Nico Hoerner

On and off the field, Nico Hoerner proved he should be a big part of 2020 Cubs

On and off the field, Nico Hoerner proved he should be a big part of 2020 Cubs

Even before his surprise mid-September call-up, things were shaping up for Nico Hoerner to be a big part of the 2020 Cubs.

Now it looks like a certainty after the way he played in his 20-game cup of coffee in the final few weeks of 2019.

The organization's top prospect excelled at every level after the Cubs made him a first-round pick (24th overall) in June 2018. A broken wrist cost him two months this summer, but when he returned to Double-A Tennessee, the Cubs had him playing second base and center field in addition to shortstop, his natural position. That only boosted his value, as the Cubs clearly have holes at both center and second that they need to address this winter.

When he was pressed into duty after injuries to Javy Baez and Addison Russell, Hoerner proved the moment was certainly not too big for him. He hit .282 with a .741 OPS and 17 RBI in 20 games while playing solid defense at shortstop and displaying his great contact skills. 

While it's not unheard of for 22-year-olds to come up and immediately make an impact in the big leagues, Hoerner's case was particularly impressive given he played just 89 minor-league games and had not taken an at-bat above the Double-A level.

And Hoerner didn't just turn in solid production on the field — he was actually credited with helping provide a spark to the rest of the club, even though the season ultimately didn't end up the way the Cubs wanted. 

"He's been a little bit of a spark plug for us," Jon Lester said at the beginning of the Cubs' final homestand. "Any time you add energy like that, especially the naiveness of it — just not knowing what to expect and just going and playing baseball. Sometimes we all need to get back to that. Sometimes we all need to get back to just being baseball players and not worry about what else is going on surrounding us."

His former manager, Joe Maddon, called Hoerner a "differencemaker" down the stretch and felt confident he could stick at shortstop long-term.

It was also Hoerner's attitude and temperament that really drew rave reviews. Everybody — from Maddon to Theo Epstein to fellow teammates — were blown away by his sense of calm and confidence even while playing in pressure-packed big-league games. Those are the intangibles the Cubs have loved about Hoerner since they drafted him and don't expect that to change anytime soon.

"This is the type of human being he is," Epstein said. "He processes things really well he has strong character, he's in it for the right reasons, he's got a great family. He's really an invested member of the organization, a teammate and a winner."

This is the way he's always been, as his mom, Keila Diehl, explained to Kelly Crull in an interview on NBC Sports Chicago's broadcast on Sept. 14.

"He's just not full of himself," Diehl said. "He could be, and he's just not. ... He's just like this nice, ordinary guy — no attitude. Always brings a lot of energy and positivity to any team he's on."

That's exactly the guy we saw in Chicago in the final three weeks of the season. 

So as he recovers from his first full season of professional ball, Hoerner is in a position to forge a huge role for himself in Chicago next year. At the moment, it's reasonable to expect that to come at second base, but his ability to play shortstop might very well make Russell expendable this winter, especially with MLB Trade Rumors projecting the latter would be due $5.1 million in arbitration in 2020. 

The Cubs made it a point to get Hoerner some playing time at both second base and center field in the final two games of the 2019 season and he could at the very least offer a depth option in the outfield. 

His versatility, intangibles, and competitive drive present an intriguing package and his offensive skillset can help bring some diversity to the Cubs lineup. Hoerner is not really a power hitter at this point in his career but his hand-eye coordination and contact ability provide a refreshing style to this offense.

Simply put, Hoerner is just a good *baseball* player and profiles as the type of guy that can help any winning team in some capacity. 

The only question now is: Will the Cubs stash him in the minors for the early part of the season or let him continue to develop at Wrigley Field?

“We don’t ever draw it up that a player’s gonna skip Triple-A," Epstein said at his end-of-season presser. "It’s not determined yet where Nico’s gonna start next season, but given his mental makeup, given his skillset, who he is as a person, we felt that was something under the extraordinary circumstances that he could handle. I think it’s important that player development continues at the major-league level. 

"These days, it’s becoming a younger player’s game. If you look around baseball, the best teams have young players dominating. Yes, it’s not linear. There’s gonna be regression at the major-league level. But our players have had some real regression that’s taken them a while to dig out from. That’s something that we have to solve — finding ways to finish development off as best you can in the minor leagues, but understanding too that you need to create an environment at the major-league level with players who are expected to perform night after night are still developing, still working on their weaknesses, still making adjustments to the league." 

