The two middle infielders played against each other on the travel-ball circuit and competed for USA Baseball in different years. They overlapped in the Pacific-12 Conference, with Strumpf getting drafted out of UCLA in the second round in 2019 a year after the Cubs took Hoerner in the first round from Stanford.
It would be impossible to recreate Hoerner’s development path. The Cubs needed an emergency shortstop in September 2019 and fast-tracked Hoerner, despite him having just 89 games of pro experience.
Then the coronavirus pandemic wiped out the 2020 minor league season, and the Cubs carried Hoerner on their big league roster for his Gold Glove-caliber defense.
Hoerner, now 24, was surprisingly left off this year’s Opening Day roster, but he was quickly recalled when injuries arose in Chicago.
Strumpf, 23, isn’t getting ahead of himself, but he knows that the Cubs are at a pivot point and have shown a willingness to promote young talent in the farm system.
“It’s definitely inspiring,” Strumpf said. “But it’s tough. You don’t want to get caught up in comparing yourself like, ‘OK, I’m kind of an infielder like Nico. I can kind of play relatively close to him.’
“That’s like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that he got. A lot of opportunities lined up for him . . . That’s awesome to see.”
The Cubs have a lengthy track record with college hitters and viewed the 6-foot-1, 170-pound Strumpf as a first-rounder. Strumpf fell to the second round in 2019 and played in 39 pro games that year.
The biggest thing for Strumpf this season is to go out and play at High-A South Bend and see what happens. Through 14 games he had hit .298/.414/.383.
“Hitting is just one big chess game, right?” Strumpf said. “If you do something well—if you succeed—OK, they’re going to come back and find a way to get you out. And you got to make that adjustment.”
— Cubs manager David Ross got to know catcher P.J. Higgins during his time as a special assistant in the baseball operations department. The 12th-round pick out of Old Dominion in 2015 wasn’t the highest-rated prospect, but Cubs officials appreciated his growth behind the plate as a catcher, the defensive versatility he showed in the infield and his contact bat. Higgins’ continued improvements combined with a slew of injuries led to his big league callup in May, and there was optimism that he could further develop into a nice role player for the future.
“We’ve liked Higgy for a long time and his skill set really fits us right now,” Ross said. “I’ve liked the way he handled the pitching staff, the game-calling, the preparation in spring training. He’s put in a lot of hard work. He’s a guy that the organization thinks highly of. When you talk to the coaches who have seen this young man come up through the minor leagues, it’s nothing but positive statements about who he is, how he plays, how he goes about his business. It’s the kind of player that I think you can fall in love with.”
— The Cubs have already had five players make big league debuts this season: Higgins, Trevor Megill, Justin Steele, Keegan Thompson and Tommy Nance. That reflects the nature of the organization’s transition period as well as the internal belief in changes made to the scouting and player development departments in recent years.
The last time the Cubs had at least five players make their big league debut prior to June 1 was in 2000, according to team historian Ed Hartig. The Cubs also passed the quarter mark of the season with five homegrown pitchers on their active roster—Steele, Thompson, Nance, Adbert Alzolay and Dillon Maples—which was an encouraging sign for a franchise that has struggled in that area.