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Can Nico Hoerner be the leadoff hitter the Cubs are looking for?

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First in a series about Cubs prospects.

Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images

With this, I begin my off-season look at Cubs prospects. I have five or so between half-way done and "on simmer." However, I hadn't figured my angle for my article on Nico Hoerner. You know plenty about him, already. This article will be mild on back story and heavy on "what if?" Is Hoerner a valid leadoff man?

Before Hoerner, a mini-treatise on leadoff men in general. The Cubs have been horrible in the draft/development process with leadoff men. When Corey Patterson is near the top of home-grown lead-off hitters for a team over the last 50 years, that's a rather damnable offense. Why the Cubs have been so bad at developing lead-off hitters is a six-part series I'm not willing to write. Why the Cubs have been unable to adequately replace Dexter Fowler is easier. He likely wasn't worth the five years the Cardinals offered him. He brought a prospect (Alex Lange) as compensation. And, the Cubs wanted to see if their home-grown talent could fill the void. They didn't.

The leadoff batter is a bit of an odd duck, and an anachronism, to an extent. In the 1980s and 1990s, teams wanted a Rickey Henderson or Tim Raines to disrupt a pitcher's timing, hit near .300, steal 70+ bases a year, and have occasional power. While times have changed away from counting stats like base stealing, teams still want a hitter starting off the game who can run up the pitch count, and take an adequate "B-hack" with a 1-2 count. On top of everything else expected/demanded of a hitter, that's a bit of a chore. Not everyone is cut out for it, as Jason Heyward showed us this year.

Hoerner had a successful cup of coffee in 2019. As unconventional as the circumstances were for his debut, he wasn't the reason for the Cubs collapse. With my hope for his draft spot being an 8 to 12 WAR career, his +0.2 from Fangraphs was both reduced late, and entirely tolerable. His ability to make contact and run the bases makes him an interesting leadoff option. Your take on the 2020 season is a proxy on your view of him leading off.

If you think 2020 is a sacred season with much of the core under their initial contract, Hoerner might not be the guy. He has learning to do, still. In three or four years, he might be a very useful top-of-the-order guy. I think he's more in the mold of a vintage second hitter, like a Glenn Beckert, or a contemporary American League ninth-spot hitter: a second leadoff sort. If you consider 2020 a year for manager David Ross to get to know his talent, Hoerner hitting first seems reasonable.

Putting pressure on a human being to do something they're not capable of is usually counterproductive. The Cubs have been historically rather bad at fostering useful lead-off hitters. Hoerner is worth a look there, at some point. If he's useful or well-served in turning 0-2 counts on two pitches into eight-pitch at bats, he may be a better late first round pick than imagined. In the modern game, he could be both better at it than Patterson, yet still ill-suited for the task.

Hopefully, some day, the Cubs get over their self-destructive habit of calling up players before they're ready. When players are allowed to learn more lessons before their debut than has been the case, the team should do better in the standings, consistently. It's tough to find much negative (on or off the field) about Hoerner. Enjoy him. Hope the Cubs find more like him. And, maybe, a few good baserunners who are comfy running up nine- or 10-pitch at-bats after being down 1-2 after three pitches. Hoerner might be one of those. It's a useful trait from all nine batting spots.