Could Nico Hoerner’s growing versatility make him a breakout candidate in 2021?
The 23-year-old infielder played five positions last season and could figure into the team’s outfield plans next season.
As the Cubs try to put together their roster for the 2021 season and beyond, one name they are sure to pencil in somewhere on the diamond is Nico Hoerner. He has grown into a piece of the Cubs’ future in a very short time.
Hoerner endeared himself to manager David Ross during his rookie season in 2020. The sure-handed infielder did all the little things, making it hard to keep him off the field.
Defensively, Hoerner played the game like a veteran and often entered games late as a defensive replacement.
But what stands out about Hoerner is his ability and willingness to play all around the diamond.
The Cubs have been fortunate in recent years to have some of the most versatile players in baseball, including Javy Baez, Kris Bryant and, perhaps the most famous super-utility player of the last decade, Ben Zobrist.
Hoerner played five positions last season. And while he was primarily an infielder, when the Cubs pitched the idea to him of playing the outfield, he took to it and earned rave reviews from Ross in the process.
‘‘The great thing about Nico is, however the roster is shaped, he provides a lot of flexibility,’’ Ross said. ‘‘His willingness to grow and attack any position and his baseball IQ make it really easy to have the conversation of, ‘I need you to bounce around,’ ‘I need you to lock in at short,’ or whatever the case may be. It’s easy with a guy like that because there’s a lot of flexibility there. There’s a willingness to learn, and he’s a good baseball player.’’
‘‘I think [former Cubs manager] Joe [Maddon] kind of started that culture with us, and I think it makes a lot of sense,’’ president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said. ‘‘Kris Bryant won an MVP by moving around the diamond and playing different spots. Javy, that’s how he broke in, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
‘‘I don’t think you have to be labeled as a utility guy. I think it gives you a better chance to get in the lineup, it probably makes you a more productive player and, eventually, you kind of settle into one place. But I love the fact that [Hoerner] is so versatile. And I love the fact that he’s so willing to do it.’’
Hoerner’s bat is still developing, as his .222/.312/.259 slash line last season indicates. And while many around the organization think he’ll be an above-average major-league hitter, what will keep him in the lineup in the short term is his ability to play defense.
Hoerner wasn’t only one of the Cubs’ best defenders in 2020, he also was one of the best in the game at second base. He was a plus-five in defensive runs saved, ranking third in the National League, and finished as a finalist for the NL Gold Glove Award.
Hoerner was a part of a platoon with Jason Kipnis at second last season, but he should be in line to get most of the at-bats there in 2021. What might end up being a big boost to the Cubs next season, however, is his ability to play the outfield.
The Cubs occasionally threw Hoerner into center field last season. It was never permanent, but the fact that he held his own and looked comfortable gives him an even better opportunity at more playing time in 2021. He even might get some extended looks in center, where the Cubs could use the additional depth.
‘‘At second base, I think he’s excellent defensively,’’ Hoyer said. ‘‘I do think that we’re definitely intrigued by his ability in center field. [He has a] willingness and ability to run out there and give it a shot.
‘‘I think we’ll probably continue to work on his versatility. I think he can absolutely be an every-day player at one position in the big leagues, but I also think, at his age and given our roster, it makes sense to continue to encourage that [versatility].’’