Nico Hoerner is already in Mesa to get an early start on the season, but he’s well aware that he may not start the season in Chicago early. Some of that is the Cubs’ continuing interest in a group of veteran second basemen that includes Scooter Gennett and Jason Kipnis, more is understanding that the team wants him to work on a few skills that may require further fine-tuning in the minors.
“I think my perspective as a player is more long term in development,” Hoerner told the Tribune’s Mark Gonzales following a voluntary workout at the Cubs’ facilities. “I want to be on the opening-day roster and be that guy, but I don’t think it helps me that much as a player to make that short-term goal because there are so many factors outside of what I can control. So I’ll keep that development (theme) and I think I’ll give myself a good chance that way.”
That all sounds like a young man who’s got his head screwed on straight and has things in proper perspective, which is no surprise given everything we’ve ever heard from and about Hoerner. It was his makeup almost as much as his talent that spurred the Cubs to make what some saw as a reach to take him in the first round of the 2018 draft. But with all due respect for self-awareness, these comments are almost certainly a product of what the Cubs have shared with him about his development plan.
“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,” Cubs senior director of player development Matt Dorey shared at Cubs Convention. “I think that’s what we’ll evaluate in spring training and make Nico hyper aware of that.”
As enticing a possibility as it would be to have the top prospect back on the roster right out of the gate, it’s important to remember that his professional career consists of 457 total plate appearances. A vast majority of those, 294 to be exact, came during a Double-A campaign that was interrupted by a fractured wrist suffered when he was hit by a pitch just three weeks into the season.
He made his way back by early July and showed little sign of rust over the last three months, popping a pair of homers and maintaining his high-contact approach. The plan at the time was for Hoerner to make up for his lost experience by heading back to the Arizona Fall League, but things shifted dramatically when a series of injuries to other players resulted in his emergency promotion to Chicago for the last few weeks of the major league season.
Knowing pitchers weren’t familiar with him and unwilling to give them the opportunity to become so, Hoerner got uber-aggressive with his “A hack” and ended up hitting three dingers in 82 plate appearances. The power wasn’t entirely unexpected because of his strategy and the way the Cubs have worked with him since he was drafted, but it came at the expense of his on-base percentage. Being up on a more permanent basis, especially if he’s at the top of the order, means grinding out deep counts and battling with two strikes, something the Cubs want to make absolutely certain Hoerner can do.
That could mean spending some time at Triple-A Iowa building his resume and confidence against pitchers a step or two below those in the bigs. Hence the Cubs keeping an eye on veteran keystone depth in addition to several internal options already on the roster, though you may have noticed they’re not exactly blowing anyone away with big offers. Just like their offseason strategy in general, it doesn’t seem as though they quite know which direction to take just yet.
Hoerner’s performance in Mesa could well push the organization one way or the other, though such clarity is far from assured. The only certainty is that he is going to keep his head down and keep working in the meantime.
“I try to stay away from all that stuff,” Hoerner said of the Cubs’ pursuit of upgrades. “They’re going to do what they feel gives them the best chance to help the team win, and I’m going to do the same, and hopefully they’ll line up.”