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Cubs head into offseason targeting center field, second base upgrades

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USA TODAY

Cubs head into offseason targeting center field, second base upgrades

The Cubs had many stellar individual offensive seasons in 2019. There is no questioning that.

Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras enjoyed resurgent campaigns; Javier Baez was one of the NL’s best hitters before suffering a thumb injury; Jason Heyward had his best offensive season on the North Side, while Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber, arguably, had career years at the plate.

And yet, among those performances were two constants: the suboptimal production from Cubs center fielders and second basemen.

The Cubs used five different center fielders in 2019, with Albert Almora Jr. (80) and Jason Heyward (74) receiving the bulk of the starts. This pales in comparison to the team’s second base rotation, however, where six players started at least 10 games.

“Center field and second base were the two positions where we had the least production this year, we had the most trouble finding consistent performance,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said at Monday’s end-of-season press conference.  

Cubs second basemen posted a combined .220/.301/.383 (.684 OPS) slash line, all team lows (sans pitchers and designated hitters). League-wide, they ranked 28th in average and 21st in OPS, though Ben Zobrist's four-month leave of absence certainly played a role here.

Cubs center fielders weren’t much better, ranking second-worst among the team’s positional groups with a .232/.305/.388 (.693 OPS) slash line. League-wide, they checked in at 20th in both average and OPS.

Almora finished the season with career lows in average and on-base percentage. This led the Cubs to: a) play Heyward in center field more, b) acquire Nick Castellanos and c) make Almora a defensive replacement.

Heyward’s final numbers were negatively affected by his August stint leading off — where he is less comfortable hitting than other spots. But with no better options, he essentially took one for the team, though former manager Joe Maddon probably could’ve pulled the plug on the experiment sooner.

Coincidentally, Heyward moved to the leadoff spot around the same time he became the Cubs' full-time center fielder. So, while he had a solid season overall, his toughest stretch came as a center fielder, which "helped" drag down the team's overall numbers for the position.

Some form of change is coming to the Cubs roster this offseason. And while Epstein admitted center field/leadoff is a position they’d look to upgrade, it’s not like it’ll be an easy task.

“We do have in-house options, but being transparent, of course it’s an area where you look to upgrade and see if you can get the total package, with the prototypical center fielder who can also leadoff,” Epstein said. “If you look at the landscape of center fielders in the game, it’s not exactly a position with great surplus or an overabundance of options out there."

So, what do the Cubs do if there’s no clear option for them to acquire?

“You just have to be realistic,” Epstein said. “If you spend all your time waiting for that next guy who solves all your problems to be there, you might pass on some good options, where you can put things together with a platoon or use a player that you currently have and compliment him with a more attainable player from outside the organization.”

The Cubs have an intriguing second base option in Nico Hoerner, who can also play center field, if needed. The 22-year-old joined the Cubs in September, filling in at shortstop for the injured Baez and Addison Russell. Barring a trade, Baez will be the Cubs starting shortstop next season, but Hoerner's contact-oriented approach makes him a good fit for the Cubs lineup, possibly as a leadoff hitter.

Epstein was complimentary of how Hoerner responded to his September promotion, though he added that the Cubs haven’t determined where the 22-year-old will start the 2020 season.

“We don’t ever draw it up that a player’s gonna skip Triple-A,” he said. “It’s not determined yet where Nico’s gonna start next season, but given his mental makeup, given his skillset, who he is as a person, we felt that was something, under the extraordinary circumstances, that he could handle.”

If Hoerner starts the 2020 season in the minor leagues, other Cubs second basemen under contract include Russell, Daniel Descalso, Tony Kemp, Robel Garcia, David Bote and Ian Happ.

The Cubs demoted Russell to Triple-A twice this season, though he hit just .237/.308/.391 in 82 big-league games. He also missed the first month of the season while serving a domestic violence suspension.

Descalso was hampered by an ankle injury for much of the season, which affected his performance at the plate. Kemp brought the Cubs a contact-oriented approach, but he hit just .183 after they acquired him at the trade deadline.

Garcia showed promise, though he struggled to hit breaking pitches. Bote and Happ did contribute on consistent basis offensively, but they saw more time at third base and in the outfield, respectively.

Point being, there’s no option that jumps off the page right now. Whether it’s center field, second base or elsewhere, Epstein and Co. won’t hesitate to make an upgrade, should they see fit.

