Nico Hoerner wouldn’t have been up with the Cubs in 2019 had it not been for a string of injuries to multiple players ahead of him on the organizational depth chart, but he ended up hitting .282 with three homers in 82 plate appearances. He then seemed destined to open the 2020 season in the minors, but the abbreviated season changed those plans and he ended up as a Gold Glove finalist at second base.
Now Hoerner is in Mesa sporting a longer ‘do and what appears to be a few more pounds of muscle as he works toward earning the keystone gig again. Many have felt from the start that the job is Hoerner’s to lose, something that was reinforced by the club’s inability or unwillingness to add a lefty-batting veteran infielder ahead of spring training.
Nico Hoerner prepares a swing, David Bote looks on and Willson Contreras readies for a pitch from Adbert Alzolay's live BP session in Mesa today. pic.twitter.com/nJhG5kpF4S
— Jordan Bastian (@MLBastian) February 22, 2021
Perhaps Jed Hoyer realized he’s already got Hoerner’s perfect platoon complement in David Bote, who has actually hit righties much better than lefties over the course of his career. Bote posted an .801 OPS and 115 wRC+ against right-handed pitchers in 2020, boosting his career averages to .772 and 105, respectively. Of course, the preponderance of righty pitchers overall and in the NL Central means Bote would probably make more sense as the everyday option.
That becomes more clear when you consider that the Cubs also have switch-hitting Ildemaro Vargas, who boasts a career .789 OPS with a 98 wRC+ against lefties. A Bote/Vargas split would provide solid performance at the plate and in the field while also giving David Ross a great deal of positional versatility.
More importantly, it would give the Cubs a chance to let Hoerner come into his own from an offensive standpoint by getting more time to work on his approach in the minors. We have all heard before that development is not linear, meaning there’s no set formula for how quickly a player should be at a certain level. There are also plenty of situations in which teams have held players back simply to gain additional contractual control, like with Kris Bryant or the more recent situation regarding Jarred Kelenic, which, among other unsavory comments, led to the resignation of Mariners president and CEO Kevin Mather.
All that said, Hoerner had neither the lengthy history nor the obvious production in the minors that should be forcing the Cubs’ hand. Below is a list of the last several position players the Cubs have chosen in the first round prior to 2020, all of whom other than Hoerner were chosen no lower than ninth overall. While 15 or so draft slots should not factor in the organization’s decisions, just take a look at each player’s experience prior to his MLB debut.
- Javy Báez: 319 games, 1,216 PAs
- Albert Almora Jr.: 300, 1,288 PAs
- Kris Bryant: 181 games, 773 PAs
- Kyle Schwarber: 130 games, 554 PAs
- Ian Happ: 227 games, 978 PAs
- Nico Hoerner: 89 games, 375 PAs
Hoerner played in 41 fewer games and got 179 fewer plate appearances than Schwarber, the next-fastest promotion, but it’s more than just that. Schwarber came up for a week during his transition from Double-A to Triple-A at a time when the Cubs had an interleague swing that allowed them to use the DH. He then went to Iowa for about a month before being brought back up.
The slugger was also demoted for a time in 2017 when his production flagged, which is another common trend with the players listed above. Other than Bryant, all the players listed were sent back to the minors at least once to continue working on their offensive game. Well, Hoerner is the other exception, which is the whole point here. It’s going to be very difficult, if not impossible, for him to make the necessary improvements while playing regularly in Chicago.
Hoerner walked at a 9.5% clip last year, well more than double his mark from 2019, and kept his strikeout rate below 20% while lowering his swinging-strike rate. His exit velocity and hard-hit percentage went up as well. Wait, I thought this piece was presenting an argument for sending him back down. Ah yes, about that…
Despite several improvements, Hoerner’s wOBA dropped 40 points to .265 and his 63 wRC+ tells us he was 37% worse than the average hitter. That comes from hitting no homers and posting a .037 ISO, the second-lowest mark among 267 players with at least 120 plate appearances in the short season. As foolish as it would be to lean too heavily on the aberrant 2020 campaign, the complete lack of pop is at least mildly concerning.
Now it’s just a matter of seeing what Hoerner’s able to do in the spring, specifically whether the apparent added bulk leads to more power. That appears to have been the case in the very early going, though a similar attempt to beef up didn’t work out so well for Almora a few years back.
Nico Hoerner showing off some impressive pop during BP this morning.
He nearly hit one to the highway, off the top of the net by that pole on the far right. Next round, he hit one over the net and then cleared the scoreboard in left-center. pic.twitter.com/hKOz6PRngh
— Tony Andracki (@TonyAndracki23) February 21, 2021
It’s entirely possible given his athleticism and acumen that Hoerner can overcome his relative lack of experience and become an impact everyday player. All things considered, though, I think I’d rather be Ildemaro than sick for years thinking about how Hoerner may have been unnecessarily rushed through the development process.