With 20 minutes to go before the skies opened over PNC Park, the cool fall weather in full force, Niko Hoerner took his position at shortstop.
Hoerner hasn’t taken a field goal from his position since Sept. 11, when imaging showed he suffered a mild-to-moderate right triceps strain. The injury did not occur during a single shot, but during an attempt to jump the ball into the center.
“When it happened, it wasn’t like, ‘Damn, I’m in pain.’ I’m going to miss a lot of time,” Hoerner said Thursday. “That’s not how I felt when it happened. … There will always be things that play the way I play. There will be daily activities for every player, but especially the midfield game and when you stress something, you want to do it by trying to make a sharp play and play from close range first. I don’t regret it, I was ready to play. I felt good physically and it was a shame, but you move on.”
With 12 games remaining in the Cubs’ series opener against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Hoerner isn’t ruling out a return this season. That would be his perfect score.
“When I’m in a place where I’m healthy and have a lot of games left, like 30-40 at-bats, I think that’s valuable time,” he said.
Hoerner reiterated that his return has to make physical sense and everyone has to be on the same page. He knows the end of the season is fast approaching, but sounded confident that a return is a realistic goal.
When healthy, Hoerner has proven to be a dynamic all-rounder who has successfully transitioned from second base to everyday shortstop this season. While he could face another position change in 2023 pending the organization’s offseason trades, Hoerner has shown that he can be the type of first baseman the Cubs need for a successful rebuild. And, importantly, Hoerner has shown that he can stay healthy and durable for a long season.
His 125 games and 477 plate appearances surpass his first three years of major league experience, and he has played in 112 games and made 378 PA since his debut in 2019. Some of his playing time in 2020 was limited in terms of performance as he struggled to get on track offensively.
Aside from an accidental ankle injury that cost him 12 games after a collision with an umpire in May, Hoerner was a mainstay for the Cubs before the triceps problem arose. That’s a stark contrast to last season, when Hoerner was on the injured list four times due to three ailments. Hoerner’s offseason training adjustments and how he’s prepared for 2022 have paid off. He plans to take a step back after the season to analyze how his previous training plan set his body up for six months of work. Hoerner envisions using a similar program in the offseason.
“I’m really proud of the way I handled the things that I dealt with last year, from the hamstring to the obliques, those are the main muscles in baseball, like, you hear those words all the time and those are the ones you want to use and know how to take care of yourself,” Hoerner said. “It’s a shame I had to miss the time to learn the process, but I’m really proud of the way I played throughout the year, physically, to be able to play every day, going through the long stretch we had in August, basically playing every game and feeling good physically.
“Honestly, the best I felt physically was at the beginning of September, so I’m really happy with that.”
Around this time last year, Hoerner was also at PNC Park, but instead of sitting in the visitors’ dugout and discussing a comeback like he was on Thursday, he was shut down with a week of games left due to the for prolonged tilting. Hoerner’s value to the Cubs’ roster puzzle is much clearer this September, as is the key role he could play in how the front office builds its next playoff roster.
“I’ve always believed that if I had a full season, I’d know exactly what it was going to look like, that I’d put in a job that I’m proud of,” Hoerner said. “And there is a lot to do this year. I don’t believe in limits for baseball players in any way. There’s so much fluctuation from year to year, and I just keep improving every chance I get.”