Analyzing the Nico Hoerner decision

March 7th, 2021

MESA, Ariz. -- A few minutes after sat down with reporters at the Cubs' complex on Saturday morning, veteran Eric Sogard grabbed a bat and took some swings against Kyle Hendricks in a live batting practice workout.

Hoerner knows he is fighting for the starting second base job for the Cubs this spring, and the recent addition of Sogard as a non-roster invite added another layer to the situation. In the midst of a hot streak in the batter's box, Hoerner shrugged off the signing.

"I think it's pretty simple," Hoerner, who has rattled off seven hits in his first eight Cactus League at-bats, said. "The team is doing everything they can to set the season up to be successful, just like I am. It doesn't change my work at all."

It will, however, give the Cubs' decision-makers one more thing to consider and weigh as the group plots out the Opening Day roster in the coming weeks. The Cubs are balancing Hoerner's development, roster needs, contractual elements and other factors beyond the Cactus League box scores.

"We try to take the information, the performance, the person, the roster," Cubs manager David Ross said. "There's a lot more that goes into it. Some of it's in Nico's control and some of it isn't, to be honest. We'll take those things day to day."

Here is a breakdown of 'The Nico Decision' this spring:

Hoerner's development
In a perfect world, this season might have been the point in Hoerner's professional timeline in which he broke through to the Major Leagues. Nothing has been perfect about the world in the past year, and the young infielder's development path was expedited in the process.

Hoerner was back home in California in September of 2019, when injuries led to a phone call and an emergency trip to the big leagues. Last year, there was no Minor League season, and Hoerner played a versatile role on Ross' expanded roster in the pandemic-impacted season.

"It's difficult to learn as you go," Cubs outfielder Ian Happ said. "And I think last year for him, having that shortened season and not having the amount of time on the back end to learn and only having [limited] at-bats, it's difficult."

Happ was a first-round pick by the Cubs in the 2015 MLB Draft and he logged nearly 1,000 Minor League plate appearances before reaching the Majors. Kris Bryant had nearly 800 PAs in the Minors before he reached Chicago. Kyle Schwarber made it in a little more than 600 PAs.

The first-round selection by the Cubs in 2018, Hoerner has just 375 career Minor League PAs. As of right now, he has to ask some of his teammates what it is like in Des Moines, Iowa., where the Cubs have their Triple-A affiliate.

Another wrinkle facing teams this year is the fact that the Triple-A season has been delayed a month. Triple-A Iowa does not begin playing games until May 4, removing the ability to give a young player typical everyday playing time in April.

Ross downplayed that being part of the decision over Hoerner, who arrived to camp looking stronger and with an adjusted swing approach that has resulted in a lot of loud, hard contact out of the gates.

"I'm looking to put together the best team out of camp that we possibly can," Ross said. "I think that's the goal here when it's about winning, and winning right now."

The roster puzzle
The three main competitors for the second base job this spring beyond Hoerner have been David Bote and Ildemaro Vargas. All three are on the 40-man roster, while Sogard is in the fold on a Minor League contract.

Given the unknowns surrounding the pitching dynamics in the coming season, the working theory is that the Cubs will be opening with a four-man bench in order to carry an extra arm. Backup catcher Austin Romine gets one of those spots and fourth outfielder Jake Marisnick would be in line for another.

That leaves two spots up for grabs. One could go to an extra right-handed-hitting outfielder like veteran Cameron Maybin (non-roster invitee). The other would go to the complementary player for second base, with an emphasis on versatility for an expanded utility role.

That was essentially how the situation was presented to Sogard when he signed.

"This team has a lot of versatility," Sogard said, "which gives Rossy that flexibility to use guys, really, at different places and at different times. So, I think I'm just one of those guys where he can kind of move around."

Hoerner and Bote both hit from the right side, while Vargas switch hits and Sogard bats lefty. Hoerner, Vargas and Sogard each offer high contact ability, which is a trait that the Cubs' lineup needs more of as a whole. Hoerner and Vargas top the list in terms of being able to be a backup shortstop, though Sogard and Bote have experience there, too.

Another factor the Cubs have to consider is the fact that Vargas is out of Minor League options, while Hoerner or Bote could be optioned to Triple-A, if needed. That said, Sogard gives Chicago some insurance in the event that Vargas had to be exposed to waivers.

Hoerner said the players are doing what they can to push such things out of their mind.

"The attitude more than ever is just controlling what you can," Hoerner said, "especially with just how chaotic structure has been in all parts of life and, really, just kind of enjoying where you're at."