Second base is the new center field in Cubs camp.
Or, as Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer put it this week: “What you really want is for someone to grab the job.”
With less than a week until pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training, the Cubs have options at second base: Nico Hoerner, David Bote and Ildemaro Vargas. But none of them have everyday MLB playing experience. Hoerner platooned with now-free agent Jason Kipnis last season. Bote and Vargas are utility players.
If the Cubs don’t add another second baseman before Opening Day, they could rotate some combination of Hoerner, Bote and Vargas. But that’s not Hoyer’s preference.
“I think we all want someone to grab hold of it and force their name in the lineup every day,” he said.
Which brings us to the center field connection.
For three years after Dexter Fowler left for the Cardinals in free agency, the Cubs filled centerfield with a rotating cast of primarily Jason Heyward, Albert Almora and Ian Happ. That changed in 2020.
“It’s hard to take Ian Happ out of the lineup,” Cubs manager David Ross said two weeks into the season.
With Happ claiming center field as his own, Heyward got to stay in right field, giving the outfield continuity. Happ and Heyward were also the Cubs’ best hitters in 2020.
This year, 23-year-old Hoerner has the opportunity to claim an everyday job. But he’s going to need to impress at the plate to do so.
It’s easy to forget how little major league experience Hoerner has accrued. He made his MLB debut in September 2019. Then, his first “full” season in the big leagues was 60 games. He’s only had 208 career plate appearances. For comparison, Kris Bryant had more than three times that many (634) in 2019 alone.
With limited career at-bats, Hoerner is hitting .248. But he’s shown promise since his first call-up, both in his poise under pressure and development.
His batting average (.282 to .222) and slugging percentage (.436 to .259) dropped from 2019 to 2020 – again, take that with a grain of salt due to the small sample size. But the contact-oriented hitter did improve in several other categories.
Hoerner’s chase rate dropped from 46.4 percent in 2019 to 31.8 percent last season, according to BaseballSavant.com. His improved plate discipline also showed up in the walk and on-base percentage columns.
The second baseman’s hard-hit rate jumped from 23.5 percent to 37.2. So, why didn’t that show up in more traditional statistics? Last season, Hoerner also hit ground balls more often (52.9 percent to 57.0) and line drives less often (26.5 percent to 24.4) than the year before.
“Nico didn’t have the offensive season that he would have wanted,” Hoyer said. “I thought his defense was excellent. And the way he plays the game is outstanding. I think the coaches love having him in there for a lot of reasons.”
With improved plate discipline and pop, Hoerner heads into Spring Training with a strong foundation. If he can convert some of those ground ball outs into base hits, he could provide the kind of contact bat the Cubs have been looking for to diversify their lineup.