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 reportedly ‘exceptionally impressed’ by Joe Espada in managerial search

Cubs reportedly ‘exceptionally impressed’ by Joe Espada in managerial search

As the Cubs peruse over their list of managerial candidates, one name reportedly made a strong impression following his interview with the team.

According to NBC Sports Chicago’s David Kaplan, Astros bench coach Joe Espada left the Cubs front office “exceptionally impressed” following his interview on Monday.

Espada, 44, has spent the last two seasons as Astros bench coach following three seasons as Yankees third base coach. He is one of MLB’s more sought after managerial candidates this winter and one of three known external candidates for the Cubs’ opening, along with Joe Girardi and Gabe Kapler.

Former Cubs catcher and current front office assistant David Ross has been the presumed front runner for the Cubs' opening. But based on Kaplan’s report, Espada clearly has given Epstein and Co. something to think about, which makes sense, considering Espada is coming from an innovative Astros organization.

Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference that there’s no timeline for the Cubs’ managerial search. However, MLB prefers teams to not make big announcements during the World Series, which kicks off on Oct. 22. Thus, the Cubs may not make an announcement for little while longer, though this is purely speculation.

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The curious case of Brad Wieck and his unique opportunity with the Cubs

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AP

The curious case of Brad Wieck and his unique opportunity with the Cubs

If anybody thought the Cubs' 2019 season was a roller coaster, it was nothing compared to what Brad Wieck has gone through this year.

Wieck — the 6-foot-9 left-handed reliever — went from a cancer diagnosis to a Padres cast-off and wound up finishing the year carving through the heart of the Cardinals order in the eighth inning of a must-win game in late-September for the Cubs.

Wieck began 2019 with a testicular cancer diagnosis in January and underwent surgery shortly after. That left him playing catch-up all spring training, unable to lift, run or throw off a mound for a month after the surgery. He only ended up facing live hitters twice before the regular season started and was never able to recover with the Padres, putting up a 5.71 ERA in 34.2 MLB innings. 

Then the Cubs came calling.

While the rest of Cubdom was understandably occupied on Trade Deadline Day celebrating the Nick Castellanos move, Theo Epstein's front office made a smaller move with the San Diego Padres. And Wieck wasn't even the central focus of that trade, as more of the emphasis was on the departure of Carl Edwards Jr. — a polarizing figure in the Cubs bullpen the last few seasons, including throughout the 2016 World Series run.

Yet Epstein's front office didn't treat Wieck like a throw-in. From Day 1 with the organization, the Cubs handled the southpaw more like a first-round draft pick.

Right after the trade, Wieck was immediately assigned to Triple-A Iowa, where he made a pair of appearances against the Tacoma Rainiers. From there, he was invited to Chicago to meet with the Cubs front office and throw a bullpen off the Wrigley Field mound.

"So I got here and they had a whole presentation of what my current curveball looked like and what they would like the shape of it to look like and so we just started messing around with grip," Wieck said. "I went to a spike curveball grip and we got in the lab and we started throwing it more and we came up with consistent break of what we thought was gonna be a better break than the curveball that I had.

"Just trial and error, honestly. We just looked at Rapsodo stuff and saw what spin efficiency is doing and spin rate and trying to get my curveball spin to replicate the exact opposite of my fastball. That's what our goal was."

That led to a trip to the "Pitch Lab" in Arizona where Wieck worked with Josh Zeid, the Cubs' pitching analyst, to continue to mess around with the new curveball grip and add a new, consistent weapon to his arsenal. 

If the term "spike curveball" sounds familiar, it should. It's become the unofficial pitch of the Cubs (you know, if organizations defined themselves by just one pitch). Rowan Wick — Wieck's former roommate in the Padres system — broke out as a trusted big-league reliever in large part because of the emergence of his spike curve. Craig Kimbrel throws one and also taught the pitch to Yu Darvish, who added it to the plethora of options already at his disposal. 

Wieck's time in Arizona was about getting comfortable with the new pitch and not worrying about facing hitters or pitching in a game. After a couple weeks in the desert, the Cubs threw him back out on the mound in Iowa, where he made four appearances before getting the call to the big leagues when rosters expanded in September. 

Right off the bat, we got a look at that spike curve and there is no doubt it can play at Wrigley Field, especially when the shadows roll in:

Just like that, a new weapon was born and Wieck developed more confidence in that reshaped curveball.

"I like that they're forcing me to throw it more because I've been a fastball-heavy pitcher my whole life," Wieck said. "I trust my fastball with my life. To have a catcher get back there and make you throw it, that's really good."

The Cubs' confidence in Wieck also grew as the month went on. He emerged alongside his buddy Wick as vital pieces of the late-season bullpen while Kimbrel and Brandon Kintzler dealt with injuries. It got to the point where Joe Maddon kept Wieck in to face the Cardinals' big boppers (Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna — both right-handed hitters) with a 1-run lead in the eighth inning on that final homestand. We all know how that game ended (Kimbrel served up homers on back-to-back pitches for another gut-wrenching Cubs loss), but Wieck did his job and proved he's far more than just a lefty specialist.

This fall was the first time Wieck had been a part of a playoff push and that outing against the Cardinals was only the 46th MLB appearance of his young career. Moving into 2020, the 28-year-old southpaw looks to be one of only a few arms penciled into the Cubs bullpen. 

The Cubs had their eyes on Wieck for a while before they were able to trade for him and they don't plan on rolling out a big presentation for each acquisition or ask every new arm to start throwing a brand new pitch or completely remake one of their existing pitches. This was a unique situation, but it's one that already paid dividends in a short period of time and could help set up the bullpen for the future. 

It's also another indicator that the "Pitch Lab" can work, as Wieck joins Wick and Kyle Ryan as products of the Cubs' new model they hope to fine-tune and grow. Epstein will hire a director of pitching for the organization this winter and the Cubs are hoping to change the narrative surrounding their shocking lack of pitching development under this front office. 

In Wieck's case, it was a group effort from the Cubs — the front office, research and development department, big-league coaching staff (led by pitching coach Tommy Hottovy), the pitching analytics unit based in Arizona and minor league pitching coordinator Brendan Sagara all teamed up to make it happen for the tall lefty in only a month's time.

It's a model the organization will attempt to duplicate moving forward, beginning this winter.