Marquee Sports Network.