The more time that passes, the easier it is to envision Nico Hoerner becoming a big part of the Chicago Cubs in the near future.
Hoerner — the team's first-round pick (24th overall) in last summer's draft — has been back in Double-A for a little over a month now after a wrist injury that cost him more than two months earlier this season.
The 22-year-old hasn't exactly been on a tear in those six weeks — he's slashing .248/.308/.359 (.667 OPS) in 159 plate appearances — but he has also been moving around the diamond to increase his defensive versatility.
Prior to the wrist injury, Hoerner played exclusively shortstop for Double-A Tennessee. But since he's returned, he has regularly rotated between shortstop, second base and even center field, with encouraging results:
A few note worthy headlines on #Cubs No. 1 prospect @nico_hoerner …— Mick Gillispie (@BroadcasterMick) August 7, 2019
⁃Strikes out just 11% of plate appearances
⁃Longest hitting drought: 1 game
⁃Routine shortstop/second baseman, evolving as a solid center fielder.#EveryBodyIn
That versatility makes sense simply because the big-league club would probably need him to move around the diamond with Javy Baez entrenched at shortstop. But the positions are of note, as second base and center field are two areas that certainly seem up for grabs on this team moving beyond 2019.
That could change, of course, if Ian Happ continues to hit the way he has since he returned from the minors late last month. But he may not stick at second base long term amid defensive concerns — he dropped a routine pop-up in Tuesday night's game in Philadelphia — and is likely ticketed for the outfield again next year (unless the Cubs re-sign Nicholas Castellanos).
Who knows exactly when Hoerner would be ready for The Show, but the Cubs are betting on the kid big-time. Ahead of last month's trade deadline, Theo Epstein's front office didn't want to deal Hoerner away and believe he's destined for big things with the franchise.
When senior vice president of player development and amateur scouting Jason McLeod joined the CubsTalk Podcast last month, David Kaplan asked him to pick a guy in the Cubs system right now he would most be willing to bet on.
"It's hard not to look at Nico Hoerner," McLeod said. "Just with all the things that we talked about last year when we drafted him and what he's done since that time. And even with the injury that cost him two months of this year, seeing everything that he brings to the table — the athleticism, the physicality, the work ethic, the makeup, the game intelligence, the instincts, the way he barrels the ball up, the high contact rate, the middle of the field athlete, dynamic-type defender out in the field.
"Yeah, if I was a betting man, I'd put my money on him and I'd say that it'd be a pretty safe bet."
Wow, that was quite the list McLeod rattled off — a good 10 items just off the top of his head lauding Hoerner's ability only 14 months into his professional career.
What's more is those attributes would be welcome additions to the Cubs whenever Hoerner makes it to the big leagues — particularly the middle-of-the-field athlete and high contact rate.
Hoerner's strikeout rate has improved even since Gillispie Tweeted last week, down to 10.1 percent right now. That mark figures to hike up a bit as he moves to Triple-A and the big leagues, but even a modest spike would pit him among the current Cubs leaders in that category — Anthony Rizzo leads qualified hitters with a 14.7 percent strikeout rate.
Hoerner has been even better lately, with just 1 whiff in his last 14 games while drawing 7 walks and reaching base safely in every single contest during that span.
Unless they're hit with a wave of injuries, the Cubs have zero reason to rush Hoerner to the big leagues this season, but it's fair to wonder if he would've been on track to become a September call-up if he didn't miss two months to a broken wrist.
But Hoerner continues to show he can be a big part of the future equation for this team, even as early as next season.Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream
All it took was one swing from Matt Carpenter on Thursday to tarnish Craig Kimbrel’s return from the injured list while simultaneously denting the Cubs’ playoff hopes.
With the Cubs and Cardinals tied 10th inning, Carpenter hit an absolute no-doubt home run deep into left center field, giving St. Louis a 5-4 lead that they never relinquished.
“[The pitch] just ran back over the plate, and he drops the barrel at the bottom of the zone really well and put a good swing on it,” Kimbrel said postgame.
The Cubs activated Kimbrel Thursday following a two-week stint on the injured list. And, really, outside of the Carpenter at-bat, he looked like he hadn’t missed a beat.
Carpenter’s home run was sandwiched between two strikeouts — one with a fastball, one with a knuckle curveball. Still, Thursday’s loss is a gut-punch for the Cubs, as it drops them to four games back of the Cardinals in the NL Central and a game back of the Brewers for the second Wild Card spot.
It also doesn’t help that the Cubs erased a three-run ninth inning deficit, which allowed them to get into extra innings in the first place.
