Bryant, Schwarber, Happ ... Is Nico next?
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MESA, Ariz. -- When it comes to drafting college position players in the first round, the Chicago Cubs don’t miss.
Kris Bryant (2013), Kyle Schwarber (2014) and Ian Happ (2015) each made an expedited rise through the Minors en route to Wrigley Field, and all three have helped fuel the organization’s return to prominence as perennial contenders.
So when the Cubs selected Stanford shortstop Nico Hoerner in the first round of the 2018 Draft (No. 24 overall), it was only fair to wonder whether he might be the club’s next quick-to-the-Majors college pick.
Based on the early returns, it might not be too long until the Cubs’ No. 2 prospect is ready to contribute at the highest level.
Regarded by scouts as one of the best pure hitters in the 2018 class, Hoerner lived up to that reputation by batting .327/.450/.571 across three levels in his pro debut after signing for $2,724,000. He had already reached Class A South Bend -- and collected six hits in his first 15 at-bats there -- by mid-July when he suffered strained ligaments in his left elbow while diving for a ball on the infield.
While the injury ended Hoerner’s pro debut after just 14 games, he returned fully healthy in time for the Arizona Fall League and impressed as one of its breakout stars, producing a .337/.362/.506 line over 21 games against far better competition than at any point in his career. To many, the 21-year-old looked like a hitter fresh off of a full season in Double-A, one perhaps on the cusp on the Major Leagues.
“Nico is awesome,” said Cubs farm director Jaron Madison. "I think the most impressive thing about him is the kid -- the makeup and the person he is. He’s a team guy, a leader, and he connects really well with his teammates. You don’t normally get that from guys who go in the first round.”
With Hoerner already showing the makings of becoming an advanced hitter, the Cubs are addressing a few things defensively this spring that they believe will increase his chances of sticking at shortstop.
“We’ve done some work with changing his arm stroke a little bit,” said Madison. “His arm slot was a little low, especially when turning double plays, so just working to get him on top of the ball more consistently so that he’s throwing it with more backspin.
"He’s figured that out and is throwing the ball really well. It’s coming out of his hand a lot better to first base.”
Madison and the Cubs also have high hopes for Brennen Davis and Cole Roederer, a pair of prep outfielders whom the club selected with its second and third picks in the 2018 Draft. Davis, the club’s second-round pick (No. 62 overall), signed for $1.1 million, while Roederer received a $1.2 million bonus as the No. 77 overall pick.
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Both players performed well in their pro debuts in the Rookie-level Arizona League, too, with Davis slashing .298/.431/.333 to Roederer’s .275/.354/.465.
“It was really good to see those two guys go out and do what they did,” said Madison. “They challenged each other and both put together a really good first year. They’re close friends too, and have been here at our complex all offseason working on their bodies.”
But while Davis, No. 7 on the Cubs’ Top 30 list, and Roederer (No. 5) will be forever connected because of their Draft class, the two players have very different skill sets.
“Roederer is a bit more polished and has more feel,” noted Madison. “Davis is projection and upside to dream on because of the body and tools. But they complement and challenge each other really well.”
Hoerner, MLB Pipeline’s No. 100 overall prospect, has continued to make a statement with his bat in big league camp this spring. Appearing in parts of five games, Hoerner has compiled a .714 average with three extra-base hits and four runs scored while recording 3-for-3 and 2-for-3 performances in back-to-back games.
On the Minor League side, Brailyn Marquez, the Cubs’ top-ranked pitching prospect, has impressed early. The left-hander reached full-season ball for the first time as a 19-year-old in 2018, making a pair of starts at South Bend after posting a 3.21 ERA with 52 strikeouts over 47 2/3 frames (10 starts) in the Class A Short Season Northwest League.
”He was sitting 95-96 mph the other day in his live batting practice,” said Madison. “He’s a big, tall, lanky kid who’s still growing into his frame and understanding how everything works and repeats, so there’s definitely more in the tank. He’ll show you 98s, with the ability to spin a breaking ball and throw a good changeup, but now it’s just about him learning to repeat his delivery enough to have command.”
Ademan poised for breakout
The Cubs signed Aramis Ademan for $2 million out of the Dominican Republic as part of a 2015-16 international period in which they gave out a total of $16.4 million in bonuses. His maturity has led Chicago to push him aggressively, and while he was able to handle Class A at age 18 in 2017, he scuffled as the youngest regular in the Class A Advanced Carolina League last year, finishing with a .207/.291/.273 line in 114 games.
But the Cubs’ No. 6 prospect showed maturity throughout his season-long struggles, and, perhaps more importantly, he has taken steps this offseason that has the organization believing 2019 could be a breakout season for the 20-year-old shortstop.
“Aramis battled and held his own,” said Madison, “and you have to remember it was the first time he’s really ever struggled at the plate. I think he just got kind of lost in his approach and at the same time realized he needs to get stronger.”
As a result, Ademan spent the whole offseason at the Cubs’ spring complex, adding strength while also working with Chris Valaika, the organization’s new Minor League hitting coordinator.
“He’s continued to make adjustments at the plate, and the ball is already coming off his bat differently this spring,” said Madison.