Over the next couple of months the Cubs staff at The Dugout will be projecting outcomes for players in 2021. This will include franchise cornerstones, players on the 40-man roster that had a cup of coffee in 2020 or are expected to contribute in ’21, and eventually new additions to the roster as we make our way through the rest of the winter.
You can expect to see a new player featured once or twice a week throughout the offseason from now until spring training, which is tentatively slated to kick off in mid-February when pitchers and catchers report to Arizona.
Each edition of this project will feature a snapshot of the player’s 2020 season, compiled projections from sources such as ZiPS (when they become available for the Cubs) and FanGraphs’ Steamer, and conclude with projections as determined by the article’s author.
We’ll kick things off with Nico Hoerner, who after a difficult 2020 campaign has plenty to prove in his first full-162 game season.
Nico’s surprise debut in 2019 was borne out of necessity, and in his brief stint he showed plenty of promise — with the understanding his development would take some time. Not only did Hoerner play a more-than-capable shortstop in Javier Baez‘s absence, he also put up palatable numbers offensively from a kid that never played higher than Double A ball. In 82 plate appearances he slashed .288/.305/.436, and while he tapered off down the stretch and ended up with a wRC+ of 86, the front office and fans alike were pleased with the performance.
That performance had some ups and downs in 2020, proving Nico’s development will still take some time:
Added to this are a few wrinkles. In Hoerner’s ’19 cameo he hardly walked (3.7 BB%) but also struck out at a clip much better than the league average (13.4%, league average ~23%). He showed considerably more patience in 2020, yielding an above-average 9.5 BB%, and while his strikeout rate also jumped to 19.0% it remained better than league average.
Hoerner has great bat-to-ball skills, and his developing patience (his O-Swing% dropped 17 points from 2019-2020) will help him increase both his OBP and SLG. Of course, he also offers terrific defense, as he was a Gold Glove finalist at the keystone this year despite limited playing time, compiling five Defensive Runs Saved, a 2.6 UZR/150, and four Outs Above Average (good for third across MLB second basemen.)
Even though signing a player such as Ha-Seong Kim (or Jurickson Profar, or Tommy La Stella) would be a solid move for the Cubs, it’s hard to think they’ll be spending much money on free agents this offseason — let alone at positions where capable players already exist. To that extent, Hoerner should receive plenty of playing time in 2021.
A Gold Glove is very likely in Nico’s future; it’s the development of his bat that will ultimately determine his worth.
Compiled 2021 Projections
FanGraphs’ Steamer model is moderately bullish on Hoerner in 2021. The assumption in their projections is that Hoerner gets the bulk of playing time at second base, likely with a sprinkling of starts at short to rest Javy. There’s a belief he can provide some power (coming off a zero homer campaign), predicting roughly league average numbers in slugging percentage, weighted on-base average, and weighted-runs created plus.
You know what? An average offensive campaign from Hoerner would be just fine, especially if he shows developing power and a much improved OBP in his age-24 campaign.
FanGraphs 2021 Projections (Steamer)
Steamer projections peg Hoerner to have a 7.3 BB% and 14.6 K%, the former near league average, with the latter much better than average. These would be more-than-palatable numbers for the young player.
My Thoughts & Projections
As with Steamer, I believe in Nico’s ability to hit for better power than he’s shown to date, and I also believe firmly in the maturation of his patience. In short, I think league average slugging and walk rates will surface while he maintains a contact-approach that limits his strikeouts.
In 2020 Hoerner hit the ball to the opposite field much more frequently than in his ’19 cameo, and in the process he upped his hard hit percentage. All of this occurred with ground ball and fly ball percentages that remained stable, which is a quality sign with regard to the contact he creates. His exit velocity increased in 2020 even as his launch angle dropped considerably — something to resolve if he’s to drive the ball with more frequency.
My projections will reflect a few things. I think his AB/HR ratio of 27.3 (in 2019) is a fair (if not slightly generous) barometer of his power, and that is reflected in his HR totals below. I also believe he’ll present near league-average in his slugging and on-base ability, which coupled with Gold Glove caliber defense, will make him a valuable contributor in 2021.
2021 will be the next step in Nico’s development, proving a capable, league-average bat and elite defense make him a solid starter at the keystone.
Previous 2021 Projections
Note: Here you’ll find previous entries in this series of 2021 projections. Today’s Nico Hoerner entry is the first of the series.
Featured Photo: Joe Sargent, Getty Images
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