“We struggled as an organization this year to make sure that with the major league team, the whole was as good or better than the sum of the parts,” he said. “I think we had a lot of good individual performances, we had a lot of talent and ability.

“I think if we do our job the right way, we’re going to have a lot of talent next year. We’re going to score a lot of runs, we’re going to prevent a lot of runs.”

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How the Cubs plan to climb out of the 'winner's trap' they now find themselves in

How the Cubs plan to climb out of the 'winner's trap' they now find themselves in

If the buzzword that came out of last year's end-of-season Theo Epstein press conference was “reckoning,” the phrase that rises above all others in 2019 is "winner's trap."

Epstein referenced it three separate times Monday afternoon inside the Wrigley Field press conference room, just a few feet away from the Cubs clubhouse that was all cleared out before Oct. 1, with no champagne bottles popped or celebratory toasts.

The Cubs president of baseball operations began his 82-minute season eulogy by thanking fans and accepting responsibility for the absence of postseason baseball this fall. He knows there are high standards set for this team and he - like Joe Maddon and the players - acknowledge this organization fell short of meeting those expectations.

But why did they fall short? Why did Epstein sit in front of the Chicago media (and any fans watching via the numerous live streams) and say many of the same things he said 362 days ago when the 2018 Cubs were stunningly knocked out of the National League playoffs after only one game?

"I think a lot of the issues that we have now started to show themselves towards the end of last year," Epstein said Monday.

While admitting it's disappointing that he's highlighting many of the same problems with this team as he did a year ago, Epstein attempted to explain why, using the idea of the "winner's trap."

"If you want to say we were stubborn with this group, I think that's fair," he said. "We had real belief in this group. To be self-critical and to be honest and accountable, I think there can be a bit of a winner's trap dynamic sometimes where, when you've had great success and won - that group at that time had won more games than anyone else in baseball over those four years - when you look back, you look at the methods and the players and everything that had gone on and you attribute the success to them, rightfully. But it can lead to attributing too many good qualities or placing too much faith in that.

"I think it requires real leadership to move beyond that and that's an area where I need to do a better job as a leader, letting go of the past and focusing on the future. And this is clearly a moment of transition...where we're gonna build something anew."

Epstein said a lot of this came up in conversations with Cubs players throughout the course of the season and while he felt there were some strong efforts made to try to correct the issue from last fall to this one, the problems persisted.

That's why, he felt, there was a major need for change this offseason.

That change began when Epstein announced Sunday morning that Maddon would no longer be the manager of this club, so there will be a new voice and a new field general on the top step of the dugout.

One of the main themes throughout Epstein's press conference was his desire for the franchise to stop looking backwards - especially at 2016 - and instead keep their focus on the future and trying to fix things moving forward.

In other words, he doesn't want anybody to rest on their laurels - and that includes himself and the entire Cubs front office.

For example, why did this Cubs team that was filled with a bunch of World Series winners and battled-tested players need somebody like Nicholas Castellanos to come in and "remind them what hunger looks like"?

Why did they need to get a spark in the middle of a pennant race from a 22-year-old shortstop with only 89 minor-league games to his name (Nico Hoerner)?

"Complacency is a tough word," Epstein said. "If I say there were instances of complacency, it's too easy to paint everyone with a broad brush and I wouldn't do that because I respect our players and their work ethic. I'm getting a lot of this also from our players, they're open with us about things that we as a group can do differently. I think there's a winner's trap of looking backwards - that applies not just to us in the front office, but also to the players.

"There's a lot of looking back at things that have worked in the past. There's a lot of looking back at 2016. There's a lot of reliance on our natural ability and the fact that this is how we do things and we've always come through in the past and a certain mindset that we have here. If you look at the last couple Septembers, you can make a strong argument that that doesn't work anymore. And so we have to try to create a winning culture for now, not what was a winning culture a few years ago.

"We're intent on doing better in that area. All of our players are. They all want to be part of something that's the best culture in baseball. That should be the standard. … We want to have a culture where when a player steps in here midseason, he's not providing energy - there's already energy."

Epstein and some Cubs players - in particular, Kris Bryant Sunday evening - admitted it was difficult to face all these realities last fall, because even though the season ended in a disappointing fashion, this team still won 95 games and they had the best record in the NL through 162 games.

This fall, there is absolutely no way to spin it as anything other than the fact the Cubs fell short.

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