Homering Monday was really the only fitting way for Nico Hoerner to wrap up his wonderful, terrible spring.
In the fourth inning of the Cubs’ Cactus League finale, Hoerner came off the bench and lined a three-run shot off Diamondbacks lefty starter Caleb Smith. Scoring on the play were Christopher Morel and Abiatal Avelino. Wait, who? Exactly. It was just one non-big-leaguer driving in a couple of others.
We’ve had a few days for it to sink in that Hoerner didn’t make the Cubs’ 26-man Opening Day roster. No starting role at second base for the 2018 first-round draft pick who seems — seemed? — to represent the team’s future as much as any player. No backup role, either. Hoerner might as well have left the dugout immediately after the post-homer high-fives and fist bumps and headed straight for the team’s alternate site in South Bend, Indiana.
All Hoerner did during the spring was slash .364/.396/.659 at the plate and flash the defensive skill that manager David Ross predicts will make him a Gold Glove player and an All-Star someday. Note: It probably won’t be in 2021. What more could a player who famously came off the couch to join the Cubs’ postseason push in 2019 and was with them for all of 2020 done to cement his major-league status? Spit with more launch angle? Grown a mustache to look older?
What a bummer for him.
By the way, the Cubs are right that if Hoerner isn’t going to play every day, he ought to be somewhere getting everyday at-bats. Ross might even be right about choosing David Bote as his No. 1 guy at second base. Bote slashed .311/.367/.622 in the spring, which is awfully good. He hits with more power than Hoerner. He was the Cubs’ RBI leader in 2020, which, given how useless their bats were overall, was kind of like being the loudest lobster in the pot.
So what if Bote was an 18th-round pick by the Cubs in 2012? So what if he’ll turn 28 in April and has been a platoon guy his entire career to this point? So what if we’re accustomed to thinking and talking about him as much as we do, say, flourless cakes and industrial cleaning supplies?
“It’s David Bote’s turn,” Ross said. “I think David had been hearing the message a long time that it’s someone else’s turn. So now David gets an opportunity.”
Good for him. Bote has worked himself into position for the opportunity of a lifetime. One of the things he has worked on is expanding his mental horizons by reading. It’s no simple thing for a habitual non-reader to start cracking books in adulthood, but Bote read a bunch of them — nine, to be exact — while in Arizona this spring. You have to like a ballplayer who reads, don’t you?
It’s weird, though. Not the reading, but the fact Bote will be in the same Opening Day infield as third baseman Kris Bryant, shortstop Javy Baez and first baseman Anthony Rizzo.
What sort of strange purgatory have the Cubs put themselves in? Bote will be surrounded in the infield by three guys who might be Cubs superstars forever if not for the club’s apparent desire to fly them up a flagpole and let them twist in the wind until the inevitable happens — they tear apart, blow away and disappear. Or, you know, sign with other teams as free agents. Man, there’s nothing worse than having to explain a metaphor.
The sight of Hoerner at second base might indicate, at least to a slightly encouraging degree, that the Cubs are still a team of stars and their future is alive and well. That’s probably why Cubs fans have taken so fondly to him since injuries to Baez and Addison Russell in September 2019 allowed him to skip much of his minor-league education. Amid Joe Maddon lame-duck talk, Jon Lester lame-duck talk and Bryant-Baez-Rizzo contract talk — not to mention the recurring late-season futility since 2017 — Hoerner has been such a pleasant subject.
Bote, on the other hand, is a grinder, a plugger, a player whose floor isn’t so low and whose ceiling isn’t so high. An average player, let’s call him, based on everything we’ve seen to this point. Not that there’s anything wrong with being those things, of course. There’s a heck of a lot of money in it.
But these Cubs are ebbing as much as they’re flowing, aren’t they? The pitching rotation is a who’s who of ho-hum. The lineup’s biggest stars are up a flagpole. The second baseman has never been described in Gold Glove or All-Star terms.
Opening Day is almost here — win, lose or snooze.