Nico Hoerner and Cubs make short-term bet on each other with 3-year extension: ‘This is where I want to be’

Tribune Content Agency

CHICAGO — Within his locker in the Chicago Cubs clubhouse, Nico Hoerner keeps a physical reminder of his connection to the organization’s most successful stretch in the modern era.

Hoerner’s stall previously belonged to Anthony Rizzo, and the second baseman still stashes a pair of Rizzo’s batting gloves featuring dachshunds inspired by his dog, Kevin.

“What was there before, stuff like that really does matter,” Hoerner said Thursday before batting 1 for 4 with a run scored in the Cubs’ 4-0 season-opening victory against the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field. “And it changes fast. It’s not something to forget.”

Hoerner’s three-year, $35 million contract extension that goes into effect next season positions him to be a bridge from the Cubs’ past title stretch and the path they hope this group is trending toward. He is the first Cubs player to receive a contract extension since David Bote’s five-year, $15 million deal in April 2019.

The sides discussed variations of the extension that could have locked in Hoerner beyond 2026. But Hoerner, 25, preferred the shorter-term security while giving up only one year of free agency as “it still leaves some room for choice in my career.”

“I hope it’s not the last deal with this team. … This is where I want to be,” Hoerner said. “You learn a lot about your morals and what you value and what you want to do with your life (during negotiations). Whether we reached something or not, it was a really valuable experience.”

Both sides are ultimately betting on each other.

For the Cubs, it’s an incredible vote of confidence, as Hoerner put it, in their belief of his ability and development only 247 games into his big league career. But Hoerner is always gambling that the glimpses of organizational development he has witnessed over the last two years portends team success at the major league level.

The Cubs’ offseason free-agent investments, most notably Dansby Swanson (seven years, $177 million) and Jameson Taillon (four years, $68 million), sent a message to Hoerner.

“The idea of extending yourself in an organization where you probably didn’t see winning on the horizon, that’s not very attractive to me,” Hoerner said. “So yes, it is a vote of confidence in the direction the team is going and we are still fully creating that identity.

“I can’t sit here and say, ‘Oh, we’re going to win this and that game or that next year we’ll be this’ — that’s not how our game works. But I do feel confident in the direction we’re going and got to see some of the younger guys this spring. I trust this front office and I feel really good about that.”

Hoerner’s connection to Rizzo, his teammate for 2 1/2 seasons, goes further than taking over his locker and watching how he handled unsuccessful extension talks that ultimately resulted in the first baseman landing with the New York Yankees. Hoerner’s sense of purpose on the field resides in following a similar trajectory to how Rizzo’s career played out with the Cubs.

“One of the most satisfying things that I could do in a career would be in one place from ‘rebuild’ to obviously the next championship,” Hoerner said. “Knowing that he had been through the entire story of it, I think it was as inspirational as it gets, honestly. That would be the best thing I could accomplish in my career.”

The next four years are expected to feature plenty of the slick plays the Cubs saw up the middle from Swanson and Hoerner in Thursday’s opener. Swanson lauded Hoerner for the work he witnessed him put in during spring training to the point where “it makes me question what I’m doing sometimes — he really gets after it all the time.”

“He’s so good at what he does, he gets overshadowed some.”

The Cubs’ inability to find common ground on contract talks the last few years makes Hoerner’s deal an important accomplishment for the organization, even though it doesn’t follow the traditional extension framework instead covering just one year of free agency. It still shows a commitment from both sides, something the Cubs weren’t able to reach an agreement with Ian Happ or previous stars from the 2016 championship core.

“Of course there’s a level of frustration that you think about when I look back on the deals we didn’t get done and you look back on not so much how much money we offer because I think that part I feel really good about,” team President Jed Hoyer said Thursday. “I don’t think you can overreact for something you don’t believe in or you don’t think is the right thing for the club.

“So I was glad we got to a good place with Nico. We weren’t with Ian, but that doesn’t preclude us in the future from doing that.”

The Cubs love Hoerner’s makeup and team-oriented approach. He presents the ideal pairing to Swanson as players to build around through the next four seasons.

“He’s just wired differently than most people,” Hoyer said. “He’s constantly thinking about what we can do as a team, as an organization to do better, and there’s not a lot of people like that out there. He’s a special individual.”