Jason McLeod

Top prospect Nico Hoerner emerging as a 'safe bet' in Cubs system

Top prospect Nico Hoerner emerging as a 'safe bet' in Cubs system

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:

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.

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Robel Garcia's 'intriguing' potential and where he fits on the Cubs in the second half

Robel Garcia's 'intriguing' potential and where he fits on the Cubs in the second half

By now, you've heard Robel Garcia's story.

It's more akin to a Hollywood script than a real-life situation, as Garcia spent six years playing baseball in Italy before returning to the U.S. That's where the Cubs found him last fall in Arizona.

With each passing day, it's looking more and more like they've discovered a diamond in the rough.

"He was playing on the backfields last fall and one of our amateur scouts happened to be scouting the Instructional League and saw this guy as a free agent," Cubs VP Jason McLeod said on the CubsTalk Podcast this week. "He started doing the legwork on him, getting the background and just said, 'Hey, this guy's really interesting — the ball's getting off his barrel really well, he looks like a good athlete.'

"That got the ball rolling. We saw him again a week or so later and we ended up signing him with an invite to spring training really with no guarantees. I mean, he had to come in and at the least, show that he could go to Double-A because he hadn't been around for six years.

"From Day 1, he just lit us up with his play on the field and how well he swung the bat in spring training. Things started from there and he hasn't stopped."

So now that Garcia is on the big-league team, what is his level of staying power and where does he fit as the second half of the 2019 season approaches?

The 26-year-old switch-hitter never even played above A-ball in America before this spring, but he's hit everywhere he's gone this year. That hasn't stopped in the big leagues, as he's clubbed 3 extra-base hits (including 2 homers) in his first 11 at-bats since last week's promotion.

"He's intriguing — there's no question," manager Joe Maddon said. "He could provide a lot for us. Don't forget — right now, he's just here for the first time. He's making his first impression; he's getting used to the situation."

Garcia started each of the Cubs' last three games before the All-Star Break and even with a roster filled with proven players, it's easy to see an avenue to consistent playing time if he continues to hit. That's mostly because some of those proven players are struggling to produce this season.

Garcia's glove may still be lagging behind his bat — he's already made a pair of errors in the big leagues — but with the Cubs struggling to get any consistent offensive production from the second base rotation of Daniel Descalso, Addison Russell and David Bote, maybe the journeyman from the Dominican Republic and Italy can be the answer.

In Sunday's 3-1 loss to the White Sox to wrap up the first half, Garcia provided the team's only offense with a seventh-inning solo shot off left-hander Aaron Bummer.

It's Garcia's left-handed swing that figures to be his best asset to the Cubs, but the fact that he can bring it right-handed is certainly a bonus. It also helps that he can play a variety of positions beyond just second base.

"Overall, he's made a great first impression," Maddon said. "From that right-handed side, I saw it in BP [Saturday] and I thought it was a really short [swing]. He hit that [homer] really well on a high-velocity fastball. I think he's really represented himself well coming from the background he has, showing up all of the sudden with a team that's a good team, but that's not playing as well as they can. And he's been able to step in there and be very helpful."

That home run Sunday was Garcia's 23rd of the season across three levels, including 6 in Double-A Tennessee to start the year before he mashed 15 bombs in 50 Triple-A games after that. 

Even when the Cubs were dreaming on what Garcia could be if everything played out right in 2019, they didn't envision this type of pop.

"No I didn't see that," McLeod said. "He was swinging the bat well in spring training and definitely showed early on that he could get to a fastball — that was the thing that stuck out right away in those spring training games. Yeah, there was some swing-and-miss as we've seen going into the season and now on offspeed [pitches].

"A lot of us watching him then, we were like, with how long he's been gone, with the quality of pitching he'll see, even if he makes the Double-A team, how's the swing gonna hold up? He's gone out and the ball's just carrying in general this year — as we've seen with both the home runs hit in the major leagues and in Triple-A. But that's not to take anything away from the great story this guy's been for the last three months now."

Everything about Garcia's season has been storybook, so why not add another chapter that features him as a valuable role player and potential spark for the Cubs in a hotly contested playoff race? 

What might've seemed impossible just a few months ago just may become a reality on Chicago's North Side this summer.

 

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The next wave: Nico Hoerner and Miguel Amaya leading a new class of Cubs prospects

The next wave: Nico Hoerner and Miguel Amaya leading a new class of Cubs prospects

Gone are the days where Cubs fans would set their offseason clocks by national prospect rankings, treating each new release like Christmas morning and daydreaming about the day all these young kids would be starring at the corner of Clark and Addison.

In fairness, some Cubs fans may still spend their winters that way, but regardless, the daydreams have generally stopped and not just because there are vivid memories of the 2016 World Series to relive over and over again.

The Cubs farm system has not been ranked among the best in the game for a few years now and it currently sits 29th out of 30 in Keith Law's ESPN ranking. But the reasons for that are wide-ranging — from trading away top prospects for MLB talent (Eloy Jimenez, Dylan Cease, Gleyber Torres) to lack of early draft picks (picking late in the first round or losing picks as compensation for signing top free agents) to the obvious graduations of guys like Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr.

