Cubs

Nico Hoerner leaving great impression on Cubs: 'We believe in him'

Nico Hoerner leaving great impression on Cubs: 'We believe in him'

A little more than two weeks ago, Nico Hoerner was sitting on his couch back in his hometown of Oakland. With Double-A Tennessee’s season over, the 22-year-old was preparing to head down to the Arizona Fall League for the second-straight year.

Now, Hoerner is the Cubs starting shortstop, starting for a Cubs team that’s pushing for a fifth-straight postseason berth while Javier Báez rehabs his fractured left thumb.

Talk about a heck of a month.

“It’s been special to be a part of a team that’s trying to win right now and being around a lot of guys that have played at this level really successfully for a long time,” Hoerner said Sunday. [I’ve] learned a lot.”

When the Cubs called Hoerner up, no one expected him to produce on a Báez-like level. This is meant more as a compliment to Báez than anything, as he brings game-changing elements to the Cubs at the plate, on the bases and defensively.

And yet, considering that Hoerner only has 89 career minor league games to his name, what he’s done in the big leagues is more than impressive. Including his three plate appearances on Sunday, Hoerner holds a .286/.322/.482 slash line, recording hits in 11 of his first 14 games and making plenty of hard contact.

“As a hitter, there’s always things you can work on to be more consistent,” he said. “But overall, I’ve been pretty happy with my ability to be present, compete as best as I can, and I feel like I’ve been pretty consistent with my preparation.”

Hoerner has also started at shortstop in every one of those contests, showing off impressive range and hands while making no errors. It might just be two weeks, but his play has impressed both Joe Maddon and Báez already.

“You cannot have possibly asked for more than you’ve got out of Nico,” Maddon said on Sunday. “And the thing is, he’s gonna keep getting better. This guy is a gym rat when it comes to baseball.

“He loves doing this and he does it really, really well. He’s a solid, really good baseball player and he’s gonna keep getting better. I really believe that.”

“Unbelievable,” Báez said Saturday about Hoerner’s performance thus far. “It’s not easy to just come up and play, even if it’s in September. We believe in him and he’s done a great job for the team and for our pitchers.”

Although Báez’s injury certainly played a factor, the Cubs called up Hoerner because Addison Russell took a pitch off the face on Sept. 8, going into concussion protocol as a result.

With no true shortstops on their roster, Hoerner was the Cubs’ best bet to man the position in the meantime. But while Báez is limited to pinch-hitting and running right now, Russell has been cleared to play.

Even with Russell – a former All-Star shortstop – back in the fold, though, Maddon is having a hard time going away from Hoerner as his everyday shortstop.

“With Addy, we did not know when Addy would be available, and he is right now,” Maddon said. “Addy is available, but I just really can’t walk away from what Nico is doing.”

Báez is attempting to return to the Cubs starting lineup during their upcoming series against the Pirates. This would move Hoerner off of shortstop, though he and the Cubs are confident in his ability to play other positions.

Of the 75 games he played in Double-A this season Hoerner made 17 appearances at second base and 11 in center field.

“I can help in a wide range of ways,” he said. “The need right now has been at shortstop, but when it comes to the future, who knows what will happen. [I’m] down to go anywhere on the field.”

“It could be second, it could be to give somebody a day off in another position,” Maddon said. “He’s adept at a lot of different spots, and that was the original conversation I had when he got here with the front office guys. They said, ‘Listen, he can play everywhere.’”

2020 is still far away, and the Cubs are still in contention for a postseason spot this season. It’s hard not to look ahead, though, especially considering how (in a small sample size) Hoerner is proving he could be a fixture on the Cubs for years to come.

No matter what, though, Hoerner’s career is looking like a bright one.

“His bat to ball skills are so good and he’s always had that,” Maddon said. “I don’t see that as dissipating, I don’t. And the way he processes the day, that shouldn’t be altered either. With good health, he should be fine.”

“I know I can help this team and I can do that in a wide range of ways,” Hoerner said. [I’m going to] continue to develop and give myself the best chance I can.”

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Cubs bench coach Mark Loretta reportedly interviews for Padres' manager job

Cubs bench coach Mark Loretta reportedly interviews for Padres' manager job

While David Ross is set to become the Cubs' next manager, a member of the team's 2019 coaching staff has reportedly interviewed for a managerial vacancy elsewhere.

Cubs bench coach Mark Loretta recently interviewed for the Padres' managerial opening, according to MLB Network's Jon Heyman. It's the second known managerial opening Loretta has interviewed for this offseason, as he also interviewed for the Cubs' before they chose Ross.

Like Ross and the Cubs, Loretta has several ties to the Padres. The 48-year-old played three seasons with San Diego (2003-05) during his 15-year big-league career. He also spent nine seasons as a special assistant in the Padres front office, working with general manager Jed Hoyer — who held the same position with the Padres from 2010-11.

