Time to Review Those Breathless Early Reviews of Nico Hoerner

He’s only played 34 games as a pro, but Cubs 2018 first-round draft pick Nico Hoerner has already garnered a great deal of ink. If you haven’t heard, he’s slashed .323/.390/.518 across four different levels of the organization in that time. So if we project those numbers out over the next twenty years using a traditional Jamesian cross-regression trend equation, we…

No, no, we won’t be doing that. As usual though, statistics can dance many ways. Don’t get me wrong, one always takes positive news over negative, but all that Arizona Fall League coverage neglected to note Hoerner’s .825 OPS there doesn’t even rank in the top 20 out of 67 qualified AFL hitters.

Hoerner may be tearing up his current league, but so are dozens of other hitters. So what do Hoerner’s numbers augur outside the thin, dry Arizona clime? Your guess is as good as mine, but I like reminding myself Hoerner was just a No. 24 overall pick, not ninth like Javier Baez or 11th like Addison Russell. As with most prospects, only time will tell.

One great aspect of evaluating Hoerner in this modern age of cameras everywhere is we can actually see dozens of his first professional plate appearances online. Having followed most of this posted hitting footage, I will share my mildly contrarian report: I like Hoerner’s plate makeup, but I’m not as over the top as others.

What I see is good balance and the ability to turn on pitches center-in. This isn’t surprising for a first-round pick, though one less typical aspect is how he makes good hand adjustments that allow for solid inside contact without full extension of his arms.

Balls on the outer third, however, are a different story. I have seen Hoerner nicely handle a couple outside pitches, but most pitches away – especially those with movement – do give him problems. Again, not unusual for a young hitter. It does, however, serve as a reminder of how premature it is to project when we might see him at Wrigley. After all, No. 6 overall draft pick Albert Almora Jr. took four years (though he also had no college experience), and fast-track talk swirled after Brett Jackson produced a .906 OPS in his first 53 pro games in 2009.

To quote Mike Tyson, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Same goes for first-round draft picks. We generally learn more once they experience that first big slump. So in this regard, I do like that Hoerner didn’t immediately excel offensively at Stanford. As a freshman starter, he slashed just .254/.298/.311 and his OPS didn’t top .800 OPS until his junior year. This suggests some fortitude.

In terms of his defense, my review is not as hopeful. Unless Ryan Theriot is your benchmark, Hoerner won’t stick at shortstop. Even with momentum behind him, his throws to first tend to have a hump on them. At second base, I have no sense what his range would be, but if his bat plays, he’s certainly athletic enough to be at least more than solid there.

So why isn’t he already playing second? It’s a good question, but Theo Epstein has a penchant for this. Remember those days with Starlin Castro, Javier Baez, Addison Russell, Arismendy Alcantara, and a very young Gleyber Torres all playing short for the Cubs at different levels? When he was still with the Red Sox back in 2004, Epstein drafted Dustin Pedroia, who started all three years at second base with Arizona State. Pedroia then played two-thirds of his minor league games at shortstop before promoted to Boston to play second for the rest of his career.

The reason for this is to maximize trade value if an organization needs to move the prospect. Is that in mind for Hoerner? Well, predicting prospect trades is even more perilous than predicting development. That said, I’m certainly in the camp that a bird in hand is always better than two in the bush (leagues), especially in a championship window.

I know, Cubs fans invest time in these prospects and hate to see any traded. But one also needs to have their priorities clearly defined. For instance, unlike when the Cubs won the World Series, who remembers where they were when the Cubs drafted Hoerner?

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