Why Hoerner, Alzolay might feel added squeeze in job battles originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
MESA, Ariz. — One under-the-radar move by the Cubs Wednesday and one under-the-radar dispute between Major League Baseball and the players union could have major impacts on how the Cubs build their roster this spring — especially when it comes to two of the most intriguing young players in camp.
That would be second baseman Nico Hoerner and rookie pitcher Adbert Alzolay, a touted pair who look like potential impact players for the Cubs in 2021.
And who also look like potential victims of a roster numbers crunch, depending on how two factors out of their control play out in the next few weeks.
Hoerner, a Gold Glove finalist as a rookie in last year’s pandemic-shortened season, looked like a favorite to make the opening roster until the Cubs added veteran infielder Eric Sogard to the mix on a minor-league deal — which added at least a wrinkle, if not a bona fide new hurdle to clear, for Hoerner’s continued big-league status.
And while Alzolay figures to play a significant role for the Cubs’ pitching staff during an all-arms-on-deck season following dramatically reduced workloads in 2020, the Cubs’ desired flexibility to included him among pitchers who can be shuttled to the minors, if necessary, depends on a case now before an arbitrator.
That case involves whether the 2020 season constitutes a full professional baseball season, which MLB rules define as a minimum of 90 days. If not — as MLB sees it — then none of the player options used for players last season count.
That would mean the Cubs did not use Alzolay’s third and final option in 2020 and still have that available to use to shuttle him as often as they want this year.
The players’ union, which filed the grievance, contends that the pro-rated formula applied to other negotiated elements of last season also apply to player options. If they prevail, Alzolay is out of options, and he and his power repertoire must remain on the big-league roster or be exposed to waivers.
It’s one of several issues that fell through the cracks in last year’s contentious negotiations over player pay, service time and protocols. And it affects dozens of players in the game this year.
In both Alzolay’s and the Cubs’ favor is the development under trying conditions over the past year of the best-looking young pitcher they’ve had come through the system in nine years of mostly farm system failures — making him a candidate for a full-season job in the majors regardless.
But inevitable workload limits after a 21 1/3-inning 2020 make the lack of the extra option at least problematic as the team puts together plans and contingencies for its staff.
Meanwhile, Hoerner has plenty of options left — because he has never gone back to the minors since that emergency callup in September 2019, barely a year after he was drafted.
That and the arrival of Sogard suddenly make a developmental stretch in the minors look more like a real possibility.
Hoerner still might wind up the best choice for the starting second base job by the end of camp if his new, stronger look since last season and those two rockets for hits on Tuesday in his first spring game mean anything.
But if he doesn’t win the starting job it’s unlikely at best he sticks on the roster.
Hoerner, the Cubs’ first-round pick in the 2018 draft, had only 375 minor-league plate appearances — none above double-A — when he was called up for emergency duty because of injuries in 2019. And if not for the cancelation of the 2020 minor-league season last year, he might have been back in triple-A at that point, instead of struggling at the plate during the short big-league season.
“I think that’s an ongoing conversation. He’ll show us if he’s ready,” said manager David Ross, who called Hoerner’s double and single Tuesday “two of the hardest he’s hit in a year’s time.”
But as much as Hoerner might do on the field this spring, “Some of it’s in Nico’s control and some of it isn’t to be honest,” Ross said.
“His job is to make it as tough on me and Jed [Hoyer] and our group as possible to put him in the lineup.”
The Cubs, who pursued Sogard at the 2019 trade deadline and again during the winter a few months later, view him as a lefty contact bat for a team trying to improve on contact and that has few left-handed infield options to the left of first baseman Anthony Rizzo.
Sogard, 34, could theoretically provide a lefty platoon option at second to David Bote; Sogard and Bote also are both capable of playing third if Kris Bryant gets a day off or a day in the outfield. And Sogard can play shortstop for Javy Baez in a pinch.
A factor that could be in Hoerner’s favor is the news this week that the minor-league season will be pushed back to May, with alternate-site camps similar to what were used last year in play again the first month of this season.
In other words, if he needs to go to the minors to get a steady diet of regular at-bats, those won’t be available until May.
But if he doesn’t earn the starting job, Hoerner likely won’t find a place on an opening big-league roster with precious few bench jobs.
The Cubs expect to open the season with 14 pitchers — which leaves just four bench jobs, two of which are earmarked for backup catcher Austin Romine and fourth outfielder Jake Marisnick.
Non-roster outfielder Cam Maybin is considered a favorite for one of the others. And that leaves one infield spot for Sogard, switch-hitting veteran Ildemaro Vargas or Hoerner.
And that all but eliminates Hoerner.
But four weeks of competition remain.
Ross loves good fielding and raved again Wednesday about Hoerner’s exceptional glove. And Hoerner has continued to impress with his heady approach and poise.
“That’s where the comfort level kind of sways in his favor,” Ross said. “He is a smart baseball player.”
How much it matters — for Hoerner and Alzolay — could come down to roster numbers and decisions out of their control.