Nico Hoerner Might Just Be Fix Cubs Have Been Searching For

NI-CO! NI-CO! NI-CO!

Yes, I know it’s just one game and that several people will likely shake their fists and remind me of how dumb I am before reading any of this. But hear me out: Nico Hoerner might be the perfect player to fix a Cubs offense that’s been broken for the last two years. Hey, stop laughing, I’m serious.

It sounds more than a little corny, particularly in light of the focus today’s game places on statistics, but Hoerner has that unquantifiable “It” factor you see in a certain few players. He’s like Javy Báez, just a different version. There are some people who are able to adapt to each new challenge seemingly without breaking a sweat, as if they’re water being poured into a new vessel.

Seeing that quality in Hoerner is a big part of what spurred the Cubs to choose him No. 24 overall despite most draft boards ranking him much lower. It’s what had the shortstop pounding as many home runs in limited professional action as he had in a whole season at Stanford and what made him the talk of the Arizona Fall League.

NI-CO! NI-CO! NI-CO!

I had to good fortune to be in South Bend for Hoerner’s second professional dinger, a blast to left-center that made me realize the kid had more pop than his college numbers showed. That’s something the Cubs have sought to bring out of him, though not by completely overhauling his swing or trying to make him a different hitter. And since he’s been able to maintain more or less the same approach, his developmental trajectory has remained very steep.

That included skipping High-A Myrtle Beach entirely, a possibility that saddened the Pelicans folks when I predicted it during our work together at Cubs Convention this past January. In speaking with broadcaster Zach Bigley, I mentioned the distinct possibility that Hoerner would be assigned to Double-A Tennessee, the eventual news of which Cubs Insider was able to break a couple months later.

His jump to Tennessee was predicated by a breakout performance at big-league camp that saw him bat .471 with a 1.609 OPS and six extra-base hits in limited action. Though Hoerner racked up fewer than 20 plate appearances with the Cubs in Mesa, he impressed everyone by stepping in and acting like he belonged right from the start.

NI-CO! NI-CO! NI-CO!

So of course he stepped into Double-A ball, the level at which teams typically house their best collection of raw talent, and raked. Well, as long as you consider hitting .300 with an .891 OPS raking. That performance, and seemingly his shot at The Show, was cut short by a fractured wrist suffered when he was hit by a pitch on April 23.

Hoerner came out strong after more than two months off, cracking a homer in his second game back with the Smokies, but had dipped to a .252 average three weeks later. Wrist injuries can be really tricky for any hitter, especially for a guy like with such a whip-crack swing. But then he started to settle back into a groove, improving his average by 32 points over the final five weeks of the season.

As impressive as that is in a vacuum, you could point to Hoerner hitting just six doubles and one homer in that span and call him a slap hitter. That’s the big knock on him from box-score scouts far and wide who don’t think he can hit the ball with enough authority to make it in the bigs. But those folks don’t see how flies around the bases, how he adjusts to pitchers and puts the ball where it needs to go. They’ll all learn soon enough, though.

NI-CO! NI-CO! NI-CO!

Hoerner’s MLB debut, the first for any member of the 2018 draft class, really wasn’t supposed to happen. Even though a change in his positional deployment back in July strongly suggested a potential promotion, the Cubs probably would have preferred for him to be out in Mesa prepping for another AFL campaign. But then Javy went down. And Addison Russell got hit in the face with a pitch. And Dixon Machado got hurt. And Zack Short didn’t really seem ready after floundering down the stretch in Iowa.

So the Cubs turned to Hoerner, who is a little like Ben Zobrist in that he just goes out there and plays his game without trying to be something bigger or better or different to fit a mold. That approach is what allowed Zobrist to step right back into the leadoff role and excel despite four months away and it’s what has helped Hoerner to excel regardless of the level of competition he’s facing.

If you’re expecting something like Aristides Aquino or Yordan Alvarez or Pete Alonso from the Cubs rookie, you are going to be sorely disappointed. But the Cubs’ roster is already stocked with plenty of guys who can mash, to the point where it’s become a detriment. What they’ve lacked over the last couple seasons is a speedy contact hitter who can beat out the back end of a double play and later score from third on a wild pitch.

They need a heads-up defensive player who understands where to go with the ball and can maintain a level head in high-pressure situations. They need a player who remains consistent and who can contribute even when his bat might be going through a cold stretch. They need Nico Hoerner.

The Cubs fans outnumbering the home crowd in San Diego sure needed Hoerner, as evidenced by the loud chanting of his name that accompanied each of his three hits Monday night.

“That was probably the most unexpected part of today,” Hoerner said afterwards. “On the baseball side of it, I thought it was solid. That part of it, obviously, is otherwordly. That’s not something you get in every organization, regardless of how well you play.”

Just how long those boisterous cheers continue and how much of an impact Hoerner can have down the stretch remains to be seen, but it’s not at all out of the question to believe he can be a dude for the Cubs. A lot of people are going to clutch their pearls and wring their hands while fretting over the idea that the young man is being rushed, that the Cubs will ruin his future by bringing him up so quickly.

But I gotta tell you, friends, I think this kid would have been perfectly fine had the Cubs called him up on June 5 last year. I think you could pit him against Max Scherzer and watch him strike out five times and he’ll be right back in there the next day getting knocks against Stephen Strasburg. And I think he could break camp as the everyday second baseman next season, making the Cubs a better all-around team as a result.

Of course, the chances may be just as good that Hoerner opens up at Triple-A Iowa in 2020 to make sure he racks up that perfect number of plate appearances to ensure he’s a fully developed ballplayer by the time he comes up for good. Except that such a number is a myth and will vary by player and situation. Honestly, I’m not convinced another 50 or 500 at-bats at Triple-A will make Hoerner a better ballplayer.

But I am convinced that getting him 500 at-bats in Chicago will make the Cubs a better team. Now let’s see how he does in his second game.

NI-CO! NI-CO! NI-CO!

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Evan Altman

Evan Altman is the EIC and co-founder of Cubs Insider and has proclaimed himself Central Indiana's foremost Cubs authority. He is a husband, father, homebrewer, and award-winning blogger with entirely too much pop culture knowledge. Evan's greatest accomplishments include scoring 400 points in Magic Johnson's Fast Break, naming all 10 members of the Wu-Tang Clan in under 3.5 seconds, and winning the Meese Literary Award at Hanover College.

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