The dark cloud that had been hanging over the Cubs throughout most of the season started to break up once the trade deadline passed, and now you can actually see the sun starting to shine through. Sure, there are still a few puddles here and there, but wait…is that actually a rainbow? The level of play and at least some of the personnel decisions are starting to match up with the rhetoric about competing again.
Nico Hoerner has been a huge part of that with a team-leading 3.4 fWAR that includes 107 wRC+ and Gold Glove-caliber defense at short. His 12 defensive runs saved top the NL and sit third in the majors, his 13 outs above average are second overall, and his 13.6 Def score on FanGraphs is likewise second. Leading Hoerner in those latter categories is Atlanta shortstop Dansby Swanson, a potential free agent this winter.
The Braves have been extending young stars left and right, though, so it’s entirely possible Swanson doesn’t make it to the open market. Several other teams across the league have also been locking players up well ahead of free agency, or even arbitration, with Julio Rodriguez and the Mariners standing out as the latest example.
Hoerner isn’t going to command anything approaching the unique deal that could see the Seattle rookie getting as much as $470 million over up to 18 years, but extension buzz has remained strong. And unlike what we’ve heard — or not heard — in the past regarding long-term deals for current players, Jed Hoyer was very open with the media when it came to how they want to build their next competitive group.
“Certainly, when you think about where we’re spending money or building a team, we absolutely have people in-house we want to extend beyond where their arbitration years are,” Hoyer said. “I think that’s without question.”
When asked whether Hoerner was one of those players, the president of baseball operations said that was also “without question.” The shortstop won’t turn 26 until next May, so he’s still got at least 5-6 prime years remaining. And while position players can’t really be viewed the same way as pitchers, it’s pretty incredible to think that Hoerner has only 800 total MLB plate appearances over parts of four seasons.
Some may point to his injury history as reason for caution, I cite his lack of experience as evidence to support continued growth. Not only that, but his intangibles make him exactly the sort of player you want to build around.
“From an offensive standpoint, candidly, he’s probably very much along the lines of where we expected,” Hoyer said. “We thought he was going to be a high-average hitter. He grinds every at-bat. He’s exactly the kind of guy you don’t want to play against. It’s awesome having him on our side.
“Defensively, honestly, he’s really exceeded our expectations at shortstop. I think we always knew he could do it. I think the question was whether he could do it sort of at an above-average level, and he’s made it really clear he can. Kudos to him. And besides the offensive and defensive part, he’s a great teammate, plays hard every day. So there’s just so much to like about him as a player.”
But what about all the rumors and reports that the Cubs are going to sign one of the top shortstops? If anything, I believe Hoerner’s emergence at the position makes the pursuit of a top middle infielder that much more likely because the Cubs have a clearer path to building something really worthwhile. As I noted in a previous piece, and as many others have also surmised, pursuing someone who plays shortstop right now doesn’t mean they need to stay there.
Just look at Alex Rodriguez, Marcus Semien, or Trevor Story, all of whom moved to either the right or left when it made the most sense at that stage in their respective careers. Those are pretty disparate examples and there are others we could look at, but the point is that the Cubs have a better defensive shortstop than just about anyone they’d be able to sign this winter. Go get Carlos Correa, move him to third, and there you go.
While they’re at it, the Cubs could have Matt Mervis mashing at first and let Patrick Wisdom platoon or serve in more of a utility role. I could also see Wisdom included as part of a prospect-heavy deal to land a starting pitcher. There are just so many different paths the Cubs can take, many of which have been opened up by Hoerner’s strong play this season.