Cubs' Nico Hoerner's 'valuable' versatility intriguing x-factor

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Value added: Hoerner's versatility intriguing x-factor originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Carlos Correa? Trevor Story?

For all the talk around whether the Cubs will sign a big-name shortstop after MLB’s lockout, there are unanswered questions regarding a number of moving pieces currently on the team.

Including Nico Hoerner. That’s the question that has potential to move around the most in 2022.

“He's a really impactful player,” Cubs president Jed Hoyer said of Hoerner after last season. “He knows he may move around next year. He knows he may not.

“I think I would just say that he embraces that. He knows his versatility is really valuable. He knows that the modern game really does embrace what he does well.”

Hoerner will be an everyday player for the Cubs in 2022, and not only could that come across multiple positions, but he could see extended time at a handful.

Hoerner, who debuted in 2019 as a shortstop and was a Gold Glove Award finalist at second base in 2020, also has experience at third base and in the outfield — versatility that makes him a major x-factor for the Cubs this coming season.

No? Consider how the Cubs position player group currently stacks up and how Hoerner fits into that picture.

— After bolstering the rotation with the additions of Wade Miley and Marcus Stroman, the Cubs’ focus will shift elsewhere post-lockout, including the infield and specifically shortstop.

Whether the Cubs add a Correa or Story, it’s impossible to predict how much Hoerner will have to play short in 2022. At the very least, he’ll be the top backup there who could be called upon more as needed.

Nick Madrigal is slotted in as the Cubs starting second baseman but is coming off a serious hamstring injury that required season-ending surgery last June. If he isn’t out there every day — the Cubs could spell him with a universal DH likely coming via ongoing CBA negotiations — Hoerner can play second, his best position.

Patrick Wisdom is going to get a shot at third base after setting the Cubs’ rookie home run record in 2021. His longevity there is subject to what he does about his strikeout rate (40.8 percent in 2021).

— The Cubs have nine outfielders on their 40-man roster and how the group stacks up is a bit of a question mark right now. Hoerner’s ability to play there helps. He’s played center and left in the big leagues.

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How well Hoerner can play those multiple positions is a big test. He’s played a combined 15 games (72 2/3 innings) between third and the outfield in the big leagues.

He’s also coming off a season in which he was limited to 44 games due to four separate stints on the injured list. That might be the biggest part of the puzzle that the Cubs need to see from him — that he can stay on the field.

As last season ended, Hoerner talked about re-examining what he did last offseason, when he focused on his conditioning and came to spring training noticeably fit.

“I don't think it's as much of anything I did wrong with maybe things that I can add or supplement with it,” Hoerner said the final weekend of last season. “It’s about finding a balance that works for me.”

For now, the Cubs don’t view it as a concern. And when he was healthy, Hoerner was an impactful part of the Cubs’ lineup.

Hoerner finished 2021 hitting .302 with a .382 on-base percentage. He contributed to one of the lineup’s best stretches of the season after getting called up in late April.

Whether there was a correlation or not, the lineup didn’t produce as well when Hoerner went on the injured list in late May with a hamstring strain, during a stretch where the Cubs faced some of the better pitching staffs in the league.

“He had such high hopes for this season, given the physical condition he came in with, and he's [had] multiple different injuries, some random, and some soft tissue,” Hoyer said.

“We've obviously talked about how to address those things with his high-performance work, with his strength and conditioning and making sure he's ready to go and addressing those issues in the offseason.

“So, yeah, it was a frustrating season in a lot of ways, but I also think he was able to prove to himself that I think he knows the impact he can have on the big leagues when he impacts the ball at this level.”

Hoerner’s ability to move around also can open different lineup combinations for the Cubs, like Kris Bryant’s versatility did last season. Looking further back — with the caveat that it’s a tougher comparison — Javy Báez’ ability to move around the infield was a big part of the Cubs’ success in 2016.

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“That moving around, as Javy has shown, as Kris has shown, that doesn't detract from your value,” Hoyer said. “In some ways, it actually adds to it.”

And it’s something Hoerner embraces.

“When you look at some of the most successful teams in the league, they have guys that are able to do that,” Hoerner said at the end of last season.

No matter how confident he is in his ability to play shortstop.

“I really believe in my ability to play shortstop,” Hoerner said. “I’m going to prepare to play there at an everyday level, if that's the opportunity, and if it's somewhere else, then I'll do that.”

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