Why Nico Hoerner might be the ultimate X-factor for the Cubs this season

4 years agoTony Andracki

One moment in Monday night’s exhibition game could be a perfect snapshot of the 2020 season.

For the bottom of the 8th inning against the White Sox, Cubs manager David Ross moved Nico Hoerner from shortstop to center field. The rookie has mostly spent time as a middle infielder in his professional career, but he did start a game in center in St. Louis on the final weekend of last season and made 11 appearances out there in the minors.

It was only a half-inning and Hoerner didn’t make a play, but it was still an interesting maneuver, especially when Ross explained his reasoning after the game.

“With all the uncertainty with this season — you could lose anybody at any minute — moving guys around is gonna be important,” Ross said. “Nico is a piece that is comfortable at second, short and just a little bit of a depth piece at center if anything were to happen.

“And moving some guys around, there’s no telling somedays — you might lose a guy for an extended period of time or even just a day. We gotta be prepared for anything this season. We have a lot of flexibility on this roster and we got to take advantage of it, especially in a season like this.”

So if you’re keeping score at home — Hoerner is competing for regular at-bats at second base, is the top backup to Javy Báez at shortstop and now is in the mix in center field.

To be certain, Ross and the Cubs hope it never gets to that point. With Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. expected to spend a lot of time in center and Jason Heyward and Steven Souza Jr. able to slide over if needed, too, Hoerner is probably fifth or sixth on the depth chart at the position. But in a year where adversity can strike so swiftly, it’s obviously important to have backup plans in place.

[LISTEN: Why our Cubs Weekly panel is expecting big things from Nico Hoerner in 2020]

Regardless of where he plays, Hoerner could be primed for a key role on the 2020 Cubs. The 23-year-old turned heads last September when he was plucked off his couch and into a pennant race in Chicago.

While his 20-game stint was impressive, it wasn’t necessarily a surprise to those already in the Cubs organization.

When the Cubs selected Hoerner in the 1st round of 2018’s Draft, Ross was in the draft meeting serving as a special assistant in Theo Epstein’s front office.

“You heard the background, you heard the baseball IQ, you heard the comments from his college coach and how he thinks about the game,” Ross said. “Got to hang out with him a little bit when he was hurt and I was in town and he was in town seeing the docs and just talking baseball with him.

“I don’t think anybody’s surprised about the baseball IQ and how this guy thinks about the game. He’s smart, it’s thought out and he’s one of those guys that just loves to talk the game. So, not shocked at all.”

The Cubs have been raving about Hoerner’s intangibles and work ethic since that moment he was drafted two summers ago and as time goes on, he continues to reward that faith. He spent spring training in Arizona and this summer camp at Wrigley impressing his coaches with his preparation and trying to soak up all the knowledge he can from veterans like Jason Kipnis and Daniel Descalso.

Even with his extended time up in the majors and big-league camp, Hoerner said he still feels like a rookie. After all, he never even played a game in Triple-A, jumping from Double-A to Chicago last year.

“I was called up last year, but I really haven’t done anything at this level,” Hoerner said. “And I like that feeling. I don’t like feeling complacent or anything. I think the reason a lot of guys on our team are successful is they’ve kind of kept that growth mentality throughout their whole career.”

A big part of that growth will be his ability to adjust back to the league. It was only 82 plate appearances at the big-league level, but pitchers and opposing teams can adjust quickly on how they will want to attack Hoerner when he’s at the plate.

The Cubs are confident he will be up to the task thanks in large part to his innate contact ability. He struck out in only 10.5% of his plate appearances in Double-A last season and that number jumped only slightly (13.4%) in the majors.

The big question will be how hard he hits the ball when he does make contact. It’s been an area of focus since he joined the Cubs organization and he notched 5 extra-base hits in those 20 big-league games.

“Let’s face it — this guy was on the couch last year and competed for us down the stretch,” hitting coach Anthony Iapoce said. “It’s just incredible. I’m not really surprised by anything he’s probably going to do in this game, just because you get to work with him and listen to him and how he thinks about his practice and his work and how he’s able to discuss his at-bats without his emotions getting involved or being upset. That has a lot to do with how he plays the game.

“But yeah, he wants to be able to drive the ball, just like everybody else. You want to keep improving your game year after year. So I think the things he’s working on are his strengths and how to maximize his strengths. Your weaknesses and your deficiencies are gonna be around the longer he plays and people try to figure him out, so he’s constantly trying to combat that. It’s pretty cool.”

Even if Hoerner doesn’t suddenly become a big-time power hitter, his offensive style is still a nice boost to help diversify the lineup. The Cubs ranked last in Major League Baseball in contact percentage (73.8%) in 2019 and Hoerner’s ability to put the bat on the ball and use the whole field is a welcome addition.

Especially when he can play several different positions and inspire confidence at each spot with his glove.

“Yeah, I like guys that don’t strike out,” Ross said. “There’s another flip side to the contact coin – weak contact’s not always great when you just put the ball in play softly. We want guys driving the baseball, which Nico does.

“He’s got a great approach. He’s continuing to develop. He’s only going to get better with that skill set. Yeah, he brings a lot to the table for us, especially on the defensive side. He looks good at second base, he gives us depth at shortstop.”

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