How Cubs envision Nico Hoerner fitting into the 2021 puzzle
Much of the talk surrounding the Cubs this offseason has been centered around the end of the road with the World Series-winning core.
But president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer is also focused on building that next core of players to contend for a championship and Nico Hoerner is a central part of that group.
The 2018 1st-round pick is no longer a rookie, but he still has only 68 MLB games under his belt. Over that time, he’s proven he can be a good defender and baserunner at the big-league level and while his offense hasn’t completely come around, he’s still flashed his potential.
Hoerner will be 24 in May and has already started games at second base, shortstop, third base and center field throughout his big-league career. That versatility gives the Cubs options as they build their roster for 2021 and beyond.
“We’ll probably continue to work on his versatility,” Hoyer said. “I think he absolutely could be an everyday player at one position in the big leagues, but I also think at his age and given our roster, it makes sense to continue to encourage that.
“Joe [Maddon] started that culture with us and I think it makes a lot of sense. Kris Bryant won an MVP moving around the diamond and playing different spots and that’s how Javy [Báez] broke in. There’s nothing wrong with that.
“I don’t think you get labeled as a ‘utility guy.’ It gives you a better chance to get in the lineup. It probably makes you a more productive player and eventually you settle into one place. I love the fact that [Hoerner] is so versatile and I love the fact he’s so willing to do it.”
Hoerner only has 14 MLB innings in center field under his belt and 91 innings in the minors. But with the offseason roughly halfway over, the Cubs currently have only Ian Happ and Jason Heyward as full-time outfielders. Hoyer said they are “intrigued” by Hoerner’s ability in center though the plan is for him to focus mostly on infield.
At Stanford, Hoerner was exclusively an infielder, starting out as the team’s regular second baseman before spending the final two seasons as the shortstop. The fact he’s confident enough in his ability to give the outfield a shot while also trying to develop and adjust as a big-league player speaks to the intangibles and baseball instincts that the Cubs have been so high on since selecting Hoerner 24th overall in 2018.
Hoerner was the first player from that summer’s draft to make the majors, pressed into action mid-September in 2019 as the Cubs lost both Báez and Addison Russell to injuries and needed a shortstop. Hoerner was sitting at home in California after the minor-league season had wrapped up when he got the call and was dropped right in the midst of a heated pennant race.
He responded by collecting 3 hits and driving in 4 runs in his MLB debut on Sept. 9 in San Diego and was a spark for the Cubs that month with 17 RBI, a .282 batting average and .741 OPS in 20 games.
Last season, he began the year splitting time with and learning from veteran second baseman Jason Kipnis. But he also served as Báez’s backup at shortstop and even filled in for Bryant at third base — a position he had not had not really played since Little League. For good measure, Hoerner also got a start in center field.
All that moving around didn’t have any negative effect on Hoerner’s defense as he finished as a finalist for the National League Gold Glove award at second base and notched 5 Defensive Runs Saved at his main position throughout 2020.
Offensively, Hoerner and the Cubs are working on driving the ball and adding a bit more power to his swing, but the fit in the lineup is already apparent. As Hoyer’s front office works to diversify the Cubs offense and cut down on strikeouts, Hoerner is an internal solution to help address that issue. He led the 2020 team with an 82.9% contact rate and was second to only Anthony Rizzo in strikeout percentage (19%).
Hoerner also increased his walk rate in a major way, jumping from 3.7% in 2019 to 9.5% last year. And he squared up more balls last year (37.2% hard-hit percentage) compared to his 2019 cup of coffee (23.5%), though he hit into some tough luck in 2020.
Look no further than a pair of games late in the season against the Brewers. Facing Josh Hader — one of the top relievers in the game — Hoerner crushed a 103.8 mph lineout in the first meeting and then battled Hader to a 13-pitch at-bat two games later before lining out again (this time at 100.4 mph).
Between the offensive potential, versatility, intangibles and defensive ability, it paints the picture of an ascending young player who is an integral part of the Cubs’ future.
“The great thing about Nico is however the roster is shaped, he provides a lot of flexibility,” David Ross said. “His willingness to grow and attack any position and his baseball IQ makes it really easy to have the conversation of, ‘I need you to bounce around’ or, ‘I need you to lock in at short’ or whatever the case may be.
“It’s easy with a guy like that because there is a lot of flexibility there, there’s a willingness to learn and he’s a good baseball player.”