PITTSBURGH — Twenty minutes before the sky opened above PNC Park, the cool fall weather in full force, Nico Hoerner manned his position at shortstop.
Hoerner had not made on-field throws from his position since Sept. 11, when imaging revealed he suffered a mild-to-moderate right triceps strain. The injury didn’t occur on a singular throw, rather during a diving attempt on a ball up the middle.
“When it happened, it wasn’t like, ‘Dang, I’m hurt. I’m going to miss a lot of time,’ ” Hoerner said Thursday. “That’s not how it felt when it happened. … There’s always going to be things playing how I play that are going to pop up. There’s going to be day-to-day stuff for every player but especially playing in the middle of the field, and if you do strain something, you want to do it trying to make a diving play and having a close play at first. No regrets on that, I was prepared to play. I felt good physically and it was unfortunate, but you move on.”
With 12 games left after the Cubs’ series opener against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Hoerner is not ruling out a return this season. It would be his ideal outcome.
“If I’m in a place where I’m healthy and there’s a good chunk of games left, like 30 or 40 at-bats left to have, I think that’s valuable time,” he said.
Hoerner reiterated it must make sense physically for him to come back and everyone must be on the same page. He knows the end of the season is approaching quickly but sounded confident a return is a realistic goal.
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When healthy, Hoerner has proved to be a dynamic all-around player who thrived in the move from second base to the everyday shortstop this season. While he might face another position change for 2023, pending the organization’s offseason moves, Hoerner has shown he can be the type of foundational player the Cubs need for a successful rebuild. And, importantly, Hoerner showed he is capable of staying healthy and durable over the course of a long season.
His 125 games and 477 plate appearances both exceed his first three years of big-league experience, playing in 112 games and making 378 PAs since he debuted in 2019. Some of his playing time in 2020 was limited by performance because he struggled to get on track offensively.
Aside from a fluky ankle injury that cost him 12 games after colliding with an umpire in May, Hoerner had been a staple in the Cubs lineup before his triceps issue. It’s a stark contrast to last season, when Hoerner went on the injured list four times for three ailments. Hoerner’s offseason workout adjustments and how he prepared for 2022 paid off. He plans to take a step back after the season to analyze how his previous workout plan set up his body to handle the six-month grind. Hoerner anticipates utilizing a similar program this offseason.
“I‘m really proud of how I handled the things that I dealt with last year from my hamstring to my oblique — those are core baseball muscles, like, you hear those words all the time and those are ones that you want to be on top of and know how to take care of yourself,” Hoerner said. “It’s too bad that I had to miss time to learn that process, but I’m really proud of how I played throughout the year, physically to be able to play every single day going through the long stretch we had in August, pretty much playing every game and feeling good physically.
“Honestly, the best I felt physically was in early 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 discussing a return as he did Thursday, he was shut down with a week of games left because of lingering oblique tightness. Hoerner’s value within the Cubs’ roster puzzle is much clearer this September and the pivotal role he could play in how the front office constructs its next playoff-contending roster.
“I‘ve always trusted that if I had a full season to play I’d know exactly what it would look like, that I’d put a body of work out that I was proud of,” Hoerner said. “And there’s a ton to build on from this year. By no means I don’t really believe in ceilings for players in baseball. There’s so much fluctuation year to year and just continuing to develop with whatever opportunity I have.”