Nico Hoerner is exactly what the Cubs are missing

With both Javier Baez and Addison Russell hurt, the Cubs had to call up top prospect Nico Hoerner because they needed a shortstop — but he’s done much more than just play shortstop.

Roughly a year ago, Nico Hoerner was visiting Wrigley Field after a season-ending elbow injury, having just been promoted from the developmental league to the Cubs Low-A affiliate in South Bend, IN.

He managed to play just four games before getting hurt, which sent him on a trip to Chicago to visit the team doctors. While in the city, he asked if he could stay and take in a game at Wrigley Field. The Cubs were facing their rival Cardinals on that warm, Friday night in July.

I was actually at the park for an assignment that day and spoke to him and you can read my brief article here, but Hoerner wandered around the park for a moment before being recognized. He eventually sat in the Cubs’ dugout and answered questions from a pack of reporters, and he kept pointing out how excited he was to play at Wrigley Field.

Flash forward to a week ago, when Hoerner made his MLB debut.

The now 22-year-old Hoerner has played in 10 games so far with the Cubs, and while it’s a small sample size, the former Stanford Cardinal is making a real impact. Hoerner is slashing .317/.364/.512 with two home runs and 11 RBI in 44 PA’s this season, already coming through in some key moments as well, like his go-ahead home run from last week.

Hoerner’s calling card has been his bat-to-ball skills, something Senior Vice President of Player Personnel Jason McLeod mentioned shortly after drafting the talented shortstop in last years draft:

“This is a talented player who can really swing the bat, it’s a high-contact bat. We think there’s more power in there in terms of extra-base hits, in terms of lifting the ball. We really love what he can do at the plate.

The Cubs are currently the league’s worst team at making contact at 73.7 percent and only the Tigers and White Sox have a higher swinging strike percentage, according to Fangraphs. The Cubs’ contact issues are nothing new; since 2015 the Cubs have the second-worst contact rate in the league at 75.4 percent.

Chicago’s lineup has plenty of power but the Cubs seem to run into the issue of having too many sluggers. The Cubs are too dependent on hitting homers to score their runs right now, and even with high on-base players like Kris Bryant or Jason Heyward still getting on base, the Cubs struggle to string together multiple hits in an inning.

Hoerner’s ability to find the ball with his bat is something the Cubs need more of. While a small sample size, Hoerner is already making contact on 90 percent of pitches inside the strike zone, with only veteran Ben Zobrist having a higher strike zone contact rate on the team.

But on top of the high-contact numbers, Hoerner is also an excellent athlete. He swiped eight bases in Double-A Tennessee this year, adding an element of speed to a roster that doesn’t have much of it. And while the Cubs don’t steal many bases, it does show Hoerner has the ability to beat out infield hits and doubles, as well as stretch hits for extra bases.

The Cubs don’t want to put too much pressure on him this early in his career, but he’s shown over his short time with the Cubs that the big moment doesn’t scare him. And in fact, he told NBC Sports Chicago he was relishing his debut.

“[My first game at Wrigley] was amazing. It felt like I had always hoped it would,” Hoerner said. “Something you think about for a long time and it definitely lived up to the hype. I had hyped it up to my family a lot just from seeing one game here last year. I said it was unlike anything I had ever seen before and they agreed.”

It may be too late in the season to rely on Hoerner, partially because to even get him on the postseason roster the Cubs would have some hoops to jump through, but he’s also a 22-year-old rookie and some regression is expected once teams have a better read on him as an MLB hitter. And Hoerner trying to work out of a slump in the postseason isn’t a situation they want for their top prospect in this early in his career.

But for now, Hoerner is just soaking in the vibes at the Friendly Confines and smashing 0-2 fastballs the opposite way for a single.