The Cubs made a move today that no one expected or even really wanted, but we’re excited about anyway. Due to injuries to Javier Baez and Addison Russell, the Cubs were short on shortstops and the front office decided that 2018 first-round draft pick Nico Hoerner was the best option left.
To be clear, Hoerner isn’t just some random replacement-level player plucked out of the minor leagues. Hoerner is the top prospect in the Cubs system according to Baseball America, MLB Pipeline and many other sources, including my own rankings. But in an ideal world, Hoerner would be getting ready for his second season in the Arizona Fall League instead of heading to San Diego to meet up with the Cubs. But the Cubs aren’t living in anything close to an ideal world.
The Cubs took Hoerner with the 24th overall pick in the first round of the 2018 draft out of Stanford. He immediately made an impression in short-season Eugene. After seven games and going 7 for 22 with a home run, five walks and a hit-by-pitch, the Cubs noticed he was too good for the Northwest League and promoted him to South Bend. His time in South Bend was short, however, as he lasted just four games before straining a ligament in his elbow while making a diving play on defense.
Hoerner was well enough to play in the Arizona Fall League in 2018 and despite the AFL being quite a challenge for someone with only 14 professional games under his belt, Hoerner excelled there last season, hitting .337/.362/.506 over 21 games.
Heading into 2019, the Cubs had Hoerner skip Advanced-A Myrtle Beach and go right to Double-A Tennessee. Once again, a promising start got derailed by an injury as Hoerner was hit in the had by a pitch on April 23 and missed two months with a fractured wrist.
Hoerner struggled a bit in July as he came back from his injury, but was terrific in August, hitting .333/.391/.390 over 26 games. As you can see from those numbers, he was making a lot of contact and getting a lot of hits, but he wasn’t hitting for much power.
And that’s what you should expect from Hoerner at the moment. At the plate, Hoerner’s biggest strength is his ability to make contact and put the ball into play. Hoerner rarely gets fooled (by Double-A pitchers, at least) and rarely has a bad at-bat. Pitchers need to work to get Hoerner out. Hoerner walked 21 times this season and struck out just 31 times over 294 plate appearances. Even those numbers are skewed by his poor July when he was still getting back to game speed after the injury. Just counting April and August, Hoerner walked 17 times and struck out 17 times. On a team that struggles to make contact like the Cubs, Hoerner is a welcome alternative in the lineup who gives opposing pitchers something different to face.
Hoerner had 16 doubles, three triples and three home runs for the Smokies and clearly at this point in his career, he’s not a power threat. But he certainly has the size and strength to start muscling the ball out as he gains more experience.
Hoerner has good speed and is a threat on the basepaths. He stole eight bases in 12 attempts this year, but he impresses me more with his ability to take an extra base on a single.
Defensively, you aren’t going to confuse Hoerner for Baez or Russell, but he’s good out there. Scouts have questioned his range and arm and have generally ticketed him to play second base in the majors. But he does compensate for his lack of natural range through good positioning and a good first step. His hands are sure and he generally catches anything he gets to. He’s particularly good at making vertical plays as he uses his 6’1” size and his good leaping ability to spear line drives over his head.
Hoerner has also been praised for his maturity and level-headed disposition. You never know how someone is going to react to his first major-league call-up, but Hoerner seems like the type of player who won’t take the butterflies onto the field with him. It may be the reason the Cubs decided to promote Hoerner now instead of someone with Triple-A experience such as Zack Short or Vimael Machin.
Hoerner is also the first 2018 draftee to reach the majors.
Hoerner is not yet a finished product. As I stated earlier, the front office would surely prefer to send Hoerner down to the AFL again next week and have him work on his development. But they didn’t feel like they had a choice. So now Cubs fans are going to get a peek at the future just a little bit early.