Before this season, the decision to give Nico Hoerner more playing time at shortstop was made by the Cubs’ front office. Hoerner had already proven himself as a Gold Glove second baseman, but it wasn’t clear how his skill set would transfer over to shortstop, where there were concerns about his arm strength.
Hoerner has proven he can be an excellent MLB shortstop over the first few months of the season. The way he has played this year could have important effects on how the Cubs approach this offseason.
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Nico Hoerner’s Development in 2022 So Far
Nico Hoerner first reached the MLB in 2019. Just a year after being drafted in the first round of the 2018 MLB Draft, the then 22-year-old Hoerner was called up to the MLB after a series of injuries affected the Cubs in the middle of a playoff race.
Across his first 20 MLB games at the end of that season, Hoerner hit three home runs and had a couple of big hits during that playoff race. Despite that, the Cubs were eliminated from contention and finished third in the NL Central.
In 2020, Hoerner spent much of the season in the MLB in a year where the Cubs won the division. However, he struggled on offense during much of the year and finished the season with a .571 OPS.
2021 saw Hoerner get off to a much better start offensively to complement his defensive skillset at second base, which he had already proven was excellent. Unfortunately for the Cubs and Hoerner, he dealt with injuries for much of the season and only played 44 games, but his season-ending OPS of .751 was the best of his career so far.
In 2022, Hoerner has emerged as one of the Cubs’ best players so far this season. He is tied for second on the team with Ian Happ in WAR, and has improved both offensively and defensively. He already has his career-high for home runs in a single season with 4, after not hitting a home run in either 2021 or 2020. In addition, his OPS+ is 5% better than last season, and he already has more extra-base hits than he did in the 2021 and 2020 seasons combined.
Hoerner’s defense has been the biggest area of improvement after his position change. He is 6th in the league in Outs Above Average with 9 so far this season, which is the best among shortstops. In addition, Hoerner is first in runs prevented and third in success rate among shortstops.
While much of Spring Training was spent with the coaching staff and front office evaluating whether or not Hoerner could play shortstop at a high level, the start of the season has proven that he can. His development at shortstop has been important for a Cubs team that struggled with infield defense last year, and which has a pitching staff that routinely focuses on pitching to contact and creating ground balls.
Hoerner’s defensive emergence has quietly made him one of the most valuable players in baseball. It could also have a drastic effect on how the Cubs approach the 2022 offseason.
How the Cubs Will Approach the Offseason
The Cubs could end up being one of the most aggressive teams in free agency this offseason. The team will have young players to build around, a strong minor league system, and money to spend.
Last offseason, the Cubs were rumored to be involved in the pursuit of Carlos Correa. During the start of this season the expectation was that the Cubs would be heavily involved in the pursuit of one of the major free agent shortstops; Correa, Trea Turner, Xander Bogaerts, and Dansby Swanson.
Part of why the Cubs were a logical destination for one of those players is because the team didn’t have an established shortstop; Hoerner was beginning his first full season playing at the position. Now, Hoerner is on his way to establishing himself as the Cubs’ everyday shortstop.
However, that doesn’t mean that the Cubs won’t be involved in trying to sign one of those players. Turner played second base after being traded to the Dodgers last season, and Correa and Bogaerts can both play third base. Hoerner could also move back to second base.
The question the Cubs front office needs to answer, and plan around, is how Hoerner, and any potential free agent signing, will affect the rest of the infield. If Correa or Bogaerts are signed with the intention of playing third base, where does Patrick Wisdom play? If Hoerner moves back to second base, how are Nick Madrigal and Christopher Morel affected?
Wisdom has been outstanding for the Cubs this season for the second year in a row. After finishing fourth in Rookie of the Year voting last season, Wisdom has hit 17 home runs so far this season with a .790 OPS and solid defense at third base.
However, Wisdom will be 31 this offseason. He may even be a potential trade candidate this summer, as his power could be a massive addition to the lineup of a contending team. If he is a member of the Cubs heading into 2023, there will need to be somewhere for him to play every day, although he can also play first base and both corner outfield spots in addition to third base.
Madrigal and Morel are both exciting young players that will need at-bats over the next several seasons. Morel’s positional flexibility will allow him to play most days whenever a different player needs to rest, since he can play almost any position on the field. Madrigal has only played 31 games since being traded to the Cubs last summer, and how he plays after returning from the injured list will be a huge influence on where the Cubs seek to improve this offseason.
As the All-Star break and trade deadline gets closer, the offseason will start to take shape for the Cubs. Hoerner’s season so far has made him one of the team’s most important players, and a key part of the franchise’s future, but it is still unclear how that will affect how Jed Hoyer makes changes to the roster this fall.
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