I had been saying prior to camp that Nico Hoerner really needed time in the minors to get in some of the developmental work he missed as the result of an early call-up, but his performance this spring said otherwise. Even so, it appears as the presence of two capable veterans — and possibly service time — will have the Cubs sending Hoerner down after all.
According to a report from ESPN’s Jeff Passan, the Cubs will option Hoerner to the minors and likely elevate Eric Sogard to the MLB roster. Sogard, who has long been on the Cubs’ radar, has been given every opportunity to succeed in camp after being signed to a minor league deal. Along with David Bote, Sogard should allow the Cubs to keep Hoerner and his 1.052 spring OPS away from Chicago for at least 36 days.
The Cubs are optioning second baseman Nico Hoerner, sources tell @JesseRogersESPN and me. Eric Sogard is expected to make the team.
Evaluators saw Hoerner as the best 2B in camp. Service-time considerations are very real. If he’s in minors for 36 days, Cubs get an extra year.
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) March 27, 2021
As Passan noted, that’s how long the Cubs need to keep the 2020 Gold Glove finalist in the minors in order to gain an extra year of control. Even if Jed Hoyer didn’t explain the strategy at a local Rotary Club meeting, it’s very easy to understand how people could see this as a procedural move given what Hoerner has done in Mesa to this point.
That said, the nature of spring training has allowed the noticeably beefed-up second baseman to jump on early mistakes just like he did when he first came up in late 2019. His lack of a b-hack, or two-strike swing, is something the Cubs needed him to develop, a process that presumably would have taken place in the minors at the start of last year. The shutdown forced the club’s hand once again and Hoerner was up with the Cubs for the entire abbreviated season, hence my rationale for demoting him.
We saw something similar with Ian Happ, who came up in 2017 on what was supposed to have been a brief promotion before playing too well to be sent back down. He opened 2018 as the leadoff hitter, starting the season off with a first-pitch homer, but was inconsistent thereafter. Happ was then demoted at the conclusion of spring training in 2019 and spent nearly that whole season in Triple-A to fill holes in his swing.
So while the service-time specter is very real in general and may indeed play a role in Hoerner’s case, I can see this being something the Cubs had planned the whole time. I mean, they didn’t sign Sogard just for S’s and G’s. Nor did they expect Hoerner to come into camp looking like a beefcake who raked like a member of the grounds crew.
I guess I’ll just cop out by both-sidesing this thing, though I can at least fall back on over a year of saying Hoerner needed more work on his swing in order to reach his potential. And hey, maybe the Cubs enjoyed the grievance process so much with Kris Bryant that they just wanted to do it again.
Ed. note: That last bit was a bad joke, as this situation is nothing at all like what happened with Bryant in 2015. If the Cubs were really interested in manipulating Hoerner’s service time, they never would have called him up in the first place and they certainly would not have rostered him in the shortened 2020 season. Service time is a hot-button topic right now, but it’s important to put things in proper context.
For instance, see below for the experience of various first-round Cubs picks prior to their respective MLB debuts. Even with his 208 plate appearances in the bigs, Hoerner is barely ahead of Schwarber for fifth on the list. It’s also important to note that of these players, only Bryant has not been optioned for performance reasons.
- Javy Báez: 319 games, 1,216 PAs
- Albert Almora Jr.: 300, 1,288 PAs
- Kris Bryant: 181 games, 773 PAs
- Kyle Schwarber: 130 games, 554 PAs
- Ian Happ: 227 games, 978 PAs
- Nico Hoerner: 89 games, 375 PAs
This really isn’t a service time issue, it’s about having a young player who has some work to do when it comes to his plate approach. There’s also the matter of keeping as much roster flexibility as possible with a position that has seen several players performing well this spring. It sucks because everyone wants to see exciting young players, but it’s not all that surprising in the end.