Nico Hoerner

Jason Kipnis comes home looking to write one final chapter of his career

Jason Kipnis comes home looking to write one final chapter of his career

Jason Kipnis, who’s potentially the Cubs’ new second baseman but indisputably the pride of Northbrook, said there’s one major reason why his possible reunion with Wrigley Field is so exciting.

“Now I don’t have to hate the 'Go Cubs Go' song,” he quipped.

Kipnis was a late addition to the Cubs’ roster, and still not even a guaranteed one at that. After almost a decade spent being one of the Cleveland Indians’ cornerstones, Kipnis arrived in Mesa on a minor league contract, looking to win a job. Ironically, being with his hometown team is unfamiliar territory for the two-time All-Star. 

“[Leaving Cleveland] was hard at first,” he said. “You get used to the same place for 9-10 years, and I think it’s a little hard right now coming in and being the new guy and being lost and not knowing where to go. But it’ll be fun. It’s exciting. It’s kind of out of the comfort zone again, which is kind of what you want right now – to be uncomfortable. I don’t know, I’ve missed this feeling a little bit, so it’ll be good.”

It was a slow offseason for the second baseman, but the second baseman said he was weighing offers from several teams. Opportunity and organizational direction dictated most of his decision-making, but Kipnis admitted the forces around him were all, rather unsubtly, pulling him in one direction.

“They were telling me to take a deal, take a cut, whatever. Just get here,” he joked. “... It made sense, it really did. I think I didn't fully understand it until it was announced and my phone started blowing up and I realized just how many people this impacted around my life. Friends and family still live in Chicago, so it’s going to be exciting.”

The theme of renewed motivation has hung around Sloan Park like an early-morning Arizona chill, and Kipnis said part of the reason he feels the Cubs brought him in is to set a fire under some guys. He talked with Anthony Rizzo during the offseason, who talked about how the Cubs had struggled at times to put an appropriate emphasis on each of the 162 games in a regular season. That’s not a new problem in baseball, and it struck a chord with Kipnis, who himself was on plenty of talented Cleveland teams that never got over the hump. 

“They got a good core here. I’m well aware of that, they’re well aware of that, too,” he said. “I texted him and called him and asked him what happened last year, because I look at rosters, I look at St. Louis’, I look at all that, and I’m like, ‘I still would take your guys' roster.’” 

As for his direct competition, Kipnis said he hasn’t had a chance to really get to know Nico Hoerner yet, but doesn’t feel like the battle for second base has to be a contentious one by any means. At 32, Kipnis has been around long enough to understand the dynamics an aging veteran vs. a top prospect, and doesn't feel like it’s a situation where only one of them will end up benefiting. 

“I know he came up and had a pretty good success, so I think [it’s] going to be a competition, but at the same time, I’m not going to try to put him down,” he said. “I’d like to work with him, kind of teach him what I know too and hopefully both of us become better from it.” 

Cubs could turn to Anthony Rizzo as answer to prolonged leadoff spot question

Cubs could turn to Anthony Rizzo as answer to prolonged leadoff spot question

As he settled into his seat to meet the media on Tuesday, Cubs manager David Ross asked the cluster in front of him who was “leading off” with the first question of the session.

In response, a reporter turned the question around to Ross, asking the first-year manager who his leadoff hitter will be this season. That quip drew laughter from the room, but it’s one of the Cubs’ most pressing questions this spring.

“I’m still gonna look at it. We’ve got some options, just playing things over my head,” Ross said. “Wait to see how some of the at-bats go in spring for sure, see how some of these guys look. I’ve got a couple guys in mind — I’m not ready to publicly announce.”

The leadoff spot was a glaring weakness for the Cubs in 2019. With Ben Zobrist missing a chunk of the season, 11 players led off at least once, hitting a combined .212 with a .294 on-base percentage. Both totals ranked last in MLB (by four and 14 points).

The Cubs have used 17 leadoff hitters since Dexter Fowler departed in free agency post-2016. Last season showed the downside to that method: When pressed into action, Jason Heyward (33 games, .147 average, .252 OBP) and Kyle Schwarber (56 games, .229 average and .304 OBP) struggled in that spot.

The rotating cast method can work — in 2018, Cubs leadoff men ranked fourth in MLB in average (.302) and second in OBP (.366). However, Ross said this week he believes in a structured lineup and not moving guys around too much. Finding a consistent leadoff hitter is part of that equation, and the first-year skipper has a couple names in mind. 

“There’s a handful of guys you guys can say or can speculate, but I think [Anthony Rizzo] is definitely a viable option if I want to go with a professional at-bat to lead it off,” Ross said Tuesday. “There’s a group of guys and I haven’t talked to any players, had any meetings, got to speak to anybody yet. Still want to do that when we get [going] here.”

The stats backup Rizzo's Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All-Time self-proclamation. In 58 games (244 plate appearances) leading off, the slugger holds a .335/.426/.602 slash line with 14 home runs and 167 wRC+. He said last month he prefers to hit third or fourth but is "all-in" for what Ross wants to do.

Rizzo leading off is reasonable when Schwarber, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras are hitting well — the four can makeup for any lost slugging with him at leadoff. Rizzo being atop the lineup also creates a formidable 1-5.

Another option could be Ian Happ, who hit .311/.348/.672 last September with six home runs. In the season’s final eight games, he posted a .480/.519/1.200 line with five homers and 12 RBIs. He's been less successful in his career leading off: 30 games (113 plate appearances), .232/.319/.475, 40 strikeouts, 12 walks.

If Happ continues to improve his strikeout rate (2019: 25 percent) and continues walking consistently (career: 12.0 percent), he's a viable leadoff option. Nico Hoerner and his contact-oriented approach is a wild-card option but he needs to boost his walk rate (3.7 percent last season). Hoerner may start the year in Triple-A anyhow, and the Cubs likely won't toss him at the top of the lineup with so few big-league at-bats on his résumé.

In an ideal world, the Cubs would’ve added a prototypical leadoff man this winter. Between the shortage of such players league-wide and their tight-budget, a move never came to fruition. They're hoping to find an internal solution this spring.

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Nico Hoerner's plan for the 2020 season is actually surprisingly simple

Nico Hoerner's plan for the 2020 season is actually surprisingly simple

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.” 

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