Cubs Believe Nico Hoerner Has Skills to Bat Leadoff, Maybe Even Play Center

Nico Hoerner was never supposed to have joined the Cubs in 2019, but a series of injuries forced the organization’s hand and resulted in him becoming the first player from the 2018 draft to make his MLB debut. He was relaxing after what should have been his first full professional season, preparing for another run at the Arizona Fall League to make up for time lost to a hairline fracture in his left wrist, when he got the call.

And, boy howdy, did he ever run with the unlikely opportunity. Despite racking up just 375 plate appearances over 89 total minor league games, Hoerner stepped right into the starting lineup in Chicago and held his own like a far more seasoned player. His three homers in 82 plate appearances with the Cubs matched what he’d done in Double-A Tennessee over nearly four times as many tries and all the while he just seemed unfazed by the whole thing.

Calling Hoerner’s selection an “outside-the-box pick by industry standards,” senior director of player development Matt Dorey said the Cubs were so convinced of the Stanford star’s makeup that they felt he was as close to a sure thing as possible. They believe his attitude will allow him to make the most of a contact-based offensive profile that was exactly what the system needed.

“Honestly, I just look at the skillset,” Dorey said. “This is really from how we evaluated him in the draft, and just knowing that he has the requisite skills to be able to hit at the top of the lineup, get on base, disrupt the flow the game with his legs.

“I think he has the chance to develop into that type of player, whether that happens this year or next year…I think he has the skillset to be able to [bat leadoff].”

There were, however, some aspects of Hoerner’s performance that more discerning eyes found mildly concerning. While his 13.4% strikeout rate was indicative of the type of high-contact bat the Cubs have long sought to balance out their lineup, his 3.7% walk rate was well below expectations and cast doubt on his on-base abilities. That was actually by design, at least to an extent, and the organization still believes he has all the tools to fill that elusive leadoff spot.

“He knew that the league didn’t know him, and he wanted to try to get off his “A” swing as soon as he could early in an at-bat as the league was trying to figure him out,” Dorey explained. “Maybe they were trying to steal a strike and he didn’t want to get in a position to try to battle with two strikes. Essentially with literally no upper-level minor league experience, either.

“I think a big part of his development plan moving forward will be his, I don’t want to say his plate discipline, but making better decisions and having the ability and comfort to grind out at-bats with two strikes. I think that’s what we’ll evaluate in spring training and make Nico hyper aware of that.”

Though Dorey offered nothing definitive when it came to Hoerner’s assignment to open the season, it sounds as though the most likely choice is for him to be in the minors again. Even if his makeup and talent check all the boxes for the Cubs, experience is a huge part of development. More specifically, it’s important to be able to work on honing the requisite skills in an environment that can best foster their growth.

There’s also the matter of Hoerner’s position, and we’re not just talking about the middle infield. The Cubs are seeking an answer in center field, so much so that they’ve reportedly discussed shifting Kris Bryant out there. David Bote needs a place to play, as does Daniel Descalso, but neither of them is going to see time in center. Depending on how things break, Hoerner could eventually end up being a panacea capable meeting all the team’s biggest needs.

“On paper he definitely runs enough, throws enough, his baseball instincts are off the charts,” Dorey said of Hoerner playing center. “We toyed around with it last year and all the feedback and reports were really positive, but we just haven’t had enough of a sample to really evaluate that.

“I think athletically he could do it, but it’s also repetition and having the ability to play there back-to-back days, every couple days. Learning the swing and different tendencies, how the ball comes off; those are all things that take a lot of time to develop. I think we’ll expose him to some of that again moving forward, helps to increase his versatility.”

If nothing else, this is all very fun to project from a fan perspective. Dorey was careful to temper expectations and avoid anything concrete, but it’s obvious that the organization is completely smitten with Hoerner. To that end, you have to believe they’d love nothing more than for him to take advantage of his skills as their everyday leadoff hitter. Jed Hoyer admitted Saturday that they’re perplexed by the inability to find anyone who can succeed consistently in the role, so having it be a homegrown prospect would be extra satisfying.

At the same time, the Cubs want to make absolutely certain Hoerner is ready before trying him there in Chicago. That could mean spending more time in Tennessee or Iowa to work on his approach and maybe play more outfield as well. Or it could be that Hoerner will still be up in Chicago, but batting in the bottom third of the order alleviate the worst of the pressure that comes with the leadoff spot.

There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that Hoerner will be an impact player for the Cubs in the very near future, it’s just a matter of when and where.

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