“It’s frustrating,” Kimbrel said. “I’ve been doing everything I can to get back out there and our team battled til the very end. We needed that, and [I’m] pretty disappointed in myself to go out there and give up a home run like that.”
Some way wonder why Kimbrel was pressed into action the same day of his activation. The answer to that, is simple: If not now, then when? With nine games left in the regular season, Kimbrel needs to be pitching.
“Physically I felt great,” Kimbrel said postgame. “The balls coming out of my hand good. I just made a bad pitch.”
Cubs manager Joe Maddon echoed a similar sentiment about Kimbrel’s condition on Thursday.
“I was very encouraged, from what I saw yesterday," Maddon said pregame. “I thought he looked pretty normal, and again, when you talk to the guy conversationally, it’s very upbeat."
If Kimbrel sat out Thursday’s game, many would call out Maddon for not using his $43 million arm. Plus, the longer the closer sits, the greater chance there is of him getting rusty.
“If we can get on the field, we’re gonna do everything we can to get out there and help this team win and try and put us in a position to get into the playoffs,” Kimbrel said. “We’re getting down here til the end. We still got a lot of games.”
Nine regular season games remain for the Cubs in 2019. Kimbrel summed up the latest, as big as any yet, as well as one can.
“Tonight was a big game for us,” he said. “We really needed it. [The] season’s not over, we still got a lot of games left. But it definitely would’ve helped. I wish I would’ve pitched a little better.”Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Cubs games easily on your device.
The story could not have followed a more perfect trajectory:
Injured star (Anthony Rizzo) makes a miraculous recovery, hits a big home run in a huge game and helps will his team to victory.
Except for the last part.
After suffering a nasty-looking ankle injury in Sunday's game, Rizzo was announced as the Cubs' leadoff hitter and first baseman about 20 minutes before first pitch Thursday night and hit a game-tying homer in his second trip to the plate.
It was the only offense the Cubs were able to muster against Jack Flaherty, but they pulled off an epic comeback in the ninth inning — with Javy Baez scoring the game-tying run in his first action since Sept. 1.
That was quickly erased with Matt Carpenter's go-ahead homer off Craig Kimbrel in the top of the 10th inning and the Cardinals went on to win 5-4 and bury the Cubs 4 games back in the division.
But nobody's pointing the finger at Rizzo, who has spent the last four days in a walking boot and was unable to even put weight on his right ankle up until Wednesday when he retired his snack-filled scooter.
Joe Maddon was planning on being without one of his most important players until the moment Rizzo was out in left field, running and jumping on the grass.
Rizzo didn't even know he was going to be able to play until that moment, either.
"You get the questions of waiting a couple more days, but we don't have a couple more days," Rizzo said. "We gotta win now. And I love this team...I love playing. That's what I want to do. It's what I love doing — playing baseball, especially for this team that we're fighting at Wrigley Field in late September to go to the playoffs and that's where all the magic happens."
He exited the game after the fifth inning and immediately went back into the training room to continue treatment. He received a cortisone shot Monday and otherwise has been religiously following the "RICE" treatment plan (rest, ice, compression, elevation), with help from the Cubs medical staff at the ballpark and his wife — "Nurse Emily" — at home.
"I kept saying, 'this ankle doesn't stand a chance,'" Rizzo said. "It's still obviously sore, but it was good enough to play."
Rizzo walked into and out of the Cubs press conference room without the boot and said he felt "good" and was hoping to play Friday, though he admitted he would be smart and let the team know if he was unable to suit up.
Quite the turnaround from a guy who stood at his locker Monday afternoon with his right knee bent and resting on the scooter (which did not yet have tassels or a horn or snacks at that point) and the Robocop-like boot on his ankle.
"Honestly, when I told you guys [Monday] 'I'll let you know in a few days,' I did not think in a few days I'd be doing this," he said. "I had a positive mindset — 'It's gonna take me three days. Watch, it's gonna take me three days.' And everyone was just kinda like, 'no way.' I believed I was healthy and I am."
Still, even with the made-for-Hollywood return, the Cubs will wake up Friday morning out of a playoff spot for the first time since April 30.
Thursday could've been an epic, season-altering comeback, but instead, the Cubs are forced to find a way to move on after another gut-punch.
At least they now have Rizzo, Baez and Kimbrel back in the fold, even if they're not all 100 percent.
"It's just all hands on deck," Rizzo said. "We have to win and I think guys want to win and are pushing themselves. Everyone is banged up this time of the year, so it's just mind over matter, really."