After a 15-run loss at the hands of the Reds yesterday, the Cubs dropped into fourth place in the NL Central at 18-26. Chicago’s early performance hasn’t been too far off preseason expectations. After the Cubs watched much of their previous core departure, the 2022 season looked likely to be a transitional year.
Particularly as playoff contention becomes more far-fetched, it makes sense for the organization to use this year as an opportunity to evaluate potential members of the next competitive Cubs’ team. To that end, manager David Ross indicated this week that Nico Hoerner will be the primary shortstop throughout the season (link via Patrick Mooney of the Athletic). That’s in spite of the club’s offseason signing of Andrelton Simmons to a $4MM deal.
“Nico has proven that he can play big-league shortstop pretty consistently already in this season,”Ross said. “Let’s see what happens at the end of the year and assess there. It’s easy to say you can be a big-league shortstop long term, but you also have to do it. You have to prove it. … We’ll move them around a little bit, but Nico will be starting shortstop.”
It’s a sensitive course for the organization, as the 25-year-old Hoerner is controllable for another three seasons via arbitration. A former first-round pick, the Stanford product has shown promise on both sides of the ball over the past couple years. Hoerner didn’t hit a single home run in 170 plate appearances last season, but he made contact at a plus rate and reached base at a strong .382 clip. He’s seen a dramatic dip in his walk and on-base numbers early in 2022, but he’s collected a trio of homers — his first since his 2019 rookie season. Hoerner owns a .292/.350/.392 slash line dating back to the start of the 2021 campaign.
Hoerner was a well-regarded prospect, but some evaluators questioned whether he’d eventually need to slide over to second base. He’s split his MLB time nearly evenly between the middle infield spots (with additional cameos at third base and in the outfield), and public defensive metrics have loved his work at both positions. Hoerner has never had a full season’s worth of reps of at shortstop, however, and the likely non-competitive 2022 campaign affords the Cubs an opportunity to give him that challenge.
The team’s evaluation is particularly meaningful when one considers the upcoming free agent class. Chicago elected not to make a major splash at shortstop last time, watching as Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Marcus Semienold friend Javier Baez and Trevor Story signed elsewhere. The Cubs, meanwhile, took lower-cost shots on Simmons and Jonathan Villar while turning things over to their internal options.
Next winter’s shortstop class may not be quite as strong, but there’ll be a handful of high-end players yet again. Correa can opt out of his deal with the Twins, while Xander Bogaerts is a near-lock to do the same on his contract with the Red Sox. Trea Turner will hit free agency for the first time, as will Dansby Swanson. The Cubs could be a viable suitor for any of that group, particularly if they’re willing to push payroll upwards to reopen a contention window.
Jon Heyman of the New York Post suggests the organization could do just that, writing that they’re “expected to spend again next winter.” That’s not to say the Cubs sat out this past offseason. They signed a staggering 12 players to big league free agent deals, but only Seiya Suzuki and Marcus Stroman commanded especially notable long-term investments. The bulk of the team’s moves were shorter, lower-risk additions on the margins of the roster.
The team’s long-term spending outlook leaves open the possibility for a more aggressive run at top-of-the-market talents a few months from now. According to Jason Martinez of Roster Resource, the Cubs have around $94MM in guaranteed commitments on the books for 2023. Ian Happ will be in line for a fairly significant arbitration salary — assuming he’s not traded this summer — but the team should otherwise have a fairly light class. That’d leave some room for additions even before reaching the approximate $145MM Opening Day player payrolls of the past two seasons, and the organization has spent north of $200MM on their rosters in the past.
Whether the Cubs dive into the top of the shortstop market could be determined by how Hoerner performs over the coming months. In the nearer term, Hoarder’s regular playing time means Simmons is set to take on an unfamiliar utility role. The 32-year-old has never played a big league inning outside of shortstop (aside from yesterday’s mop-up pitching performance), but Ross indicated he’s likely to see time at second base moving forward.
Simmons is generally regarded as the best defensive shortstop of his generation, and there’s little doubt he can handle second base with similar excellence. Yet he’s coming off a dismal offensive season with the Twins, and there probably won’t be room for him in the regular infield when the Cubs are at full strength. Patrick Wisdom is the primary third baseman, while Nick Madrigal is likely to play regularly at the keystone when he returns from the injured list.
Madrigal has been out for a couple weeks with a lower back issue, but the team announced that he’ll report to Triple-A Iowa for a rehab assignment this weekend (h/t to Maddie Lee of the Chicago Sun-Times). Acquired from the White Sox in last summer’s Craig Kimbrel swap, Madrigal has hit just .203/.250/.241 through his first 23 games with his new club. Nevertheless, the contact-oriented infielder is controllable through 2026 and a potential core piece, so he’ll surely be in the everyday lineup once healthy.