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When the offseason begins, one of the deepest markets in free agency will be at shortstop. Carlos Correa, Xander Bogaerts, Trea Turner, and Dansby Swanson are all slated to be available.
It is to be expected that the Cubs will be in discussions with at least one of these players, looking to upgrade their middle infield.
Never mind the fact that the Cubs already have a well above average shortstop. Nico Hoerner has tallied four wins above replacement, per FanGraphs, with about three and a half weeks left to play in this season.
“I think it’s like when you want to buy a new car, but you don’t have to,” manager David Ross said. “You can be picky.”
In many ways, 2022 has been a breakout season for Hoerner. His 4 fWAR is higher than Correa (3.6) and not far behind Bogaerts, Turner, and Swanson. Still, the Cubs are probably going to be in pursuit of one of those free agent shortstops. Despite already having one who is showing that he could be of the same caliber.
But that’s alright with Hoerner. He has different priorities.
“I don’t want to be at the trade deadline doing the selling thing again or being in September and seeing Wrigley partly empty,” he told CHGO.
For Sunday night’s 4-2 loss to the Giants, a game given primetime television billing, the announced attendance was 30,004, but the number of empty seats at Wrigley Field would really beg to differ. At first pitch, there were a total of six people in the upper section of the bleachers in center field. Since his callup in September 2019, Hoerner has only been around one playoff team, and that was in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. And thanks to a .571 OPS in 48 games that year, Hoerner did not appear in the wild card series against the Marlins that postseason.
So rather than concerning himself with what position he plays on defense, Hoerner would prefer to be a part of a team that is winning.
“If they’re spending money to give us the best chance to be in the postseason and be not just a competitive team but a dominant team, which is what you want to go towards, obviously that’s the biggest priority,” he told CHGO.
But it would be fair for Hoerner to feel at least a little like he has earned the right to be the Cubs’ everyday shortstop beyond this season. Again, he has been worth four wins above replacement this year, and his .751 OPS going into Sunday’s game matches a career high. He posted the same number last year, but in only 44 games. One of the biggest changes for Hoerner this season has been his consistency. Other than a short stint on the injured list with a right ankle sprain in May, he has been a regular presence in Ross’s lineups. Hoerner left Sunday’s game after the fifth inning with right triceps soreness, but the initial prognosis from Ross and Hoerner himself was that this was a day-to-day injury rather than another IL stint. He has otherwise played in 125 games this season, by far the most of his career.
That consistency has also helped Hoerner put together one of his best defensive seasons. He has been worth 12 defensive runs saved at shortstop so far in 2022, well above any number Hoerner has posted on defense, at any position.
“The opportunity of it has been the biggest thing. I’ve been able to go out there from the beginning of the year through now being in the same spot,” he said. “That kind of consistency goes a long way. It’s the position I’ve played my whole life, so there wasn’t a lot of changes or big adjustments, but I do think playing every day at this level the game slows down some.”
But regardless of how well Hoerner has played this year, his team is still going to look for ways to improve, even if that means asking him to move from shortstop.
The Cubs have looked somewhat better in the second half of this season. They’re just two games below .500 in the since the All Star break with Sunday’s loss, and their 15-15 record in August was the first time the Cubs have gone at least .500 for a month since they went 19-8 in May of 2021.
But winning a handful more games in these last two months of the season is one thing, becoming a truly competitive team again is another. Throughout the 2022 season, some of the pieces that will probably help comprise that next Cubs winner have emerged, and that list includes Hoerner.
But it is clear that team president Jed Hoyer and general manager Carter Hawkins will still have to be active this winter. They made a push for Correa last offseason, and they should be players in the shortstop market again this time around. It’s a smart approach; the Cubs have more than enough space under the 2023 luxury tax threshold, and Hoerner’s early exit Sunday was a reminder that depth is essential for a winning team.
“We’ve got a really good shortstop here,” Ross said. “If something works out where they identify a middle infielder that is a value that they feel like fits really well, everybody’s on board with that, including myself and Nico. Those are good problems to have. We’ll let the front office pick and choose on that.”
This will mean that Hoerner has to move somewhere else on the field defensively. He has logged almost 500 innings in the majors at second base and even a smattering of time at third and in the outfield. Hoerner can handle moving around a little.
“The good thing about Nico is that he’s willing to do whatever we’ve asked,” Ross said. “We asked him to move to second base, he did a great job. He was asked to fill in early for a really good shortstop and a name here in Javy [Baez] and did a really good job.
“He’s a winner, he wants to win, and when you have a really good player, you want as many of those guys as you can get. The willingness for him to move around is real.”
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