Hoerner raked third in the National League with plus-five defensive runs saved in 2020 and is looking to have his offense match his defense.
There are many reps to be had at second base for the Cubs in 2021, and with no starting second baseman officially named, Cubs second baseman Nico Hoerner sees this spring as a chance to win a job.
In a year that was anything but ordinary, Hoerner had an unusual first “full season” in the big leagues during the shortened 60-game season. While he played regularly as the Cubs’ primary utility man, with Jason Kipnis getting a chunk of the reps at second base, Hoerner never got an opportunity to establish himself in 2020.
The Cubs didn’t sign a free-agent platoon partner at second base, signaling that the team will give Hoerner along with David Bote an opportunity to win the team’s second-base job.
“I’m in a great position in that, if I control my end of it, I’m ready every day, and I’m playing at a high level, I’m gonna have an opportunity,” Hoerner said. “I don’t know exactly what that looks like. But as a young player on a team that’s looking to win, that’s a pretty awesome thing to have. And so something that’s got to be earned, for sure.”
Hoerner’s development has been at the Major League level over the last two seasons. After making his MLB debut in September 2019, Hoerner broke summer camp with the team last season despite not playing above Triple-A.
“Nico, who he is in a lot of ways for us, is the ideal baseball player in some respects,” manager David Ross said. “It’s just about his mentality, his work ethic, how he sees the game, his deep defensive skill set. He’s ability to move all around the diamond and play different positions.”
The 23-year old infielder’s high baseball IQ helped him get acclimated to the Major League game quickly, and his defensive prowess allowed him to stay in the lineup down the stretch. He was one of the best defenders in the National League with a plus-five in defensive runs saved in 2020, ranking third in the NL. He also finished as a finalist for the NL Gold Glove Award.
The offense is where the development questions remain for the second-year second baseman. Hoerner had a .222/.312/.259 slash line with zero homers in 2020, and while the team believes in his ability to be an above-average hitter, there’s still room for growth.
“As a group and personally, we got defensive [at the plate] at times as an offense. And that’s not who I am,” he said. “It’s not who we are as a group. And so definitely moving into this year, everyone has their own personal goals, but just taking it back to myself and us as a group being in charge of the plate.”
Hoerner stayed in Chicago over the offseason, working out at Wrigley during the winter to build strength, and he took it upon himself to make some small tweaks this offseason with new assistant hitting coach Chris Valaika.
“We worked on some things and opened up my stance a little more creating space,” Hoerner said.”I’m not so much changing my swing as much as trying to be in an athletic position as much as I can [and] being a strong, dynamic athlete in all parts of the game. I think that’s a big part of who I am and I can impact the game in a lot of ways, and just never getting away from athleticism is a huge part of it.”
“He’s strong,” Ross said. “You can definitely tell the work he’s put in. For me, Nico is a guy that [is] going to work, he’s going to find out his strengths and weaknesses. He’s still navigating through his early career of having his approach and his mindset and what works best for him. And I think he learned a lot offensively last year and his struggles but he really worked on you know, mechanically being a little more free.”
With the Cubs not adding a high-contact position player this offseason, Hoerner’s ability to put the ball in play and draw walks can be a valuable asset in a lineup that has struggled to do that in recent years.
Hoerner knows there’s nothing guaranteed this spring with Bote also vying for the spot and there is still a lot he’ll have to show the coaching staff and his manager to lock down the job in camp.
“I think being too obsessed with that specific thing in a comparative way of, ‘Everyday I’m going to show up and compare myself to David Bote.’ Is that going to be the healthiest way to get better as a baseball player? Probably not.
“I’ve said this before, when I got called up, he was one of the best people to meet right away and made the transition to the Major Leagues as comfortable as possible. So lucky to be competing alongside a guy that also elevates me. So I’m really grateful for that.”