Cubs’ Nico Hoerner: 2B job ‘something that’s got to be earned’

MESA, Arizona — Nico Hoerner has his eye on that wide-open job at second base in Cubs camp this spring.

But more than anything he’s keeping his hitting eye on the ball.

Because that’s how he’ll get to second in 2021.

And that’s a big part of why much of Hoerner’s winter work was spent working with newly promoted assistant hitting coach Chris Valaika after finishing 2020 as a Gold Glove finalist — but hitting just .222 with a .571 OPS in that small-sample-size, COVID-19 season.

“I’m not going to strike out a lot, and I can walk a lot more, and that will come with hitting the ball hard,” Hoerner said Wednesday of the plan. “I feel good.”

Hoerner, the 2018 first-round draft pick out of Stanford, has looked good in early hitting work this spring with a slightly more opened stance he tweaked with Valaika, who worked a lot with Hoerner in the minors.

Wherever that leads once Cactus League games start Monday, manager David Ross has made one thing clear about the three-man battle for the only job opening in his everyday lineup.

“Defense is always important to me,” Ross said. “But we’ve got to score some runs. As much as you want to not lose your strengths, we’ve got to score some runs. We’re going to have to have our offense be better than it’s been recently.

That said, he added, “I think we’ve got three really good defensive second basemen competing for the job.”

 

Hoerner, a shortstop in college and during his monthlong emergency debut in 2019, stood out in the field even on the team that earned the inaugural team Gold Glove in 2020, with six individual Gold Glove finalists, including winners Anthony Rizzo and Javy Baez.

“He’s a shortstop to me at second base,” Ross said.

That value certainly will be a big part of next month’s decision, especially considering the pitch-to-contact nature of the rotation. And Hoerner probably has the inside track in the race over David Bote and Ildemaro Vargas with the free agent departure of veteran Jason Kipnis.

“I don’t know how it’s going to play out. I don’t have a crystal ball,” Ross said.

But Ross’ message is as clear as Hoerner’s intent to make the decision easier with development at the plate.

“I’m not so much changing my swing as much as trying to be in an athletic position as much as I can,” he said. “Being a strong, dynamic athlete on all parts of my game. I think that’s a big part of who I am. I think I can impact the game in a lot of ways. Just never getting away from my athleticism is a huge part of it.”

Hoerner stayed in Chicago over the winter to take advantage of the Cubs’ facilities and strength coach at Wrigley Field (also because he was “bumming off my girlfriend”). He hasn’t bulked up as much as he’s “just moving better,” he said.

“You can definitely tell the work he’s put in,” Ross said.

Hoerner, 23, is taking little for granted when it comes to the job, even if the Cubs didn’t backfill the Kipnis spot on the roster — and certainly not assuming the Cubs are handing over “the keys” to the position.

“I think it’s more I’m in a great position in that if I control my end of it, I’m ready every day and I’m playing at a high level, I’m going to have an opportunity,” he 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, so that’s something that’s got to be earned for sure.”

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