There was a familiar face back at Wrigley Field on Monday for the series opener against the Cardinals. Almost exactly a year ago, on May 17, Christopher Morel was an emergency call-up from Double-A Tennessee, and he announced himself to the home crowd with authority. Pinch hitting for Patrick Wisdom in the eighth inning against the Pirates that day, Morel clubbed a home run deep to left field in his first career at-bat.
At that time, he was summoned to the majors because his defensive versatility would help Cubs manager David Ross plug some holes opened by injuries to Nico Hoerner, Jason Heyward and Nick Madrigal over the previous week. To some extent, he is back in Chicago because of the same ability. The Cubs don’t have the same injury woes this May, but Morel can get himself consistent at-bats by virtue of his ability to play in several spots on the field.
That’s a big part of the reason why he was called up while Nelson Velázquez was optioned down to Triple-A Iowa on Monday. The latter only plays the outfield, and those spots are currently locked down by Ian Happ, Cody Bellinger and Seiya Suzuki.
“We’ve got limited spots for at-bats right now, so we’re trying to mix and match that,” Ross said.
It helps, too, that Morel has been hitting the bejesus out of the ball in Iowa. In 134 Triple-A plate appearances, he batted .330 with a 1.156 OPS. He hit 11 home runs already, and he routinely posted exit velocities well over 100 mph. In other words, if you keep hitting screamers, you quickly make a push for a call to the show.
“He’s proven that Triple-A, he’s better than that league and deserves a shot here,” Ross said.
It’s true that Morel’s defensive versatility is a part of the reason he is in Chicago and Velázquez is not. But the same issue of how to get the youngster consistent at-bats will hover over Morel as it did for Velázquez. That was one of the benefits of sending Morel to Iowa for the first month of the season. Having everyday playing time in Triple-A helped him to grow more comfortable in his plate approach, and the results spoke for themselves.
Morel took advantage of his opportunity with the big league club last year, but it was evident that as major league pitchers adjusted to him, he struggled to adjust back. That’s one of the integral skills to sticking around in the majors for any prolonged period of time.
Matt Mervis has been in the majors for less than a week after getting his call-up Friday, but he said he was prepped for what to expect in that regard before getting here.
“It’s going to be an up and down process all year. People describe it as a yo-yo,” Mervis said. “Teams attack you a certain way, and you adjust, and they start attacking you differently, then you adjust to that.”
Last season, Morel just couldn’t do that. He hit .283 in both of his first two months after being called up, but then it was a steady decline: .224 in July, .183 in August and .182 in September/October.
Ross chalked up Morel’s demotion to Iowa at the start of the year to roster construction, but that kind of drop off offensively might call for a reset in the minors. The Cubs have done it before with other top prospects: Happ started the 2019 season in Iowa, and Kyle Schwarber was sent down for a short stretch in 2017 amid struggles that year.
One of the reasons for Morel’s issues in 2022 and the need for him to start the season in the minors was the need for better quality in his at-bats. His strikeout rate last year finished at 32.2 percent in 425 plate appearances; it sat at 40.3 percent in August and 36.3 precent in September/October.
“Everybody knows I have a problem with my strikeouts,” Morel said. “So that’s where I made an adjustment. I’m trying to get good at-bats, make more contact, put the ball more in play.”
Morel has only cut the strikeout rate down slightly while in Iowa this season. But despite still striking out at a rate over 30 percent, Morel’s walks are up significantly (12.7 percent in Iowa this year compared to 8.9 percent with the Cubs in 2022).
He seems to have proven he can make those kinds of adjustments in Triple-A, so defensive flexibility aside, there’s the reality that, at some point, he needs to show that he can do it at the major league level, too.
“He’s deserving of the opportunity to prove that the first half of when he was up here last year is who he is,” Ross said, “and I think we have a lot of confidence in that.”
The question will be how Ross gets Morel in the lineup consistently enough to justify this call-up from a development standpoint.
It does Morel no good to return to the majors and then play sporadically. This move was as much about him needing a chance to show he can produce at this level as it was about not wanting Velázquez wasting much more time with inconsistent at-bats. But that means Morel can’t be saddled with limited playing time, either.
Getting Morel enough chances to justify this move will be a tough job for Ross, who has a much more veteran-heavy roster this year than last. Players like Bellinger and Dansby Swanson aren’t going to surrender starts too often for the sake of a player like Morel getting his at-bats. For that reason, he may have to embrace a mixed bag of duties.
“He’s going to be ready when I put his name in the lineup, he’s going to be ready when I call his name off the bench,” Ross said. “That’s where he should be. There’s a lot of guys that have long resumes that have earned playing time and earned contracts and earned a lot of things that are there. I think as a young player you understand that, but you also gotta stay ready for your opportunity.”
These opportunities sometimes have a way of popping up when you least expect it.
In the fifth inning of Monday night’s 3-1 loss against the Cardinals, Hoerner pulled up while running from first to third on a Swanson double that could’ve scored him. He exited the game with left hamstring tightness, per the Cubs, and Madrigal took his place. Considering Morel appeared in over 30 games for the Cubs at second base last year, if Hoerner is forced to miss any time, this might be the opening to get Morel those at-bats.
In the meantime, Morel picked up right where he left things last season: He was all smiles in the Cubs locker room, spent several minutes greeting ballpark staff before the game and bear-hugged former teammate Willson Contreras (another familiar face back in town Monday night).
Morel wasn’t bitter after starting the season in Triple-A. He worked hard to prove he could make the improvements the Cubs wanted to see. He was one the best hitters in the minors over the last month, but now, he’ll work to make sure the Cubs can’t send him down again.