4 years after Draft, Hoerner right where he expected to be
Nico validating Cubs' trust in taking over role as starting shortstop
CHICAGO -- After the Cubs selected Nico Hoerner in the first round of the MLB Draft four years ago, there was a lot of talk about his future fit on the diamond. The consensus among evaluators was that Hoerner was versatile enough to explore multiple positions.
"I'm going to play shortstop as long as that's OK with them," Hoerner said at the time.
On Thursday night, the Cubs' starting shortstop rapped two more hits within an 8-0 loss to the Mets at Wrigley Field. Hoerner earned that role on Opening Day and has backed up Chicago's decision to trust him with the job with a steady bat and impressive glove over the past three-plus months.
That development comes as no surprise to Cubs manager David Ross, who was in the team's pre-Draft meetings as a special assistant to baseball operations in 2018. He heard all about the makeup of the Stanford shortstop and heard the evaluations from area scout Gabe Zappin before Hoerner was picked 24th overall.
"What I remember was the high-contact, the high baseball IQ, the maturity," Ross said. "Those are some of the characteristics that stood out. That stuff carried on. But what also stands out is how he's growing daily at this level.
"To be that veteran everyday big leaguer, there's so much growth that happens from when you're drafted."
With this year's MLB Draft set to begin on Sunday night, Hoerner said it is natural to start reminiscing about his own Draft experience. Stanford had just been eliminated by Cal State Fullerton in the NCAA tournament, but the team, along with family and friends, got together on campus for the annual event.
Besides Hoerner, Kris Bubic and Tristan Beck were among the Stanford players picked in the Draft that summer. During the get-together, Hoerner kept his phone in his pocket, while tossing a football with teammates in the outfield at the university's field.
He remembers feeling relaxed about the situation.
"I honestly wasn't all that caught up in who I was going to," Hoerner said. "I knew I was going to go on the first day of the Draft, and that was good enough for me. I was going to get a chance to play for a Major League team that really wanted me. Honestly, I was good with that."
When Hoerner's phone buzzed, it was Zappin.
"He just said, 'Do you want to be with the Cubs?'" Hoerner said. "That was a pretty easy answer. It definitely felt different than just any other organization."
At the time, Hoerner was impressed by the Cubs' track record of selecting collegiate players in the first round (specifically Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ in the 2013-15 Drafts, respectively). He also liked the idea of playing at Wrigley Field and was drawn to the organization's long, storied history.
Dan Kantrovitz, who is in his third year of overseeing the Cubs' Draft as the team's vice president of scouting, said makeup is an important part of the organization's legwork in the days, weeks and months leading up to the selections.
"It takes a special person to succeed out here at Wrigley Field," Kantrovitz said. "It's something that we put a lot of emphasis on in the evaluation process. ... We have to really make sure that we understand the person, what motivates them and how they think."
Having been inside the Draft room, Ross chuckles now when thinking back to just how detailed those player reports can get. After one day, he felt overwhelmed by the information.
"There is a fine-tooth comb run through every player," Ross said. "Whether it's background, upbringing, mom, dad, coaches. I mean, they've talked to everybody. They've watched a ton of games and everybody's input, and how everybody sees guys differently, it's just fun to listen to that."
Thinking back to his own Draft, Hoerner has a bit of advice for players who will hear their name called this year.
"You're closer than you think in a lot of ways," he said. "It happens really fast."
That said, Hoerner's path to the Majors was not typical.
Late in 2019, when the Cubs were in desperate need of a shortstop due to injury issues, he was summoned from his couch at home, as the story goes. He was the first player from the '18 Draft class to reach the big leagues. Then, with the Minor League season wiped away in '20 due to the pandemic, Hoerner stayed with the Cubs.
Following an injury-marred '21 campaign, the 25-year-old has "put his flag in the ground" at shortstop this season, as Ross phrased it earlier this year.
With a pair of singles in Thursday's defeat, Hoerner has hit at a .392 (31-for-79) clip over his past 20 games, raising his season OPS to .772 from .685 in the process. He is hitting at a .308 clip overall on the year, while playing elite defense at short.
"To continue to grow and get better," Ross said, "is an extremely big part of the toolset that we don't talk about. We talk about speed, arm, power, right? All those things. The athleticism. But that intangible, that is important to our organization."