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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Finding a defensive home for a player like Christopher Morel could be enormous for the Cubs from a roster construction standpoint. But doing that the last two seasons has been easier said than done.
In the minor leagues, he played all three outfield position as well as second base, third base and shortstop in at least 10 different games apiece. Since he’s reached the majors, he’s played those six spots each at least eight times, with left and right field being the only two he hasn’t played in 15 or more games.
The bat has played since Morel was first called up in May 2022. He’s shown tremendous power, hitting 42 home runs in just 854 plate appearances (767 at-bats) and posting a .229 ISO (slugging minus average), and he’s also shown increasing maturity at the plate. It’s just that reliable defense has not been there consistently.
Outside of pitcher and catcher, the one spot Morel hasn’t played since joining the Cubs organization in 2015 is first base. It seems like that will change this winter.
During the GM Meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz. this week, Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer revealed plans to have Morel play some first base in winter ball.
“It’s an ongoing conversation, but I think we’ve talked a lot about finding him a home, and I do think we want to give him some work at first and see how he reacts to that,” Hoyer said. “He’s shown he can play third, he’s shown he can play second and he can play in the outfield. But finding a home for him is something that would be really valuable.”
It’s not that the Cubs don’t believe he can play another position.
He’s shown some flashes in limited time elsewhere, particularly at second base, which in another situation might be the defensive home the Cubs are looking for. But they already have Nico Hoerner, who just won the National League Gold Glove at second base earlier this week.
Shortstop (Dansby Swanson), left field (Ian Happ) and right field (Seiya Suzuki) are also currently occupied. Other positions (like center field) seem sure to be taken care of in the near future. Third base is open, and it was by far his most-played position in the minors, but inaccuracy on throws has been an issue (four throwing errors in 180 2/3 innings).
Meanwhile, the first-base picture isn’t unclear. Last year’s free-agent signings, Eric Hosmer and Trey Mancini, were disappointments. Matt Mervis didn’t excel as hoped in his first shot in the big leagues. Patrick Wisdom isn’t an everyday answer. Cody Bellinger and Jeimer Candelario, who both spent time at the spot in the second half, are now free agents.
Could Morel play another position and have success? Potentially, but right now, first base is an open spot on the diamond he might be able to fill.
“I think he’s a very capable second baseman; we have a guy that just won a Gold Glove [Hoerner], so that’s not the spot we’re going to put him,” Hoyer said. “I think another team might be able to put him there and have him do that. I think it’s both marrying those things. We have two really capable corner outfielders. I think that’s why some of the conversations around first base make sense, because it kind of fits our needs and potentially his needs.”
Not that Hoyer is expecting the transition to come easily. Morel being long and athletic helps, but first base is still a spot he has no real experience with at the professional level.
“With that position, too, you’ve got to put a lot of work in,” Hoyer said. “The hard part about first base is that it certainly doesn’t require a lot of things that second base or third base do, but the footwork around the bag, understanding the positioning and things like that can be really challenging. I think that’s a big part of it.”
The Cubs really have nothing to lose by seeing if first base is a spot Morel can succeed at. He has too much potential to make him a permanent designated hitter right now, and maybe first is where he can unlock the defensive part of his game.
He’s also a potential trade chip this winter, one others teams might be willing to acquire in exchange for players who better fit the Cubs’ roster needs. Getting a little work in at first base, then, could also help show off even more versatility in Morel’s game.
Regardless of what the future holds for the Cubs and Morel, getting the 24-year-old some work at first base isn’t a bad thing. Nobody has been able to take hold of that position since the Cubs traded Anthony Rizzo at the 2021 deadline.
If Morel can be the one to finally take the mantle as their “first baseman of the future,” there’s no harm in finding out now.
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