The more time that passes, the easier it is to envision Nico Hoerner becoming a big part of the Chicago Cubs in the near future.
Hoerner - the team's first-round pick (24th overall) in last summer's draft - has been back in Double-A for a little over a month now after a wrist injury that cost him more than two months earlier this season.
The 22-year-old hasn't exactly been on a tear in those six weeks - he's slashing .248/.308/.359 (.667 OPS) in 159 plate appearances - but he has also been moving around the diamond to increase his defensive versatility.
Prior to the wrist injury, Hoerner played exclusively shortstop for Double-A Tennessee. But since he's returned, he has regularly rotated between shortstop, second base and even center field, with encouraging results:
A few note worthy headlines on #Cubs No. 1 prospect @nico_hoerner …
⁃Strikes out just 11% of plate appearances
⁃Longest hitting drought: 1 game
⁃Routine shortstop/second baseman, evolving as a solid center fielder.#EveryBodyIn
— Mick Gillispie (@BroadcasterMick) August 7, 2019
That versatility makes sense simply because the big-league club would probably need him to move around the diamond with Javy Baez entrenched at shortstop. But the positions are of note, as second base and center field are two areas that certainly seem up for grabs on this team moving beyond 2019.
That could change, of course, if Ian Happ continues to hit the way he has since he returned from the minors late last month. But he may not stick at second base long term amid defensive concerns - he dropped a routine pop-up in Tuesday night's game in Philadelphia - and is likely ticketed for the outfield again next year (unless the Cubs re-sign Nicholas Castellanos).
Who knows exactly when Hoerner would be ready for The Show, but the Cubs are betting on the kid big-time. Ahead of last month's trade deadline, Theo Epstein's front office didn't want to deal Hoerner away and believe he's destined for big things with the franchise.
When senior vice president of player development and amateur scouting Jason McLeod joined the CubsTalk Podcast last month, David Kaplan asked him to pick a guy in the Cubs system right now he would most be willing to bet on.
"It's hard not to look at Nico Hoerner," McLeod said. "Just with all the things that we talked about last year when we drafted him and what he's done since that time. And even with the injury that cost him two months of this year, seeing everything that he brings to the table - the athleticism, the physicality, the work ethic, the makeup, the game intelligence, the instincts, the way he barrels the ball up, the high contact rate, the middle of the field athlete, dynamic-type defender out in the field.
"Yeah, if I was a betting man, I'd put my money on him and I'd say that it'd be a pretty safe bet."
Wow, that was quite the list McLeod rattled off - a good 10 items just off the top of his head lauding Hoerner's ability only 14 months into his professional career.
What's more is those attributes would be welcome additions to the Cubs whenever Hoerner makes it to the big leagues - particularly the middle-of-the-field athlete and high contact rate.
Hoerner's strikeout rate has improved even since Gillispie Tweeted last week, down to 10.1 percent right now. That mark figures to hike up a bit as he moves to Triple-A and the big leagues, but even a modest spike would pit him among the current Cubs leaders in that category - Anthony Rizzo leads qualified hitters with a 14.7 percent strikeout rate.
Hoerner has been even better lately, with just 1 whiff in his last 14 games while drawing 7 walks and reaching base safely in every single contest during that span.
Unless they're hit with a wave of injuries, the Cubs have zero reason to rush Hoerner to the big leagues this season, but it's fair to wonder if he would've been on track to become a September call-up if he didn't miss two months to a broken wrist.
But Hoerner continues to show he can be a big part of the future equation for this team, even as early as next season.
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