Big ole throat-clearing here at the top: I don’t intend for this post to be an entire deconstruction of what the Cubs hope to accomplish in 2022. Nor is it attempting to set up what I think the Cubs could/will/should do this offseason.
Not only are we still five+ weeks away from the end of the 2021 season, but we’re months away from having meaningful clarity on what the offseason can actually look like for the Cubs. I know it’ll piss a lot of folks off – and you can feel free to be pissed! – but the reality is that the Cubs are not going to be aggressive on any front* until the new CBA is in place some time after December 1. The ways it could change the structure of the sport are so significant that the Cubs, with all their roster and financial flexibility, are going to want the opportunity to see the new rules (in-game, roster-related, postseason, and draft) before they commit, firmly, to a particular approach. Thanks to a lot of crap that sucks, the Cubs have backed their way into a very, very enviable position heading into the world of the new CBA. The last thing they’re going to want to do is lose that flexibility right before they find out how they could actually maximize it.
OK. Throat appropriately cleared. But I had to clear all that because it’s inevitably going to come up in a lot of your minds when I say the things I wanted to say about Nico Hoerner and the 2022 Cubs. Also, that idea of “flexibility” carries through both topics, albeit in different ways.
* * *
As you may have seen, Nico Hoerner left his first rehab game this weekend at South Bend mid-at-bat. He felt some tightness the side, and the Cubs will now take some time to re-evaluate that oblique. Expecting him back any time before September now is silly, if he comes back at all. I’m very hopefully he will – he needs the big league at bats – but obliques are like this. We know it. We say it. And now we’re seeing it. Maybe Hoerner doesn’t come back at all this year.
That got me thinking about how we have been considering Hoerner as a future Cubs starter, how his presence related to certain recent trades, and how his presence impacts decisions the Cubs could make in the offseason.
And, more specifically, how I’ve probably been thinking about him a little bit wrong. About how you just can’t plan everything perfectly that far into the future, and how, with Hoerner, you don’t have to.
Whether he comes back this year or not, I’ve had it in my head for a while that obviously Hoerner was going to be starter-at-position-X in 2022. That’s both because of his ability and upside, and because of the type of bat he provides a Cubs team looking for more contact. So, for example, after the Nick Madrigal and Javy Báez trades, I thought to myself, “Ah, well obviously the Cubs are making Nico Hoerner the full-time shortstop going forward. Great, let’s get him healthy and see how he looks there for the next six weeks!”
Or, if I let myself think about the Cubs bringing Báez back – or pursuing one of the other free agent shortstops – I thought, “Interesting. Maybe this is where the Cubs give Hoerner a serious look in center field (or left field?), and try to upgrade the outfield at the other spots.
That is to say, I’ve been thinking about Hoerner as a locked-in-starter in a way that I hadn’t been thinking about many other Cubs. That was the plan for him, at least in my mind.
But the latest injury setback (whether serious or not) was kind of a *click* point in my mind to realize I’d gotten way too “plan” oriented on Hoerner. You can only plan so much. If the Cubs are trying to remain flexible, I should likewise stay flexible in my thinking.
I’ve come to realize I should instead be thinking about Hoerner the way I’d talked about guys like Justin Steele, Keegan Thompson, and Alec Mills (oddly enough): guys who are going to be big league contributors next year, but their precise role should be left TBD for the purposes of the offseason. In other words, the presence of Steele/Thompson/Mills is good and nice and useful, but it shouldn’t preclude the Cubs from doing anything they want to do – anything that becomes available – this offseason in the rotation.
Similarly, I am increasingly thinking that the presence of Hoerner is good and nice and useful, but it shouldn’t preclude the Cubs from doing anything they want to do – anything that becomes available – this offseason on the positional side. That’s partly about his versatility, but also partly an acknowledgment of the limits of trying to plan precisely what Hoerner is going to be in 2022.
It’s not just the injuries (though at this point how could you not have at least some long-term concerns, given how many there have already been?), but is instead about the extreme and interrupted professional exposure. For a guy who came up to the big leagues in 2019, just a year after he was drafted, we know precious little about how well Hoerner can actually produce in the big leagues in a starting job.
There’s a whole lot we love, justifiably, about his game, but he has yet to show over a long stretch that he can continue making enough line drive contact to keep the rest of his slash line afloat (let alone gotten to the part of his game where he’s adding some more power and more walks – that all comes next, hopefully). Even setting aside the struggles of 2019-20, for as rosy as his .313 average looks this year, the .075 ISO is awfully concerning when you think about that .375 BABIP. Usually a guy with a BABIP *THAT* high is absolutely obliterating the ball. Hoerner was not – he just had a lot of barrel contact that turned into singles. A skill, to be sure, but one that is very susceptible to slumps if you’re just a little off (or pitchers figure out where they can get you to swing yourself into soft contact).
Also, for what it’s worth? Following the wrist injury in Cincinnati, Hoerner hit just .286/.343/.327 (87 wRC+) until the oblique injury. We just don’t know what he’s going to be yet.
That’s not me crapping on Hoerner, because I still think there’s way more upside than downside on the horizon. Instead, it’s me recognizing that the Cubs just can’t go into this offseason acting like they know for sure what he will be in 2022 (much less beyond that), and acting like they couldn’t *dare* make some roster move that might create a “logjam” involving Hoerner.
To that end, there’s something huge that Hoerner has going for him, and the Cubs should keep it in mind as they proceed: he can play anywhere. We already know he can play the middle infield, and I would be shocked if he couldn’t handle third base in a pinch, too. He’s seen some outfield time, too – enough to know he’s probably playable in left and center (arm is debatable for right). Maybe the idea on Hoerner isn’t going into the offseason assuming he’s “the shortstop,” but instead is assuming he’s “on the big league roster somehow.” I won’t do the thing that everyone does and mention Ben Zobrist, but it’s not as if any of this is a slight on Hoerner, either. His theoretical versatility is one of the best things he’s got going for him, and all I’m saying is that the Cubs should keep that in mind when approaching this offseason.
And also, they have to keep in mind the other opportunities out there, and the risks that Hoerner will have some time when he’s not available at all, either because of injury or ineffectiveness.
In other words, the Cubs need to stay flexible in their thinking as it relates to Hoerner’s expected role, which will be aided by the fact that he, himself, is quite flexible in his defensive abilities.
*(Your one caveat here is related to the 40-man roster. Because the deadline to protect prospects from the Rule 5 Draft will come a couple weeks before the CBA expires, and because the Cubs might wind up with a very crowded 40-man on the prospect side thanks to the trades and a huge volume of not-nearly-ready prospects already on the 40-man, I could see the Cubs being very active in trying to trade away 40-man prospects (and Rule 5 eligible guys) for non-40-man pieces.)