Foresight is 2020: Will Nico Hoerner start the year in the majors?
Hindsight is 20/20, they always say. But as the 2020 Cubs season gets underway, we don’t have the benefit of hindsight — foresight is the only option at the moment. So let’s play a game of 20 questions, tackling the most important topics surrounding this Cubs team entering the campaign.
First up: Will Nico Hoerner start the year in the majors?
If Nico Hoerner’s brief spell in the big leagues in 2019 was just a taste of what he can do, then Cubs fans have every right to be savoring the rest of the dish that is his major league career.
Just when they’ll get the rest of that meal is as big of a question for Cubs fans as is whether that small sample size was a fluke or a sign of things to come. He knows as much, too.
“[The MLB experience] was great, I feel like I went through the offseason not having to guess what it’s like in the major leagues,” Hoerner said. “Having a small sample size, but enough to know what I did well at that level and what I need to work on.”
However, Hoerner — who went 3-for-4 Tuesday — may start the season in Triple-A Iowa rather than with the big-league club. Keeping Hoerner with the Cubs could limit his growth if he sits on the bench behind the likes of Daniel Descalso, David Bote and offseason signee Jason Kipnis.
Neither Hoerner nor the Cubs benefit long-term by keeping the 2018 first round pick in the majors where his play might be limited to a couple of times a week, potentially hitting near the bottom of the order.
Hoerner, out of necessity as much as talent, joined the Cubs after the Double-A season had ended in September. He made an instant impression, going 3-for-5 with 4 RBI in his first game against the Padres. But Hoerner’s .282/.305/.436 slash line in 20 games doesn’t make him a lock to be on the big league roster when the Cubs line up against the Brewers in Milwaukee on March 26.
With Bote, Descalso and Kipnis vying for the second base job and Javy Báez locked in at shortstop, Hoerner is likely to debut in Triple-A.
There’s no denying Hoerner’s strong debut, but, as president of baseball operations Theo Epstein has often said, progress isn’t linear. His strong big league debut doesn’t make him a seasoned, finished product.
Hoerner had a 3.7-percent walk rate — nearly five points below the league average of 8.5-percent — and struggled hitting for power with just 5 extra base hits. None of those are major red flags, but some time in Triple-A could help him raise both numbers.
A strong performance with the Iowa Cubs could see him join the parent club in the summer. When he does join the big league team, Hoerner likely won’t have the pressure on him that he did in 2019. With Báez and Addison Russell injured, the Double-A prospect was forced to fill in at shortstop in the thick of a postseason race. He’ll have had some major league at-bats and a few months in Triple-A under his belt.
In 2017, Kyle Schwarber struggled in the big leagues adapting to hitting in the leadoff spot and the big expectations following a breakout World Series and was sent down to Triple-A to recover his form. It’s not a straight comparison for Hoerner who wouldn’t have the same levels of pressure, but starting Hoerner with the big league club while not having fully developed could cause a repeat of the Schwarber saga in 2017. The Cubs have the luxury of keeping Hoerner in Triple-A, maturing, developing and mastering weakness that could hinder him in the big leagues.
“The best baseball I’ve ever played in my life is when I’m focusing on long term and development,” Hoerner said. “I think that’s when I’ve learned the most and had the most fun and when I’ve helped the team win the most, too. I’m trying to maintain that.”
A few months in Iowa will be beneficial for Hoerner and the Cubs long-term. Keeping Hoerner in Iowa to develop could provide the Cubs the spark they need in the dog days of summer as they try to reclaim the NL Central crown for the first time since 2017.
As we approach the start of the regular season, read more on our “Foresight is 2020” series:
–Will Nico Hoerner start the year in the majors?
–How does Jason Kipnis fit into the Cubs mix?
–How will second base shake out?
–Will Jeremy Jeffress regain his 2018 dominance?
–Will Craig Kimbrel bounce back with a normal offseason/spring training?
–Who will emerge in Cubs bullpen?
–Can Kyle Schwarber put it all together after a huge second half?
–What role will Steven Souza Jr. have?
-Will somebody grab the everyday center field role?
-Can Willson Contreras maintain his 2019?