If and when the 2020 season commences, the keystone appears the only position without an obvious starter. Center field at one point may have had the same considerations, though even with a strong spring showing from Albert Almora the job appears to be Ian Happ‘s to lose. And considering Happ’s terrific September in 2019 and quality spring, his presence will be of the most important for the Cubs in 2020.
As for second base, questions abound. Daniel Shepard and I spoke about second base at length in the debut of The Northside Show, but it’s worth expounding on here. The log jam of players jockeying for playing time include: David Bote, Daniel Descalso, Jason Kipnis, and Nico Hoerner.
Although we could see MLB increase the roster from 26 to 28 given a compact, shortened season, speculation remains just that. As such, let’s examine the roster through the prism of an assumed 26-man roster.
The Cubs will, like most teams, carry 13 pitchers (eight in the ‘pen, five starters) along with 13 position players (eight starters, five bench players). We can say with relative certainty that Victor Caratini, Almora, Bote, and Steven Souza Jr will serve as depth on the bench. This leaves the battle for second base simultaneously a fight for the final roster spot.
A Curious Battle
It is highly unlikely the Cubs carry both Descalso and Kipnis. It would be an awkward redundancy to carry two aging, veteran lefties replete with injury history. This is particularly true in a day and age where versatility reigns supreme.
Such versatility, meanwhile, favors Bote and Hoerner alike. Bote because he can spell Kris Bryant at the hot corner, Hoerner because he would legitimately be the only capable back-up to Javier Baez on the Cubs big league roster.
A couple of conclusions can be drawn here. One is that Bote, along with his eminently affordable extension, will certainly remain on the roster, picking up starts a day or two a week while possessing a power bat in a pinch. The second is that Hoerner’s defense, steady at short and above average at second, becomes impossibly valuable.
While pundits and the blogosphere alike have suggested Hoerner could start the year in Iowa, his presence as a back-up to Javy cannot be overstated. And to those that think Hoerner is best served playing virtually every day, rather than existing as an insurance policy? I wholeheartedly agree: Nico should be the Cubs starting second baseman whenever Opening Day arrives.
Trial by Fire
Nico’s debut in 2019 was surprising, regarding both his performance as well as the fact that it happened at all. It’s well documented that he skipped Triple-A entirely, his Double-A season effectively finished when Jed Hoyer called him to the bigs. And not only was Hoerner explosive in his debut, he also filled a void that gave the Cubs a brief semblance of playoff hope before they fizzled out.
In a small sample size he proved plenty capable, posting positive defensive WAR and baserunning grades in 20 games. Offensively Hoerner’s numbers might appear lackluster, but the small sample size (82 at-bats) coupled with some encouraging advanced metrics prove promising.
An 86 wRC+ (Weighted Runs Created Plus) might not suggest an offensive juggernaut, nor do his power numbers. A well below average .154 ISO (Isolated Power), Hoerner managed essentially league average slugging (.435) to boot.
With time and experience Hoerner will increase his on-base percentage (.305 last season, league average .325) as he learns how to take more pitches, subsequently drawing more walks. Last season’s cup of coffee produced a meager 3.7 percent walk rate, and although he swung at a lot of pitches he showed a penchant for making contact. Hoerner’s 13.4 percent strikeout rate was well above league average, his innate — and unteachable — ability to spoil pitches a foundational part of his offensive game.
For context, Nico made contact on pitches out of the zone at a clip 11 percent better than league average. That number is especially wild when you consider that Hoerner swung at pitches out of the zone 49 percent of the time while the league average sat at just 32 percent.
As he adjusts to the league Hoerner will likely adapt, and as he learns his strengths he’ll begin to lay off of pitches outside of the zone more frequently. Nico was swing happy last fall, his 57 percent swing rate a full 10 points above average. Cutting back on hacking at pitches outside of the zone — while remaining adept at making contact with such pitches when he does swing at them — should increase his walk rate while allowing the opportunity to increase his power numbers. It will also force pitchers to throw more strikes, allowing greater opportunity to capitalize on mistake pitches.
In short, Hoerner possesses the tools and athleticism to develop into a solid everyday contributor. He’s also the best option the Cubs have at second in 2020.
The Depth at the Keystone Will Help Hoerner’s Growth
Inevitably the Cubs will have to decide between Descalso and Kipnis. While Descalso comes equipped with the guaranteed contract, Kipnis has had a better career, both overall and recently.
Descalso has a major league deal while Kipnis signed a minors deal and isn’t currently on the 40-man roster. This means Kipnis could start the year in Iowa without question, while a demotion for Descalso would require his consent; otherwise he could elect for free agency.
Either lefty would carry value as a means to spell Hoerner against tough righties, the invaluable role as veteran bench player, mentor, and clubhouse leader an added perk.
Conventional wisdom might suggest a young player such as Hoerner should experience Triple A, playing everyday, honing his skills, and preparing for the inevitable at Wrigley.
The promise he showed last fall, however, suggests such wisdom is moot. Nico can learn on the fly, and the guidance of Kipnis or Descalso (with additional support from Bote) would allow David Ross to play him often while resting him appropriately. A role in which he is the de facto starter while also resting and learning from veterans is fertile soil from which his career can take root.
The keystone belongs to Nico Hoerner.