Trio of Cubs competing for playing time at 2B

March 1st, 2021

MESA, Ariz. -- There is a distinct lack of competition when looking around the diamond for the Cubs. All three starting outfield spots are set. There are core players locked in at the infield corners, shortstop and behind the plate.

The lone position with a question mark is second base. Beginning with Monday's Cactus League opener against the Padres, the Cubs will be using the coming weeks to find the best path forward with David Bote, Nico Hoerner and Ildemaro Vargas.

"What you really want is for someone to grab the job, you know?" Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said. "That's always what you hope happens. You can have a number of guys that are rotating in a position that gives you depth.

"But I think we all want someone just to kind of grab hold of it and kind of force their name into the lineup every day."

Hoyer made those comments as the Cubs were beginning to convene in Arizona for Spring Training, but nothing has changed through the early weeks of workouts. Here is a look at the three players under consideration for the keystone spot on the infield for the North Siders.

1. David Bote
Bote was ready for the first question about his odd reverse splits. When a reporter in Arizona started to ask about the infielder's poor production against left-handed pitching, Bote was animated and humorous in his response.

"When does it become a small sample size, or when is it not? How does that work?" Bote quipped. "Come on!"

Entering his fourth Major League season, Bote is fully aware that his career shows he has hit righties (.772 OPS and 105 wRC+ in 511 plate appearances) better than lefties (.703 OPS and 89 wRC+ in 200 plate appearances). He also understands that those numbers do not tell the whole story of part-time duty, trips to and from the Minors and, most recently, the shortened 2020 season.

The 27-year-old Bote has a knack for hard contact and well-timed hits (he led the Cubs with 29 RBIs last year), but Chicago has searched for the best way to employ him. Defense will be critical for the Cubs' contact-reliant pitching staff, and Bote has shown that he is better at second base than third.

"You can't get too caught up into the labels put onto who you are or what you're not," Bote said. "I know what I am as a ballplayer. And that's the only thing that matters to me, is what I know. And then everything else will kind of take care of itself."

2. Nico Hoerner
Hoerner's development path has hardly gone according to script. He was sitting at home in California when the Cubs called him up in an emergency in 2019. Then, with no Minor League season last year, he stuck with Chicago and filled a utility role while sorting through offensive struggles.

"Talking to him at the end of the season," Hoyer said, "he's so bright and he understands the game so well. He talked about his struggles and his mechanical issues with such clarity. He was well aware he was sort of battling and trying to survive."

The 23-year-old Hoerner -- picked in the first round of the 2018 MLB Draft -- posted a 63 wRC+ in 48 games last year, but he played stellar defense and was a finalist for the National League Gold Glove Award at second. In his brief career, Hoerner has also displayed the kind of contact rate (82.5 percent) that can benefit the Cubs' lineup.

Over the offseason, Hoerner stayed in Chicago, taking advantage of the resources the Cubs have available at Wrigley Field. He worked on getting stronger and focused on his swing mechanics, and he arrived to camp knowing that there are no guarantees about his role come Opening Day.

"I'm in a great position," Hoerner said. "If I control my end of it, if I'm ready every day and I'm playing at a high level, I'm going to have an opportunity. I don't know exactly what that looks like. But as a young player on a team that's looking to win, that's a pretty awesome thing to have."

3. Ildemaro Vargas
In recent workouts, Vargas has taken ground balls at shortstop with Javier Báez, and he's joined Bote and Hoerner on the other side of the infield. Vargas and Hoerner can both bounce around the infield and outfield, including giving manager David Ross a backup option at short.

"I have confidence putting [Vargas] anywhere," said Ross, who said that outfield was also a possibility. "I have a lot of confidence in Vargy. You see the way he works, the way he turns the double play from both sides of the bag. Learning him last year and his work ethic, he's got infectious energy."

The switch-hitting Vargas only had nine plate appearances with the Cubs last year after being claimed off waivers in the final month of the season, but he hit a memorable homer off Brewers left-hander Josh Hader on Sept. 12. In fact, Vargas has shown more pop against lefties (.500 slugging percentage in 97 plate appearances) than righties (.339 slugging percentage in 201 plate appearances) in his limited career sample. Like Hoerner, Vargas also offers a strong contact rate.

"Some slug from the left, a quality at-bat from the right, a lot of contact," Ross said. "He's all around a really good player and has put himself -- in his journey -- on the map. I think it's a nice piece for us. He gives us a lot of depth in a lot of areas."

All three players will give the Cubs plenty to consider this spring.

"Who doesn't love a good competition?" Bote said. "That's what we're here for, to compete for jobs all the time."