Nico optioned as Bote wins second-base job

March 28th, 2021

The Cubs wanted someone to force their hand and win the job at second base this spring. The way manager David Ross sees things, both and more than answered the bell over the past several weeks.

"This has been a tough decision," Ross said. "It comes down to: Who at the end is deserving of the opportunity?"

Ross explained Saturday that he and the Cubs' decision-makers believe Bote has more than earned the chance to show he can be an everyday player. That being the case, Hoerner was optioned to Triple-A Iowa, as opposed to filling a bench role.

Hoerner did all he could to force the Cubs' hand -- showing up with a new physique, refined swing and spraying line drives all over the field -- but Chicago plans on prioritizing his development. He will open at the alternate training site, where he can get regular at-bats in simulated game settings.

"We've talked it to death," Ross said. "We've talked it back and forth, because of who we know Nico is and the future we think he has and the work he put in looks so real. But also, you know, it's David's turn. It's David's turn.

"And I think David's been hearing that message for a long time -- that it's somebody else's turn, 'It's not your turn.' And now David gets an opportunity."

Both Bote (1.036 OPS through 41 Cactus League at-bats) and Hoerner (1.036 OPS through 38 at-bats) have had stellar offensive showings this spring. Bote, 27, is entering his fourth MLB season with sporadic results as a utility man, while Hoerner has spent parts of the past two years with the Cubs.

Ross noted that veteran , who has been in camp as a non-roster invitee, will also Opening Day roster. Utility man (out of Minor League options) is also a bench candidate, along with corner infielder (non-roster).

"There's still decisions to be made on that end," Ross said.

ESPN's Jeff Passan and Jesse Rogers first reported the Cubs' decision on Hoerner late Friday night, noting that Chicago can gain an extra year of control over Hoerner if the infielder stays in the Minors for 36 days. While that is true, there are plenty of other factors in play.

Events of the past two seasons forced Hoerner to the Majors faster than initially anticipated, following his selection in the first round of the 2018 MLB Draft. Injuries led to Hoerner's emergency promotion late in '19, and the absence of a Minor League season (plus expanded MLB rosters) contributed to his sticking with the Cubs throughout '20.

"Nico's had such a unique development process," Ross said.

This is where it is worth noting that the 23-year-old Hoerner was a Gold Glove finalist at second base in '20, and defense will be critical for the Cubs this year with such a contact-based pitching staff. That said, Hoerner also labored in the batter's box last year, hitting .222 (.571 OPS) in 48 games.

It is also fair to note that Hoerner has only logged 375 plate appearances in his Minor League career, which has yet to include any time with Triple-A Iowa. For comparison, Kyle Schwarber and Kris Bryant had 621 and 773 PAs in the Minors, respectively, before breaking into MLB.

Hoerner hit the ground running in September 2019, batting .351 (.968 OPS) in his first nine games. Since that point, he has struggled in the batter's box at the MLB level, turning in a .221/.287/.275 slash line in 167 plate appearances for the Cubs.

That is why Hoerner spent his offseason in Chicago, working closely with assistant hitting coach Chris Valaika on some small, but important swing changes. Hoerner also took advantage of the Cubs' resources at Wrigley Field, focusing on his nutrition and strength training.

Hoerner then started his Cactus League slate with a 7-for-8 showing that included hard-hit liners from line to line.

"I think Nico's going to be a stud here for a long time," Ross said. "A Gold Glove second baseman, future All-Star, I think, in my opinion. And what he's done in the offseason, the work he's put in, I think there's a lot of confidence in this organization about him."

Once Bote was deemed the second baseman, however, Ross did not feel it was fair to ask Hoerner to take on a sporadic bench role. The uneven playing time in 2020 likely played a role in his offensive struggles.

"It's just a really tough role," Ross said, "coming off the bench without a spot to really play him right now. And, if there's a day that I've got to sit David, I mean, Sogard has had a phenomenal spring, too, and gives me a versatile left-handed bat."

At least for the start of the season, the Cubs will lean on those more veteran options, while Hoerner waits in the wings.

"One thing I know about Nico Hoerner," Ross said, "is he'll take this chance to prove everybody wrong and prove me wrong. I told him I made mistakes last year in making out the Opening Day roster. I'm not exempt from making mistakes, but right now, this is the decision."