So no, the Cubs probably don't have any future stars knocking on the door of the majors. But they do have a few guys they are genuinely excited about and infielder Nico Hoerner and catcher Miguel Amaya are at the forefront of that next wave of prospects.

The Cubs have plenty of pitching prospects worth keeping an eye on (as we detailed this week), but Hoerner and Amaya have become the face of the farm system, so to speak.

Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs all had the pair ranked 1-2 in the Cubs system in some order (BA and BP had Hoerner No. 1 while FanGraphs topped their list with Amaya).

Hoerner, 21, was the Cubs' first-round draft pick out of Stanford last June (24th overall) and flew through the system immediately after signing — from rookie ball in Arizona to short-season Class-A in Eugene, Oregon, to Class-A in South Bend, Indiana. But in total, he only got about two weeks of playing time before going down with a left elbow injury that sapped the rest of his minor-league season.

When he got healthy, the Cubs sent him to the prestigious Arizona Fall League, where he showed out against some of the game's top young talent.

In total, Hoerner hit .333 with a .396 on-base percentage and .529 slugging percentage (.925 OPS) in 35 games in 2018 while clubbing 15 extra-base hits (3 homers, 6 doubles, 6 triples), stealing 7 bases and walking 11 times vs. 20 strikeouts.

When a fan at the "Down on the Farm" panel at Cubs Convention asked about exciting prospects in the Cubs system, director of player development Jaron Madison eagerly threw out Hoerner's name.

"Not just as a player and how athletic he is and how dynamic he is, but also the person and teammate and the leader he is," Madison said. "He has a chance to be really special. He's on his way; he should be a pretty quick mover."

One of the best tools at Hoerner's disposal is his versatility, as he can play second base and shortstop and also got some work at third base last fall.

Here's what FanGraphs said about Hoerner's first taste of pro ball and his potential:

Already, Hoerner’s swing has changed. He was making lots of hard, low-lying contact at Stanford, but since signing he has added a subtle little bat wrap that has made a substantial difference in how he impacts the ball. He hit for much more power than was anticipated in the summer and fall, and the identifiable mechanical tweak is evidence that the change is real and not small-sample noise. Hoerner makes routine plays at short and so long as scouts are okay with his funky throwing motion, he has a chance to stay there. There are scouts who have him projected to second base or to center field. Hoerner’s previous swing enabled a bit of a jailbreak out of the batter’s box, exaggerating his home-to-first speed. With the new swing, he’s a 55 runner. Hoener’s bat and probable up the middle defensive profile mean he’s likely to be at least an average regular, and he could move quickly.

Hoerner's game speed may not be elite, but he has been described as smart baserunner and this is an athletic freak who has no problem dunking despite his 5-foot-11 frame.

I mean, look at these hops:

Amaya won't turn 20 until next month and even though he might not be on the cusp of the big leagues, the Cubs love the potential and he's turned heads of prospect evaluators of late.

Here's why FanGraphs ranked him first in the Cubs system:

Even as he struggled early as a pro to perform on paper, Amaya drew trade interest from clubs hoping to leverage the Cubs’ championship aspirations to convince the club to part with him. The Cubs refused and have been rewarded, as the offensive potential promised by Amaya’s graceful swing and burgeoning physicality began to actualize in 2018. Amaya’s hands have life, and work in a tight little loop as he accelerates them to swing. He can pull and lift balls in various parts of the zone with regularity, and the impact of his contact is only limited by his average bat speed. The physical grind of catching is likely to dilute his in-game offensive production a little bit, but unless the beating he takes back there starts to take away from his defensive abilities (which sometimes happens to young catchers), Amaya is a pretty good bet to have some kind of big league career, and, if the bat maxes out, he’ll be an above-average regular. He turns 20 in March and will likely head to Hi-A next year. How his advanced defensive ability and less-advanced bat develop could affect how quickly the Cubs push him: slowly if they want to wait for the latter or, depending on how much he hits early as a big leaguer, quickly if they don’t.

Amaya's defense has always been ahead of his bat, but he started putting it all together last year. With Class-A South Bend as a 19-year-old, Amaya hit .256/.349/.403 while slugging 12 homers, 21 doubles and 2 triples and knocking in 52 runs in 414 at-bats. He also walked 50 times compared to 91 strikeouts.

"We really like the defensive package and everything he brings on the defensive side of the ball," Cubs senior VP Jason McLeod said while also touting Amaya's advanced plate approach and ability to use the entire field at such a young age.

McLeod is excited about the talent the Cubs have added the last couple years between the draft and internationally. Hoerner and Amaya are getting the most fanfare, but the Cubs have several recent prospect additions that have also received high marks from outside the organization — from other position players (Cole Roederer, Brennan Davis, Aramis Ademan) and some young arms in the lower levels of the minor-league system (Brailyn Marquez, Alex Lange, Paul Richan, Cory Abbott). 

While Amaya and most of the aforementioned names are still probably a couple years away from Chicago, it's not crazy to think Hoerner could impact the big-league club in 2019. He already got to know most of the guys last July on a visit to Wrigley Field and the Cubs are one big injury away from needing middle-infield depth in the majors.

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