Even if they don’t end getting a cute portmanteau nickname to cement their bond, Jason Kipnis and Nico Hoerner appear to be forming the early foundations of a mutual admiration society. The irony is that said duo may only be together for the next few weeks, engaged as they are in a competition that isn’t likely to see both emerge as members of the active roster when camp breaks. Heck, it’s entirely possible that neither heads to Milwaukee for Opening Day.
In his early predictions for the 26-man roster, MLB.com’s Cubs beat writer Jordan Bastian refused to commit to any locks at second base. He did, however, list David Bote and Daniel Descalso as locks for utility roles. Ian Happ looks like a shoo-in for an outfield spot, but his refusal to give up on a dream to play second means the keystone depth is not in question. That might actually work in Kipnis’s favor, since the lefty-batting veteran could be used in more of a platoon role.
While Hoerner impressed during his brief debut last season, playing sporadically isn’t really going to help his development. Even with the added value of providing insurance at shortstop, something Zack Short also offers at Triple-A, Javy Báez isn’t giving way for unless he suffers [redacted due to superstition]. With the Cubs challenging Hoerner to fine-tune his plate approach, anything short of a mind-blowing spring could well see him building up his resume in the minors.
Under different circumstances with more selfish participants, the second base battle could turn a little frosty as everyone tries to get a leg up. Kipnis isn’t that kind of person, though, and he told Bastian that he plans to take Hoerner under his wing rather than giving him the cold shoulder.
“I’ll get to know him,” Kipnis told Bastian. “I know he came up and had pretty good success. So, I think he’s going to be a competition, but at the same time, I’m not going to try to put him down. I’d like to work with him and kind of teach him what I know, too, and hopefully, both of us become better from it.”
That might sound like lip service coming from another player, but Kipnis is highly regarded around the sport and is legitimately interested in helping Hoerner and his other teammates. When he talked about the Cubs checking a lot of boxes as he was weighing options this winter, it was about more than just personal opportunity. In addition to valuing the chance at a homecoming of sorts, the Northbrook native surely knew competition would be stiff.
Oh man, I almost stumbled into an iron-sharpens-iron cliché there. Avoided it by the hair of Kipnis’s chinny-chin-chin, which is actually a pretty wide margin when you think about it. Anyway, the elder statesman isn’t the only one who’s jazzed about the chance to ride the wave of the rising tide.
“That’s amazing. I really appreciate that,” Hoerner responded when told of the veteran’s offer. “At the end of the day, we’re all in this together and it’s toward the same goal. So, hopefully, we can help each other in that way. And when you do have other people that are competing for the same thing, I think that elevates everybody.”
Despite its friendly nature, the battle for the starting second base gig — not to mention the last spot or two on the roster — could be fierce. What it lacks in acrimony it’ll make up for in action, or at least that’s what the Cubs are hoping. You have to think they would prefer to have Kipnis play at a level resembling his prime so they can better justify sending Hoerner down, though the more general goal is to have someone step up and legitimately win the job.
The last thing anyone needs is some sort of muddled jumble from which the Cubs have to pluck a victor by default. Rather than fret about that possibility, which is relatively slim at this point, let’s just enjoy the prospect of watching Jasco Hoernis vying to become Javy’s double-play partner. Or hey, maybe Descalso will run away with it instead.