Hoerner takes significant step in Cubs camp

Top prospect embracing versatility, analytics while hitting .571

March 22nd, 2019

MESA, Ariz. -- After the Cubs picked Nico Hoerner in the first round of last summer's MLB Draft, John Baker picked up the phone and called David Esquer.

Baker, who now works in the Cubs' mental skills department, played for Esquer at the University of California, and he knew he could trust his old coach to give an honest opinion about the kid Chicago just selected out of Stanford. Esquer -- now the head baseball coach with the Cardinal -- raved about Hoerner's makeup and intelligence, along with his skills on a baseball diamond.

"It was funny," Baker said on Thursday morning. "He told me, 'Don't bring him around big league camp, because everyone's going to want him to stay.' It was very prophetic"

It was prophetic because the 21-year-old Hoerner -- with only 14 professional games to his credit -- has made a great first impression around the Major League team this spring. Whether it has been during early work and batting practice, or in his limited exposure to Cactus League games, Hoerner has put everything that Esquer raved about to Baker on display.

Hoerner has studied Ben Zobrist's work in the batting cages behind the scenes. The young shortstop has expressed an open-mindedness about analytics. He has closed his batting stance and altered his throwing slot -- all in the name of development and long-term success. Hoerner has also made it clear that he is willing to play multiple positions, given the importance that Chicago places on versatility.

"You're crazy if you think you're only going to play one spot," Hoerner said after fielding ground balls on Thursday morning. "If you're able to hit and you can play a lot of positions at a high level, you're going to be able to help a team out and be in the lineup for as many days as you can be, which is the goal at the end of the day."

All of this has been music to Esquer's ears -- not that he is surprised.

"He's just that special player. His game directly translates into the big league game," Esquer said. "His work ethic and just his love of the game -- he was a game-changing personality for us at Stanford. There are those program changers? -- just all into the team, just tough mentality and real supportive of his teammates.

"He's just driven to win and really just selling out for his team. And I knew that would translate with the Cubs. It’s a perfect match. He's got no ego."

Hoerner, who is currently ranked second on the Cubs' Top 30 prospect list via MLB Pipeline, has appeared in a dozen Cactus League games this spring. Along the way, he has hit .571 (8-for-14) with one home run, three doubles and two triples. During one stretch, he reached base in eight consecutive plate appearances.

What stood out to Cubs manager Joe Maddon was Hoerner's preparation before those at-bats.

"He's very composed for a young man," Maddon said. "A very bright young man. He really sees things and analyzes in advance. His commentary with me when he's in the hole before he goes to the on-deck circle is always poignant. He's always on top of things. I've been impressed with all of that."

The next decision for the Cubs will be where to send Hoerner to start the season. Last week, Cubs president Theo Epstein did not rule out the possibility of sending the prospect to Double-A Tennessee.

"I wouldn't rule it in at this point," Epstein said. "We'll see."

That would be a jump for Hoerner, who had his first pro season come to a close in July due to a left elbow issue. After being taken with the 24th overall pick in the Draft, Hoerner hit .327 with a 1.021 OPS in 60 plate appearances across three levels, topping out at Low Class A South Bend. Once healthy, Hoerner joined Mesa in the Arizona Fall League, where he hit .337 with an .867 OPS in 21 games.

Hoerner is not worrying about that first assignment this year, though.

"If I do play well, and I stay healthy and I control what I can," he said, "the other side of it will probably be taken care of. Whether that means starting at High-A or Double-A this year, again, it's really not that significant compared to where I finish the year. That's more in my control."