Things May Have Just Changed for Nico Hoerner, the Chicago Cubs, and Second Base in 2021

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Things May Have Just Changed for Nico Hoerner, the Chicago Cubs, and Second Base in 2021

Chicago Cubs

I realize that we discuss Nico Hoerner a lot around here, but the fact is that he remains very important to the Cubs’ immediate *and* long-term future as an everyday option at multiple positions (second base, at present). Given that the glove already looks fantastic at second, if he could bring his overall offensive production somewhere close to just barely below league average, the Cubs would have a nice player on their hands.

But if he could become something more than that – and I believe he can – we’re talking about a potential star up the middle (Gold Gloves, plenty of contact, good speed, some pop … everything the Cubs could use). And, thus, his developmental path is always top-of-mind. So, yeah, we talk about him a lot.

And that whole conversation kinda just changed.

If you were to ask me on Monday what the Cubs should do with Nico Hoerner to start the year, I still would’ve suggested starting him out at Triple-A Iowa, where he could develop his approach at the plate against pitchers who will attack him with as much thoughtfulness and planning as big leaguers, but with generally worse stuff overall (velocity, movement, command, etc.). Ideally, that would allow Hoerner to hone his offensive game and return to the Cubs a better all-around player, who could truly own second base in Chicago for the foreseeable future (and not just out of necessity).

I don’t deny that it’s perhaps all a matter of preference. The unfortunate reality is that because of his glove, the alternatives on the roster, and the way the Cubs current rotation relies heavily on contact (and thus, fielding), Nico Hoerner probably does give the Cubs the best chance to win in 2021 by manning second base. But on Monday, I would’ve argued that the Cubs are already looking to 2022 and beyond, and risking Hoerner’s development further – in service of only the first one or two months of 2021, no less – is not worth the potential long-term costs. The focus has to be maximizing Hoerner’s development, I would have said, and that means Triple-A makes the most sense in April.

… and then this happened:

In case you missed it, the Triple-A season has been delayed until the beginning of May. In place of the first month of action, teams will be allowed to maintain alternate sites (like they did last year), where “teams will be able to keep their pool of potential call-ups under similar coronavirus protocols to the MLB team.”

So now what? Certainly, the Cubs could send Hoerner to the alternate site, where he can train and scrimmage and serve as depth for the big league club, but that doesn’t come close to accomplishing the goals an early minor league assignment would otherwise be targeting. And that means, today, I think the Cubs now might be best served by letting Hoerner do his best to develop at the big league level in April. It’s kinda like last year all over again, at least for a month.

Remember this list? It’s still a thing:

Minor League PAs Before Big League Arrival

1. Nico Hoerner: 375 PAs
2. Kyle Schwarber:
3. Jorge Soler: 622
4. Kris Bryant: 773
5. Ian Happ: 978
6. Addison Russell: 1,087
7. Javy Baez: 1,350
8. Albert Almora Jr.: 1,788
9. Willson Contreras: 2,132

The first six players above were all famously quick to the big leagues, and Hoerner’s path was less than half as long as most. And concerningly, it wasn’t based solely on readiness, as you might otherwise hope. Hoerner was rushed to the big leagues in 2019 after a series of injuries left the Cubs without a starting shortstop and stayed in the big leagues last season largely because there was no minor league seasons in which to play.

If Hoerner had enough PAs to qualify in 2020, his .222/.312/.259 (63 wRC+) slash line would’ve been among the bottom five in baseball. And the underlying statistics were a mixed bag, at best:

(1) His BB% rate increased by ~six percentage points, but so did his K%.

(2) His average exit velocity increased by ~2 MPH, but his launch angle dipped down to 0.8%. ZERO POINT EIGHT. That led to a staggering 55.3% ground ball rate, which would’ve been among the bottom ten in MLB.

(3) His fly ball rate increased, but his infield fly ball rate (the worst type of contact) exploded, and his line drive rate fell from 25% in 2019 to 21.2% in 2020.

(4) He swung at fewer pitches out of the zone, but he also swung at fewer pitches in the zone.

(5) His hard hit%, according to Statcast, increased greatly from 23.5% to 37.2%, but his xwOBAcon (expected wOBA based on exit velocity, launch angle, and sprint speed) dropped from .364 to .300.

I could go on. But the point here is not to pile on or to imply that Hoerner is not good. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite. I believe in his future *so much* that I believe it’s WORTH risking incrementally better defense at the big league level in the short-term in service of extracting as much long-term development as possible. Or at least, I would have been before yesterday.

But now that the Triple-A season has been pushed back by a month, the Cubs may not have a choice. In this new reality, in the short-term, Hoerner might be best served by doing what he can to develop at the much more difficult big league level. And when the Triple-A season starts up, and we’ve got a month of data available, maybe we can have this conversation again. In the meantime, at a minimum, at least he’s the best defensive option.

I’d *love* for Hoerner to be raking in a believable, sustainable way come May 4, but that’s so hard to pull off without much minor league experience. Fortunately, Hoerner is a very talented, hard-working player, and you can’t rule it out.

Author: Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami covers the Chicago Cubs, Bears, and Bulls at Bleacher Nation. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Cerami