For most of this offseason, the feeling was that Nico Hoerner would need to spend a little bit more time in the minor leagues in 2021. Nico showed talent and maturity beyond his years when he joined the team during the playoff stretch in 2019. He filled in admirably at shortstop after Javier Báez and Addison Russell both landed on the injured list, but struggled against MLB pitching in the shortened season in 2020. He put up a slash line of just .222/.312/.259 over 126 plate appearances, with an abysmal wRC+ of 63, although it is worth noting he also received a Gold Glove nomination.
However, Hoerner showed up at Spring Training this year like a man on a mission. He was red hot at the plate. slashing .361/.400/.639 in 36 at bats. Admittedly, Spring Training stats don’t matter and it’s a tiny sample size, but Nico looked different this spring. His bat looked ready and he already proved his glove was ready in 2020, so it seemed likely Nico would be on the Opening Day roster. In fact, on the season preview episode of the Cuppa Cubbie Blue podcast we recorded Friday afternoon, Marquee Sports Network’s Tony Andracki and I spent our time talking about Ildemaro Vargas versus Eric Sogard at second base for the final roster spot. So this tweet from Jeff Passan last night was a stunner:
The Cubs are optioning second baseman Nico Hoerner, sources tell @JesseRogersESPN and me. Eric Sogard is expected to make the team.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) March 27, 2021
Evaluators saw Hoerner as the best 2B in camp. Service-time considerations are very real. If he’s in minors for 36 days, Cubs get an extra year.
There are three angles to this decision that I think are particularly interesting, but before I get into those let me be clear. Eric Sogard and Ildemaro Vargas also both looked great this Spring:
Vargas: .324/.343/.471 over 34 at bats
Sogard: .370/.469/.556 over 27 at bats
The Cubs definitely had a tough decision on their hands, but the logical conclusion I’m drawing here is similar to Passan’s. I think this has less to do with whether or not Sogard is slightly more ready to play and more to do with the Cubs potentially netting an extra year of service time for Hoerner.
This doesn’t bode well for 2021. Getting out to a hot start is important under normal circumstances, it is downright imperative for the 2021 Chicago Cubs. Báez, Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant are all free agents after 2021. Willson Contreras is a free agent after 2022. If the Cubs are middling or out of the division race early, Jed Hoyer will likely have no choice but to trade every player he can for the maximum return possible. Frankly, Hoyer might do that even if the Cubs are barely winning the division. But a decent lead in the very mediocre NL Central would make that a lot more difficult.
Getting off to a hot start was never going to be easy. The Cubs have a remarkably difficult schedule in April when they play 19 of their 26 games against the Brewers, Mets and Braves. Stashing one of their hottest bats and a plus defender at the alternate site does not make that task any easier.
The Cubs’ future
Jed Hoyer might be saying the Cubs are looking to compete this year and that they feel like they can win this division, but so far the single biggest move he’s made this offseason made that harder, not easier. The Cubs were a better team with Yu Darvish in the rotation and Victor Caratini backing up Willson Contreras. Admittedly, Zach Davies looks a lot better than I expected but “better than I expected” isn’t last year’s Cy Young Award runner-up.
Optioning Nico to the alternate site makes a lot of sense from one perspective: the perspective of a Cubs team that is hoping they can game another year of service time out of a player they very much view as part of their future plans.
Now, those rules very well could change when the Collective Bargaining Agreement is renegotiated at the end of 2021. However, it makes perfect sense with the available information to try and maximize this advantage just in case it still exists after the new CBA, particularly if you run a team that is about to see three franchise players walk for nothing. Friday evening, it was reported that while extension talks with Anthony Rizzo are ongoing:
Cubs are trying to extend star 1B Anthony Rizzo and have made him an offer. Last word heard is that there’s still a gap. But there’s nearly a week to go before season starts.— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) March 27, 2021
If the Cubs cannot extend Rizzo, Baez, Bryant and/or Contreras the team will recover a lot faster if they trade those players for the best returns they can get. It makes almost no sense to waste a year of Nico’s service time over 36 days in the minors, and it also flies in the face of competing in 2021.
Reports out of the alternate site were not great last year. Al wrote about this briefly in his piece looking at the Cubs’ additional option year for Adbert Alzolay. It seems like some teams are aware of these problems and working to correct them, but the risk to players staying on top of their game seems real to me. Minor league players have already lost a year of development in many cases, sending them to a site to play sim games for a month really doesn’t seem adequate to keep them ready and at the top of their game.
By all accounts, Nico is an exceptionally well-prepared baseball player. I’m sure he’ll have a plan to stay sharp at the alternate site, but let’s look at the impact on his future slightly differently. Nico will turn 24 early in the 2021 season (just a week after he’ll be able to come up and owe the Cubs an extra year of service time, in fact). His age-23 season, that by all accounts should have been spent in Triple-A, was instead spent in a pandemic shortened MLB environment. And so in place of hundreds of in-game at bats, he had 126. It’s easy to forget he barely has 200 MLB at-bats between 2019 and 2020 or that he only has 375 at bats in the minors. Time at the alternate site is more time he’s not playing actual games, at least until Triple-A starts on May 4.
Since the Cubs have no incentive to pull Nico up before the service time date (well, you know, other than winning — but let’s stop pretending that’s the goal of baseball teams) he’ll just lose a month of game experience in 2021. Then we get to 2022 where there might not be a season at all pending the CBA negotiations. That would mean for all, or part, of three seasons between ages 23 and 25 Hoerner will be both losing playing and development time all in the name of the Cubs being able to start his clock as late as humanly possible.
There are real at bats and real learning experiences in those days. It was one thing to mess around with service time when there was a parallel league with games, coaches and competition being played. It is fundamentally different to do that when the poor substitute for the game environment is intramural scrimmaging in Iowa.
At the end of the day Spring Training stats are meaningless for a reason. Pitchers are working on new stuff and stretching out, game situations are looser and different. I am certainly not arguing Nico should start the season on the Cubs Opening Day roster because he edged out Eric Sogard’s spring OPS. But there are real costs to this move both in terms of the Cubs putting their best team on the field during a rough month of their schedule and Nico Hoerner’s development as a player. Evaluating this move through either of the above lenses doesn’t point to a Cubs team that is trying to win in 2021. They speak to a Cubs team that wouldn’t mind winning in 2021, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of maxing out their wins sometime after there is a new Collective Bargaining Agreement.