‘Nico’s coming’: Is this the year Hoerner makes the leap to become Cubs’ next homegrown star?
MESA, Ariz. — David Ross was in the midst of an in-game interview on Marquee Sports Network Tuesday afternoon when Nico Hoerner’s impact flashed across the screen clear as day.
Boog Sciambi had just asked Ross about new reliever Jonathan Holder and the Cubs manager began his answer as the right-hander induced a ground ball to the right side. Playing second base, Hoerner ranged into shallow right field, gloved the ball and fired to first to end the 3rd inning.
“We’re gonna play great defense behind him, like that play right there,” Ross said as he watched it in real time.
Hoerner made it look easy, but it’s those types of plays that will have a profound effect on a Cubs pitching staff that will pitch to contact in 2021.
Hoerner also impressed at the plate in the Cubs’ second Cactus League game. His first time up, he fought off a couple tough two-strike pitches before lacing a double into the gap in left-center. A few innings later, he once again battled with two strikes and lined a shot to the right side for his second hit of the afternoon.
Sure, it’s an exhibition game and the stats don’t count, but that’s exactly the type of debut performance Hoerner could have hoped for this spring as he attempts to claim the Cubs’ everyday second base job. The team is sorting through its options at the position with the promising young player going up against David Bote and Ildemaro Vargas plus the reported new addition of Eric Sogard (pending a physical).
Hoerner, 23, is a big part of the Cubs’ future. When addressing the second base competition early in camp, Ross said: “Nico’s coming.” The question becomes whether he’ll arrive for the everyday job on Opening Day 2021 or some other time down the road.
Hoerner’s journey has been unorthodox, as he’s played almost as many games in the big leagues (68) as the minors (89). The 2018 1st-round pick (24th overall) skipped the Triple-A level altogether, ending the 2019 minor-league season with Double-A Tennessee before being plucked off his couch at home to help the Cubs in the middle of a pennant race.
Last season, he split time at second base with veteran Jason Kipnis and finished as a finalist for National League Gold Glove honors at the position. His offense didn’t quite live up to expectations as he hit .222 with a .571 OPS and only 4 extra-base hits (all doubles) in 126 plate appearances.
In a normal 2020, Hoerner might have started the year in Iowa to get more seasoning but once the truncated season started, it was clear he could help the team win on the field.
This year, the Cubs are expecting to play a full season and the team has to weigh what’s best for Hoerner: Head to the minor leagues to play every day and continue to develop (once the Triple-A schedule begins in May) or stay in Chicago where he’ll be fighting for playing time each game.
“I think that’s an ongoing conversation. He’ll show us if he’s ready,” Ross said. “We try to take the information, the performance, the person, the roster — there’s a lot more that goes into it. Some of it is in Nico’s control and some of it isn’t, to be honest. We’ll take those things day-to-day.
“He’s out there competing for a job. He knows that. He’s well aware of that. And that’s how he’s going about his business. I’ve seen nothing but this kid coming in here, trying to win a job, as he should. His job is to make it as tough on me and Jed [Hoyer] and our group as possible to put him in the lineup.”
In an effort to take the next step in his development, Hoerner stayed in Chicago all winter to work out at Wrigley Field. He added muscle with Cubs strength coach Shane Wallen and made adjustments to his swing with assistant hitting coach Chris Valaika.
“We looked at this past year and years before it and times I’ve had success and times I’ve struggled and just looking at it in a broader lens,” Hoerner said in an interview on Cubs 360 last week. “It was nice working with [Valaika] — it was always a two-way street. A great conversation and got some help from the analytics side, too. Really nice working with someone where it’s a constant dialogue and not just direction one way or the other.
“[I’m] a little bit more open with the stance. I’d say the biggest theme is being more athletic, using my athleticism, being a dangerous, dynamic player and giving myself a chance to drive the ball every chance I can. I’m in a good spot.”
After developing so many homegrown position players in recent years, the Cubs hope Hoerner can become the team’s next breakout star. But the key factor on that journey is taking a step forward in the batter’s box.
“For me, I think it’s offensively,” Ross said. “Who he is for us is the ideal baseball player in some respects. His mentality, his work ethic, how he sees the game, his defensive skillsets, his ability to move all around the diamond and play different positions. Nico’s just continued to work on developing.
“Seeing live pitching, seeing major-league pitching — continue to get better, work on your strengths and weaknesses in that area. You can say that about a lot of guys, but I think that’s a development process. Nico put a lot of work in this offseason and just has to go out and execute his plan.”
For a player with only 157 professional games under his belt, the Cubs believe Hoerner can make the necessary adjustments at the big-league level.
“If you’re around this guy for two seconds,” Ross said, “you understand he can handle whatever you’re going to throw at him.”