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Why Cubs’ Nico Hoerner vs. Eric Sogard might be job battle of spring

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MESA, Ariz. — What does new Cubs infielder Eric Sogard think of talented young Nico Hoerner so far?

“It’s impressive to see what he’s done. Absolutely,” Sogard said.

What does Hoerner think of Sogard getting added to an already crowded infield mix in camp?

Double to left, grounder to short, single to right, single to right, double to left, infield single, homer, single to right.

Until he had a few minutes to meet with reporters Saturday, that was the full transcript of Hoerner’s three-game, four-day, eye-popping response to news that the Cubs signed the veteran lefty-hitting infielder who could be a threat to Hoerner’s roster spot.

Talk about a message delivered loud and clear.

Especially considering Hoerner already was a Gold Glove finalist last year.

“If he keeps this up, it’s going to be scary,” Cubs pitcher Kyle Hendricks said.

For now, Hoerner’s best-in-spring start and Sogard’s sudden presence in search of an Opening Day job in the Cubs infield has raised the heat on the most intense position-area battle of the spring — injecting this happy, placid camp with a bona fide roster controversy with barely three weeks until decision time.

“It doesn’t change my work at all,” Hoerner said.

OK, maybe almost bona fide. But obviously a bitter grudge match, nonetheless.

“Hasn’t crossed my mind,” Hoerner said.

OK, so maybe “controversy” is a little strong.

But while narratives sometimes lie, numbers don’t.

Especially this one: four.

 

That’s how many bench players the Cubs expect to carry when the season opens, and assuming good health, two of those almost certainly belong to backup catcher Austin Romine and fourth outfielder Jake Marisnick.

Second base is the only open starting job, leaving three roster openings, one of which almost certainly belongs to David Bote, either as the second baseman, platoon player or utility man.

Which leaves two for a mix that includes veteran outfielder Cameron Maybin, versatile infielder Ildemaro Vargas, Sogard and Hoerner.

Does the Cubs’ nearly two-year pursuit of Sogard — at trade deadlines and back-to-back winters — give him an added advantage even beyond the lefty bat that could platoon with Bote?

Does Hoerner’s exceptional fielding and poise beyond his years give him an added advantage even beyond the offseason change to his stance that seems to be paying off in all that contact and the quality of his early-spring at-bats?

Does he have to win the full-time job at second to stick on the opening roster, or will his rush to the big leagues — from double-A to his parents’ couch to an emergency callup in a pennant race in 2019 — otherwise necessitate an option to triple-A when the season starts to get him everyday at-bats?

And will the monthlong delay of the minor-league seasons this year play a role in those decisions?

For now, manager David Ross said the minor-league delay and resumption of last year’s alternate-site format to start the season isn’t part of his thinking.

And Hoerner said he looks at those things like this:

“Coming off of last year especially I think the attitude more than ever is just controlling what you can, especially with just how chaotic structure has been in all parts of life” he said, “and just kind of enjoying where you’re at.”

He calls Sogard a great player and “another person to learn from.”

Sogard calls Hoerner’s early performance “special.”

And if the performances and roster numbers create a problem come decision time, the Cubs will call it a good problem to have.

“[Nico’s] job is to make it as tough on me and [team president] Jed [Hoyer] and our group as possible to put him in the lineup,” Ross said. 

As for that bitter, grudge-match controversy heating up in the Cubs infield between the new veteran and the talented kid?

Sogard chuckled, paused to sip from his bottled water, and smirked:

“Hey, try and help out the team anyway I can.”

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