Loretta isn't the only Cubs coach to interview for a managerial opening. First base coach Will Venable — who also was a candidate to replace Joe Maddon — reportedly interviewed for the Giants' vacancy last Friday. The 36-year-old joined the Cubs as a front office assistant in 2017 before being named first base coach in 2018.

What this means for Ross' coaching staff is to be determined. Loretta and Venable interviewing elsewhere doesn't mean they'll get hired, but Epstein and Co. handpicked them for Maddon's staff.

Thus, Ross may look to choose his own group as he embarks on year No. 1 as a big-league manager. Loretta and Venable could also seek seek other opportunities, though the latter told the Chicago Sun-Times that his interest is in the Cubs "organization in general."

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How will Cubs players respond to David Ross as manager?

How will Cubs players respond to David Ross as manager?

David Ross is officially moving from "Grandpa Rossy" to "Manager Rossy."

The affable former backup catcher is not only a fan favorite, but he's immensely popular inside the Cubs clubhouse among the core group of players. 

However, that popularity has always come in a different form, as he now enters into a new dynamic as Cubs manager. Ross was first a teammate, then transitioned into a front office role with the organization, which included a vital role in recruiting Craig Kimbrel to Chicago.

Now that Ross has been tabbed as Joe Maddon's heir, how will his relationship with the players change?

The Cubs announced Maddon's departure on the final day of the regular season and in turn, immediately stoked the fires of the Ross-as-manager rumors. Players were asked how they'd feel if their former teammate became their boss, including Jon Lester, who was instrumental in bringing Ross to Chicago before 2015 as his personal catcher.

"I think that's something that you'd just have to learn as you go," Lester said. "I would like to think that [former Red Sox manager Tito Francona] was a good friend of mine, but still my manager when it came down to it. 

"Obviously the dynamic's different — I didn't play with Tito and that sort of thing, but when it came down to it, that's my boss. If he makes a decision, he makes a decision and you have to respect that."

Anthony Rizzo and Ross formed an immediate bond in 2015 and have grown very close over the last five years.

"If it's Rossy, we would obviously sit down," Rizzo said on the final day of the season. "I've talked to him about it before. He's in a really good place right now at home with his family and what he's doing and he's happy. He's my biggest mentor in the game player-wise, really, behind Joe [Maddon] and [former Cubs coach Eric] Hinske. Can it work? Yes."

Back in August, on the five-year anniversary of his MLB debut, Javy Baez crushed two homers in a Cubs win and after the game, shouted out Ross unprompted. Baez credited his former teammate for helping him understand how to keep things simple and just his natural abilities take over while allowing the game to teach him.

So it's no surprise Baez said in September he would be stoked if Ross were named manager.

"We all love David and he knows the team and the organization," Baez said.

In reality, it will be difficult to transition from teammate and mentor to boss. Maddon found a way to be both mentor and friend to this group of Cubs players, but he obviously never played with any of them and he came to Chicago with an already impressive resume as a manager and coach.

Ross doesn't have that same experience to fall back on, but the Cubs are confident he's up to the challenge because when it boils down it, so much of the job is based off communication. 

What Ross has working in his favor that the other managerial candidates like Joe Espada lacked was an immediate rapport with the front office and the core guys in the clubhouse. There's already a built-in level of trust between him and Rizzo, Baez, Lester, Kris Bryant, Jason Heyward and a host of others — including Kimbrel (the two were teammates in Atlanta). The guys he hasn't played with have at least seen him around Wrigley Field or the spring training complex in his front office role the last three years.

That preexisting relationship will be a huge advantage immediately, as it eliminates the time another candidate would've needed to earn the trust of the players on the roster. Plus, the relationship between Ross and Epstein's front office is already so far advanced for a first-year manager that there's an instant level of understanding and rapport before he's even officially introduced into the role.

During his time in the clubhouse, Ross was known to be direct and honest, holding his teammates accountable and helping the young players realize their potential without crushing their spirits. That's not an easy task for a backup catcher in the twilight of his career to accomplish.

Still, the Cubs' choice to go with Ross seemed at least somewhat contradictory when presented against the backdrop of change Theo Epstein emphasized in his end-of-season press conference. The Cubs president talked at length about the organization's need to stop looking back at 2016 and avoiding the "winner's trap" of sticking with things that worked years ago but might not be the best avenues to success today.

In that same presser, Epstein also insisted Ross' connection to the players left over from the World Series championship team was not the main reason they were considering the former catcher as manager. 

"His connection to the players on this team and especially his connection to the 2016 team are not necessarily things that are going to be important to us," Epstein said. "...It's not necessarily a detriment, either, as long as you trust the person to handle it the right way and trust the players to handle it the right way. It's something you have to consider.

"I'm just saying, what we're looking for is someone who's a great manager for the Cubs moving forward. Certainly not looking backwards and not with undue emphasis on a couple players there might be a personal [connection]. That's not a major factor for us." 

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