It can’t be easy for a manager to tell a young player who spent much of the previous season in the majors that he isn’t on the big league roster to start the next year. That’s especially true when that player became a huge fan-favorite like Christopher Morel.
“Absolutely,” Cubs manager David Ross said on Opening Day, when asked if that was a tough conversation.
“Talking about people that can relate to a player, like, Christopher Morel enjoys playing baseball,” Ross added. “He’s got a smile on his face, and he’s a fun guy to have around.”
Whether or not the Cubs would carry Morel on the Opening Day roster was a question on many Cubs fans’ minds throughout spring training. He’s a guy who came up on May 17 and never went back down. A guy who endeared himself to the fan base with his electric play and a smile that never faded. How could he not be in Chicago when the season began?
Obviously, that’s what ended up happening. When the Cubs broke camp, Morel didn’t make the trip to the North Side. He was optioned to Triple-A Iowa on March 27, where he’s thus far played in each of their first three games of the year.
Since the Triple-A season began, Morel has shown some of the electricity he brings both offensively and defensively, which has done nothing to cool off fan anger over him starting the year in the minors. Of course, since he’s someone with potential for big league success, he should be performing at Triple-A. But that’s besides the point.
It does seem like anyone upset that he isn’t currently with the Cubs has forgotten about the roadblocks that would stand in the way of his long-term development.
With Nico Hoerner moving to second base after the Dansby Swanson addition, and with Cody Bellinger manning center field, Morel’s two most-played positions from last season are taken. Seiya Suzuki’s left oblique strain isn’t expected to keep him out much longer, and third base is crowded. So that’s playing time that Morel will either be splitting or just won’t be getting much of at all.
He’s only 23 years old with a bright future. How would inconsistent playing time benefit his development?
“The biggest thing was, like, ‘You just need to play every day,'” president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said. “We want to bring him up to play a lot. He might not play one position all the time, but we don’t see him as a bench player. We see him as a guy that can move all over and do a lot of things.
“It didn’t appear that those kinds of at-bats would be there for him early in the season. The coaching staff really felt strongly that he’s a really good player, we really want him playing a lot, and having him as a bench option isn’t the right thing for his career and probably not the right thing for the length of the season.”
At the same time, clear flaws developed in Morel’s game last season.
His first at-bat homer and his ensuing franchise-record 22-game on-base streak to begin his career was impressive. But his performance declined as the year went along. The 125 wRC+ he put together from his debut through July 31 was completely offset by the 78 wRC+ he produced from Aug. 1 to the end of the year. A 28.9 percent strikeout rate through the end of July ballooned to 38.2 percent from the beginning of August on (and he currently has five strikeouts in 12 at-bats this year).
Defensively, he was far from a finished product. Forget about the fact that some are adamant he should be in the right-field mix despite not playing an inning there in 2022. Of the five positions he played last year, his best performance in terms of defensive runs saved was a 0. And when it comes to third base, specifically, he may have a strong arm, but he recorded -3 DRS and had accuracy issues.
“He’s got some areas he has to improve,” Ross said.
Ross mentioned that, because of the mix of outfielders in Iowa, he expects Morel to play more infield. It would be even more beneficial if much of that comes at third base. With that positional outlook far from settled, showing he’s cleaned up those problems at the hot corner would be huge — even if the Cubs still ultimately prefer his versatility in the field over keeping him at one spot.
“I know guys want to play one position, but a lot of times, the value to the team is so much higher when you can move that guy around,” Hoyer said. “Having really athletic, really versatile players, it does create a ton of value.”
Frustration over leaving Morel off the big league roster is understandable. However, that he really hasn’t shown those 2022 problems are behind him has to be considered, too. The abundance of playing time for him at Triple-A feels like something to take advantage of.
And let’s not forget that Morel is still on the 40-man roster. The Cubs don’t have to do much to bring him back up if needed. Part of the reason Morel got the call in the first place was to help the team battle injury issues. If that happens again, he’s only a call away.
Ross has said multiple times that just because some players weren’t on the Opening Day roster doesn’t mean they won’t bring value to the team in 2023. Morel is no doubt included in that.
“He really put himself on the map last year doing that, but that’s a representation of the depth that we have to me, sending guys down that are very talented,” Ross said. “He’ll get off to a great start down in Triple-A and be somebody that we’ll be able to call on real soon if something were to come up.”