Nico Hoerner’s hot start gives him early lead in Cubs’ second-base battle

Hoerner is hitting .875 this spring with a homer and a stolen base. He leads all MLB players with seven hits.

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John Antonoff/Chicago Sun-Times

PHOENIX — You think Nico Hoerner wants the Cubs’ second-base job?

The 23-year-old is off to a scorching start to the spring, going 7-for-8 with a homer, three runs scored and a stolen base.

Hoerner has taken the early lead in the second-base competition with David Bote, Ildemaro Vargas and the newly acquired Eric Sogard, showing the work he put in over the offseason is paying off.

“Whether I’ve gotten hits or not so far, just [having] that consistent, hard contact [off] lots off different types of pitches [to] different parts of the field [off] different types of pitchers, that’s good feedback to have,” Hoerner said. “Whether it’s like live BP or a game, anytime you’re facing a pitcher and making consistent hard contact like that, that’s what you want to evaluate yourself on.”

Nothing was guaranteed to Hoerner coming into camp. But from his production, it’s clear he wants to be the team’s long-term solution at the position.

Defense has been Hoerner’s calling card early in his career, but offense is going to be the difference in the second-base battle. Hoerner had a .222/.312/.259 slash line with no home runs in 126 plate appearances in 2020. It was one of the main things he worked on during the offseason with assistant hitting coach Chris Valaika.

“That’s impressive,” manager David Ross said of Hoerner’s hot start. “I don’t think I’ve ever put together that many or seen many guys put together that many hard-hit balls [and] string them together like that. It’s got to be so rewarding for him. I keep thinking of the work and identifying where the problem was, and working on it and mentally being strong enough to come in, play free and have confidence in that. I’ve been very impressed.”

“It’s hard not to notice, man,” right-hander Kyle Hendricks said. “ I think all the work he’s put in, how he looks. He knows what he wants to do, what he wants to accomplish and seize the opportunity in front of him. It’s awesome to see just the work he’s put in, and it paid off already.”

Hoerner hasn’t had the normal development track during his professional career with the Cubs. He was forced into emergency action in 2019 and played well. He made the team out of summer camp in ’20 but struggled offensively, though he was one of the team’s best defenders.

Center fielder Ian Happ had a similar development journey. After having early success and failure, he built back up last season and had a career year. Happ sees his former roommate being equipped to carry this success through the rest of the spring and into the season.

“I think he’s one of the most prepared hitters, especially at his age, that I’ve seen,” Happ said. “He cares so much about baseball. Living with him and spending a lot of time with him, he is all in on being the best baseball player he can possibly be.

“I have no doubt that he’s going to be a huge contributor to us and a really good big-leaguer for a long time.

“But it’s difficult to do and it’s difficult to learn as you go, and I think last year for him having that shortened season and not having the amount of time on the back end to learn and only having 150 at-bats, it’s difficult. From an attitude standpoint [and] mentality, he’s got everything right.”

Hoerner has just 375 minor-league plate appearances and zero at-bats above Double-A. If he struggled, letting him start the year at Triple-A could have been the route the Cubs took to get him at-bats. But at his current pace, not only will he be playing second base in Chicago every day, he might never step foot in Iowa.

‘‘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 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.’’

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