MESA, Ariz. – If the general consensus about change is it can be scary, or difficult, you wouldn’t know it from the Cubs’ clubhouse. The team almost certainly got off the Joe Maddon Freeway a few exits too late, but bringing on David Ross was like driving down the access road directly adjacent.
It’s easy to embrace change when the new manager still goes by a playful nickname he was given two years ago – or was your personal catcher and close friend. You just probably won’t catch younger players, like Nico Hoerner, calling him ‘Rossy’ quite yet.
“It’s funny how different people in the locker room have said hi to him the first time seeing him,” Hoerner said on Thursday. “For some of them, they just sort of push him around and say whatever, and other people it’s like, ‘Oh, Mr. Ross, great to meet you.’”
Though it’s technically Hoerner’s second big-league camp, the Cubs’ young infielder admitted this year already feels notably different. Spring Training is absolute hell for minor leaguers, and Hoerner conceded he doesn’t feel as much of an overwhelming pressure to prove himself immediately. It’s not hubris, either – if you don’t think Hoerner’s going to be on the active roster come Opening Day, consider that his locker at Sloan Park is in a group that includes Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora, and Anthony Rizzo.
“I’m in good company over here,” he said. “Good brains to pick … I’m figuring it out, slowly.”
He may still be figuring out how to cleverly dodge questions, but there was nothing slow about how he seemed to figure out life in the major leagues last season. In the 20 games Hoerner played with the big league club, he flashed more than enough moments to justify the rather sudden call-up in early September. And when that happened, he was just as surprised as you were.
“I was surprised to be there,” he said, laughing. “Just in how it all happened. But I’m confident in what I can do. I didn’t expect one thing or another. I controlled what I could and good things followed.
“I've said that a million times to people. [The sudden call-up] was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me. There wasn’t a buildup of expectation. It was just boom, here we go, let’s go play, and I played the first day. You go from there. I was thankful for how it happened.”
His slash line – .282/.305/.436 – was impressive enough for a 22-year-old who had been playing college ball at Stanford only a year prior. The advanced metrics aren’t as kind to his performance at the plate, but again, he’s 22. He’s also never played a full season’s worth of games, at any level. The tail end of MLB’s season is notoriously rough on minor leaguers, who aren’t used to playing several dozen additional games.
For Hoerner, more than any specific adjustment, this spring is just about getting his body ready for that grind. Anything else he picks up along the way, whether from ‘Rossy’ or his witty group of lockerroom neighbors, is just gravy.
“The best baseball I've ever played in my life is when I’m focusing on long term and development,” he said. “I think that’s when I’ve learned the most, had the most fun, and helped the team win the most too. I’m trying to maintain that – that might be hard at times this spring. But trying to do that the best I can.”Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Chicago Cubs easily on your device.