With Monday’s game against the Padres came clashing waves of emotion between pregame news and the in-game action for the Cubs.
Before the game, the Cubs told reporters in San Diego that Javier Báez is unlikely to play again this regular season due to a hairline fracture in his left thumb. However, Báez could return during the postseason, should the Cubs get there.
The Cubs announced Báez's injury on Saturday, but the shortstop’s visit with a hand specialist Monday confirmed the diagnosis. This, combined with losing three out of four games against the Brewers over the weekend, created a less-than-ideal start to the week for a Cubs team in a heated playoff race.
The vibes all changed once Monday’s game got underway, courtesy of 2018 first-round pick and incumbent Cubs shortstop, Nico Hoerner.
With both Báez and Addison Russell on the mend, the Cubs called up Hoerner from Double-A to fill the team’s vacancy at shortstop. Hoerner, who has just 89 minor league games to his name, didn’t disappoint. The 22-year-old finished the night an impressive 3-for-5, a line that featured a triple and four RBIs, all while playing impressive defense at shortstop.
One game is an incredibly small sample size, but Hoerner’s debut demonstrated a special element that he can bring to the Cubs offense down the stretch: putting the ball in play.
Including Monday’s 10-2 win over the Padres, 50.5 percent (355 of 703) of Cubs runs scored this season have come via home runs. This, combined with the fact that their hitters tend to expand the strike zone, has led to an up-and-down showing by the Cubs offense this season.
Hoerner put the ball in play in each plate appearance Monday. It’s unfair to expect him to rack up three hits a night, but his ability to make contact will change the dynamic of the Cubs offense. It’s better to keep the line moving than stalling it with a strikeout, essentially. Take Hoerner’s first MLB plate appearance, where he recorded his first big league hit.
Despite being down 0-2 in the count, Hoerner fought off a tough pitch — a slider diving down and away — and got the bat on it. He went with the pitch rather than attempting to pull it, going the other way for a bloop single into right field.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon has preached time after time that the key to his team’s offensive success is to stay within the strike zone and use the opposite field. The Cubs have shown flashes of this in 2019, though not nearly as much as one would like.
Hoerner, on the other hand, did both on Monday, his first professional game above the Double-A level. This is more of a compliment towards him than it is criticism of the Cubs offense. Not many players one year removed from college can put together the type of at-bats that Hoerner did Monday — especially those with as little professional experience as him.
What happens next obviously remains to be seen, but Hoerner will likely start every game at shortstop that Russell misses. The latter is in concussion protocol after getting hit in the helmet with a pitch on Sunday, though how much time Russell will miss is not yet clear.
It’s premature to look ahead to the postseason — the Cubs must get there first — but what they do with Hoerner will be interesting if they clinch a spot. According to MLB rules, any player on a team’s 40-man roster as of 10:59 p.m. CT on Aug. 31 is eligible for the postseason.
The Cubs didn’t add Hoerner, of course, to the 40-man roster until Monday. However, there is a loophole to the aforementioned rule, if the Cubs reach the postseason and want Hoerner on the roster.
Teams can add players in Hoerner’s position to a postseason roster via a petition to the Commissioner’s Office if:
-the player was in the organization on Aug. 31 and
-is replacing someone on the injured list who has served the minimum amount of time for activation (ex: a player on the 10-day IL who has served 10 days there)
The Cubs can get Hoerner on their postseason roster using a player such as Brandon Morrow. Morrow has been on the 60-day injured list since May 2, so he matches the above criteria.
Báez is set to spend the rest of the regular season rehabbing his fractured left thumb, all with the hope of returning in October for a Cubs postseason run. Knowing how competitive Báez is, though, one would think he'll do everything he can to make it back to the Cubs by October.
Even if Báez returns in time, the Cubs will have an interesting decision to make. If Hoerner continues to hit, he could be a potent weapon in the postseason, especially when considering his speed and defensive skill and versatility (he can play second base and center field, too).
Hoerner has just one game under his big league belt, albeit an impressive one. Whether he keeps up this success is to be determined, but based on the sample size at hand, Hoerner seems capable of helping the Cubs reach the postseason, even if he doesn't get the chance to play in October himself.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.