Nico Hoerner Exceeds Expectations In AFL
Kris Bryant set an impossible standard for Cubs prospects and owns a unique skill set that cannot be easily replicated.
No one is at all suggesting that 21-year-old shortstop Nico Hoerner is on a trajectory that will make him a Rookie of the Year, National League MVP and World Series champion within three years.
But the college-hitter philosophy and thorough scouting process that led the Cubs to draft Bryant No. 2 overall in 2013 compelled them to select Hoerner with the No. 24 overall pick in 2018.
Besides Bryant, Hoerner is the only other Cubs player the Theo Epstein regime sent to the Arizona Fall League in his draft year. In terms of a first impression—only a few months removed from taking finals at Stanford and suffering a season-ending elbow injury at low Class A South Bend—Hoerner nailed it.
Hoerner earned a spot in the AFL prospect showcase game, hit .337 with an .867 OPS for Mesa and flashed the athleticism that should make him an up-the-middle defender in the big leagues.
"We knew he’d be able to handle the challenge mentally,” farm director Jaron Madison said. "We weren’t sure if the missed time would affect him, but he was locked in.
"From the first couple games, he showed really well on both sides of the ball. With his maturity and leadership, we knew he was going to be able to hold his own and do well there. He probably even exceeded our expectations.”
Even with a mere 14 games on his pro résumé—plus 89 at-bats in the AFL—Hoerner has vaulted toward the top of the organization’s prospect ranking. He profiles like a player who can move quickly through a farm system hollowed out by trade-deadline deals and graduations to the majors.
Hoerner may not have the same ceiling as some of those players, but the Cubs envision a high floor for an infielder who might start next season in the high Class A Carolina League.
"We’re going to see how he comes back to spring training,” Madison said. "Obviously, there’s going to be guys who want to push him and maybe start him out in Myrtle Beach . . . So we’ll discuss that and kind of see how he’s coming along and what the rest of the rosters look like and make that call during spring training.”
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— One reason the Cubs put 25-year-old middle infielder Trent Giambrone in the AFL as a taxi-squad player was they wanted the 25th-round pick out of Division II Delta State (Miss.) to feel like he belonged. He hit .327 in 12 games and didn't look out of place. The Cubs like his combination of power and speed coming off a strong season at Double-A Tennessee that included 17 homers and 26 stolen bases.
"It was like a blessing just to be there and be able to put on that jersey and represent your organization,” Giambrone said. "I got a lot out of it. You've got to be at the top of your game every single night. You get to play in front of a lot of people who are big in the baseball world. That was awesome. And then you get to play with and against other really, really talented players.”
— Fifteen months after having Tommy John surgery, lefthander Justin Steele earned a spot on the 40-man roster. Whether or not he emerges as the starting pitcher the organization has struggled to develop, the Cubs believe he can at least turn into a reliable, late-inning lefty reliever.
"Justin’s done an unbelievable job of making the most of his time away from active play,” president of baseball operates Theo Epstein said. "He dedicated himself to the rehab, executed it really well and grew in (a lot of) areas and came back and hit the ground running.
"He’s a smart kid who’s got a solid foundation. I think he knows himself really well. He’ll continue to work on his third pitch. But I think he’s got the physical and mental attributes to continue to make adjustments and continue to grow. He’s someone we’re really excited about. I think there’s going to be opportunity for our pitchers at the upper levels to impact our big league team in the coming years.
Patrick Mooney is a senior writer for The Athletic Chicago