There is a lot of playing time to be had at second base for the Cubs in 2021, and Nico Hoerner sees this spring as a chance to win a job.
Hoerner had an unusual first ‘‘full season’’ in the majors during the pandemic-shortened 60-game season in 2020. While he played regularly as the Cubs’ primary utility man, with now-departed Jason Kipnis getting a chunk of the time at second base, Hoerner never got an opportunity to establish himself at one position.
The Cubs, however, didn’t sign anyone to play second during the offseason, signaling they will allow Hoerner and David Bote to compete for the job.
‘‘I’m in a great position in that if I control my end of it, if I’m ready every day and I’m playing at a high level, I’m gonna have an opportunity,’’ Hoerner, 23, said. ‘‘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.’’
After making his major-league debut with the Cubs in September 2019, Hoerner broke summer camp with them last season despite not playing a game in Class AAA.
‘‘Nico, who he is in a lot of ways for us, is the ideal baseball player in some respects,’’ manager David Ross said. ‘‘It’s just about his mentality, his work ethic, how he sees the game, his deep defensive skill set, his ability to move all around the diamond and play different positions.’’
Hoerner’s high baseball IQ and defensive prowess helped him get acclimated to the major-league game quickly. He was one of the best defenders in the National League last season with five defensive runs saved and was a finalist for the NL Gold Glove Award at second.
His offense, however, wasn’t nearly as impressive. Hoerner had a .222/.312/.259 slash line with no home runs in 126 plate appearances in 2020. And while the Cubs believe in his ability to be an above-average hitter, there’s still a lot of room for growth.
‘‘As a group and personally, we got defensive [at the plate] at times as an offense [last season], and that’s not who I am,’’ Hoerner said. ‘‘It’s not who we are as a group.’’
Hoerner stayed in Chicago during the offseason. He worked out at Wrigley Field to build strength and took it upon himself to make some tweaks with new assistant hitting coach Chris Valaika.
‘‘We worked on some things and opened up my stance a little more, creating space,’’ Hoerner said. ‘‘I’m not so much changing my swing as much as trying to be in an athletic position as much as I can [and] being a strong, dynamic athlete in all parts of the game. I think that’s a big part of who I am, and I can impact the game in a lot of ways. Just never getting away from athleticism is a huge part of it.’’
‘‘He’s strong,’’ Ross said of Hoerner. ‘‘You can definitely tell the work he’s put in.’’
With the Cubs not adding a high-contact position player during the offseason, Hoerner’s ability to put the ball in play and draw walks can be a valuable asset in a lineup that has struggled to do that in recent seasons.
Hoerner knows that nothing is guaranteed to him this spring and that there is a lot he’ll have to show the coaching staff to lock down the second-base job in camp.
‘‘I think being too obsessed with that specific thing in a comparative way — ‘Every day I’m going to show up and compare myself to David Bote’ — is that going to be the healthiest way to get better as a baseball player? Probably not,’’ Hoerner said.
‘‘I’ve said this before: When I got called up, [Bote] was one of the best people to meet right away and made the transition to the major leagues as comfortable as possible. So I’m lucky to be competing alongside a guy that also elevates me.’’