The Cubs built a world championship roster largely by drafting and developing position players, several of whom breezed quickly though the system en route to Chicago. That strategy continued with Nico Hoerner, the No. 24 overall pick in the 2018 draft. An athletic shortstop who can play all over the infield, Hoerner differed a bit from the Cubs’ previous top picks in that he didn’t display a lot of pop in college.
With only two homers in 232 at-bats (none in his last 181 ABs) during his final season at Stanford, many anticipated a defense-first slap-hitter. But Hoerner’s built more solidly than you might expect, and he’s got more pop in that bat than his college numbers indicate, something the Cubs may have felt they could leverage. To wit, he popped two homers in just 49 at-bats as a professional this summer.
I was lucky enough to be on hand for the second of those, which came in the last game Hoerner played for the South Bend Cubs before being shut down with an elbow injury. For the sake of reference, it’s 405 feet to the wall out there in center and he cleared it pretty easily.
Hoerner is now back in action and looking to make an impression as one of nine Cubs prospects playing for the Mesa Solar Sox in the Arizona Fall League. He went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts in his first game, but the Cubs are confident that bigger things await the 21-year-old.
“He’ll just get in the lineup and try to catch up on some at-bats and be challenged by some better pitching,” Cubs player development director Jaron Madison told MLB.com’s Carrie Muskat. “It should be fun for him and a good experience. The only other guy we sent to the Fall League in his first year was Kris Bryant, and he ended up turning into a pretty good player.”
Madison isn’t saying that Hoerner is anything like Bryant as a player, mind you, but it’s high praise to be mentioned in the same breath as a guy who was a surefire superstar from the jump. Just feeling strongly enough about Hoerner’s makeup to throw him into the AFL right away against stronger competition is a sign of what the Cubs feel he could be.
At least as much as his physical tools, the mental side of Hoerner’s game has drawn rave reviews.
“Nico has a special makeup, he’s a special kid and presence and leader,” Madison continued. “I only got a chance to spend a couple days with him when we did our rookie orientation, but he really stands out as a leader and a guy who is going to be an impact player in the clubhouse and on the field. He’s going to be fun to watch. I think this Fall League will be a fun challenge for him.”
Presence. Leader. Fun. More than just platitudes, these are hallmarks of the kind of individual who can deal with the rigors of professional baseball and come through them stronger as a result. All the talent in the world means little if a player isn’t willing to work or able to overcome mental hurdles.
“He’s a humble kid,” Madison said. “He’s confident but not cocky by any means, and he wants to get better and wants to learn and understands he has work to do and wants to continue to grind away at it. It’s a special package.”
Just how quickly Hoerner moves through the system from here will be a matter of how he’s able to adjust and perform, not to mention what’s happening in Chicago. Our Todd Johnson believes a scenario exists in which the shortstop could see time with the Cubs in 2019, though that would require a perfect storm of events.
At the very least, a strong showing in the AFL and/or in spring training should see Hoerner at AA Tennessee to open the season. Will his power continue to manifest as he faces tougher pitching at higher levels? Will he remain at short or flip to the other side of the middle infield? I don’t have the answers, I just know that I’m really excited to see what the young man can do.