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Cubs weigh the 'long haul' with Hoerner

@MLBastian
March 7, 2020

LAS VEGAS -- Nico Hoerner glided around the basepaths at Las Vegas Ballpark on Saturday afternoon, while the baseball he just launched caromed off wall in left-center field. The Cubs rookie slid into third with a triple, delivering a pair of runs in the process. It is hits like that

LAS VEGAS -- Nico Hoerner glided around the basepaths at Las Vegas Ballpark on Saturday afternoon, while the baseball he just launched caromed off wall in left-center field. The Cubs rookie slid into third with a triple, delivering a pair of runs in the process.

It is hits like that that have Cubs fans dreaming on Hoerner in the Opening Day lineup.

"He's proven he can come up here and be a big league player," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said this week. "He brings obvious things to the table, including a lot of things that we don't have in abundance in other places."

So, what's the catch?

"We also want to make sure," Epstein added, "that he ends up being the best player that he possibly can be for the long haul."

The Cubs are continuing to monitor a few things as they decide how to handle their opening at second base. With Hoerner, specifically, Chicago's evaluators want to be confident that his development will not be disrupted if the team hands him the keys to an everyday job in the Majors. Otherwise, the 22-year-old infielder, rated by MLB Pipeline as the Cubs' top prospect, could be ticketed for Triple-A to start the season.

When it comes to Hoerner's progress this spring, the Cubs are not simply looking at the numbers found in the box score. There are smaller things within at-bats or involved in plays in the field that Chicago is studying.

Here are some of the things that the team's decision makers are watching closely:

At the plate
As Epstein alluded, one of the things the Cubs "don't have in abundance" is high-contact hitters, especially with Ben Zobrist no longer in the fold. Making a high rate of contact is one of Hoerner's strengths, but it is a skill that can also create traps for a hitter.

"That's kind of my biggest natural skill," Hoerner said, "is being able to put the bat on the ball, but that can also be something that limits you. It goes both ways, depending on what I do with it."

Here is a look at Chicago's team contact numbers in 2019, with the Cubs' National League rank in parentheses:

Contact overall: 73.8 percent (15th)
Contact in zone: 83.4 percent (14th)
Contact out of zone: 60.6 percent (13th)

And here is what Hoerner did in the Majors in '19:

Contact overall: 81.9 percent
Contact in zone: 90.2 percent
Contact out of zone: 74.2 percent

What the Cubs want to keep seeing this spring and throughout the upcoming season is Hoerner making good decisions on which pitches he targets. Yes, he can make contact with regularity, but Chicago is working with him on honing his approach for swinging at pitches primed for damage.

"He's one of those hitters with a gift of great bat control and contact ability," Epstein said. "But, I think it's becoming a little more intentional, a little bit more disciplined about what he's looking for earlier in the count and what he can really drive and not getting himself out on pitcher's pitches."

One example that Epstein cited was that Hoerner was susceptible to offering at fastballs in and off the plate. While Hoerner had a .476 slugging percentage on fastballs overall with the Cubs in '19, he had a .353 slugging average on heaters (all types) on the inner edge or off the plate. His slugging on fastballs inside the zone was .714.

Hoerner agreed with Epstein's assessment.

"A lot of times, as hitters, we end up kind of focusing on the pitch we actually made an out on," Hoerner said. "But a lot of times, it's more the pitch you fouled off that you had a good chance to drive early in the count. Or, the ball you chased in a tough situation later on. So, it's the whole at-bat. I think that's where I have the biggest chance for improvement in my game."

In the field
Hoerner's primary position is shortstop. That is where he started for the North Siders in their 8-5 loss Saturday against the Reds, with fellow second-base candidate Jason Kipnis on the other side of the infield.

Hoerner is quick to note, however, that he spent his entire freshman season at Stanford as a second baseman and played that position in the Cape Cod League in 2017. He has logged 130 innings at second in the Minor Leagues and started one game there for the Cubs last September.

"I just haven't played it at the Major League level before that much," Hoerner said. "So, just like anything, there's more attention to detail and things you can pick up. But, that's the same for shortstop for me, too."

In the morning workouts, Hoerner has been picking the brains of Kipnis, David Bote and Daniel Descalso, along with bench coach Andy Green. He has been getting steady repetitions at second to focus on the nuances of the position. The spin on grounders can be different. The angle is reversed from shortstop. Turning a double play can be tricky with a back facing first base and the runner.

"What I've seen," Cubs manager David Ross said, "is he's kind of gotten better each and every day. A couple games early on, the ball was handcuffing him a little bit. He was still making the plays -- he's got great hands -- but things are backwards a little bit. Turning to pivot for the double play -- I think the double play is a key one for us."

Hoerner believes the key for him is to not make any panicked moves around the bag.

"A lot of it's just kind of trusting that being smooth is fast enough," he said. "I think a lot of times I, or players in general, get into trouble just trying to be too fast. It's kind of trusting that you can play the game at a comfortable speed and not forcing it."

Jordan Bastian covers the Cubs for MLB.com. He previously covered the Indians from 2011-18 and the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian.