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As Christopher Morel launched a pitch from bench coach Andy Green deep to left field during pregame batting practice Tuesday, all Green could do was turn around and look on.
The ball flew off Morel’s bat and careened off the video board behind the left-field bleachers, leaving reporters who were paying attention in awe. A few hours later, near the end of the Cubs’ 7-0 win over the Pirates, the 22-year-old and No. 21 ranked Cubs prospect by MLB Pipeline left over 30,478 fans even more in awe than the ones who were watching batting practice earlier that day — but we’ll get to that in a bit.
Joining Morel at Wrigley Field was another Cubs prospect, Brandon Hughes. Both Morel and Hughes were officially called up to the big leagues for the first time Tuesday, Morel from Double-A Tennessee, Hughes from Triple-A Iowa.
Hughes was the less-heralded of the two minor leaguers, but that didn’t make his numbers on the year any less notable. Between five appearances apiece with Tennessee and Iowa, Hughes recorded a dominant line: 16 2/3 innings, 22 strikeouts, a 0.48 WHIP and a 0.00 ERA.
And what’s even more impressive is that those numbers came just over three years since Hughes, drafted out of Michigan State in 2017 as a 16th-round outfielder, converted to a pitcher.
“Got called in, it was like three days left of spring training (in 2019), and (then-director of player development Jaron Madison) said there wasn’t going to be any at-bats, really, for me, anywhere in the system,” Hughes said Tuesday afternoon. “So I could either get my release papers or become a pitcher.”
Obviously, he made the switch and stayed in the organization, and about 38 months later, Hughes and Morel — who signed with the Cubs as an international free agent out of the Dominican Republic in August 2015, was added to the 40-man roster in November 2019 and had hit .306 with 13 extra-base hits and a .945 OPS in 28 games with the Smokies in 2022 — were in Chicago with a chance to make their major league debuts at Wrigley Field.
Before the Cubs took on the Pirates on Tuesday night, manager David Ross was asked for his scouting reports on the two new faces in the clubhouse:
- Said Ross about his new left-handed arm: “Hughes has been throwing the ball really well, dominating lefties, throwing strikes. Nothing but rave reviews. Everything I’ve heard about the young man has been positive, in his performance and who he is.”
- Said Ross about his powerful hitter with the ability to move around the field: “C-Mo is somebody who’s going to give us a lot of versatility. Can play pretty much any infield position and every outfield position. He’s on the 40-man, swinging the bat really well right now. Got a dynamic skill set. Some power, some speed and really versatile.”
They are additions to a large group of players who either earned placements in higher levels in the system heading into the season or have quickly received promotions since the season started.
“I think every year is unique, depending on where the players are in their development process, if they’re reaching their development goals and when that happens,” Cubs vice president of player development Jared Banner said. “One of the things that I always say is that the players tell you when they’re ready with their performance, right? I think we’ve had just several guys get off to really good starts. We’ve decided not to hold them back in some cases.”
Hughes and Morel were the first players to be promoted to the show this season who hadn’t yet made their big league debuts, but once they got the chance, they made themselves known.
Hughes was the first one up, coming in with one out and a 2-0 count in the sixth after Daniel Norries left in the middle of an at-bat with right Achilles soreness. Though he couldn’t finish off that batter (the walk was charged to Norris), Hughes went out and struck out five of the six batters he faced to complete his first 1 2/3 worth of major league innings.
His slider in particular was working to perfection, as it picked up five whiffs on five swings and finished off all five of his strikeouts — and it even helped produce this historical nugget.
“Brandon was impressive,” Ross said. “Kept the lefties off-balance. There’s real deception in there. Not a lot of good swings off of him. I thought it was really impressive what he showed tonight.”
As impressive as Hughes’ outing was, the one that felt a bit more written by Hollywood came a couple innings after Hughes finished working.
Morel finally got his turn to step out onto the field, pinch-hitting for Patrick Wisdom with two outs in the bottom of the eighth. He’d already put forth a power display a few hours earlier, and when it finally came down to give everyone at Wrigley Field a show, he didn’t disappoint.
That 417-foot homer Morel drilled over the left-field bleachers was easily the hardest hit ball of the game at 111.3 mph, and with it, Morel became the first Cubs batter since Willson Contreras on June 19, 2016, to hit a homer in his first career at-bat.
And what made the moment even more special, besides the fact Morel proved his mettle by working all the way back from an 0-2 count?
He actually called his shot.
“It was amazing,” Contreras said. “He told me, and I felt like he was going to get something done, but I was thinking of a base hit, just a blooper, just something positive. Once I saw the ball going out, I was like, that was a no-doubt. That kid had some pop in his bat, and his numbers from Double-A show. He made a lot of contact, and when you make a lot of contact, good things are going to happen. I’m just so happy for him and his family. Hopefully this is the start of a huge career.”
So why does all of this matter?
Well, because these are the performances and moments the Cubs hope happen more often very, very soon.
Look at Morel and Contreras’ first at-bat long balls, for example. When Contreras hit his, he wasn’t a rookie getting his shot on a team without championship aspirations. That 2016 Cubs squad ended up going 103-58 in the regular season en route to winning the franchise’s first World Series title in 108 years. Contreras’ debut wasn’t just to see what the Cubs could have in the future; it was the team bringing in another player it felt could contribute to winning every day right away.
That’s how Ross views Morel and Hughes getting called up to the big leagues for the first time.
As the manager of the big league club, he’s trying to win each and every game with what he has on his roster. In his mind, Morel and Hughes’ promotions are ones that, above all else, will help in that daily quest for victory.
“It’s about winning at this level,” Ross said. “I’m not trying to see anybody here. We’re trying to win ballgames, for me. These guys, they’ll establish whether they’re big leaguers or not on their own.”
Added Ross later: “I think that’s the goal for me. No matter what, it’s just to continue to harp on, ‘How do we compete today? How do we win today? How do we help each other out today?’ The championship teams I’ve been on, the best teams I’ve been on, it’s not a big picture focus. It’s like, we’re going to kind of bring our lunch pail to work today and try to win.”
Not that that’s necessarily the mindset shared throughout the organization.
If it were, Kris Bryant, Javier Báez and Anthony Rizzo likely don’t get flipped for prospects at last year’s trade deadline. If it were, the Cubs likely spend more in free agency this past offseason. If it were, Contreras’ future with the organization is likely solidified.
Instead, Jed Hoyer and Co. are still in the process of putting the pieces together for “The Next Great Cubs Team” that will bring the franchise back to the heights of its very recent glory days.
Though the Cubs would love for Morel and Hughes to be an indication that “The Next Great Cubs Team” is on its way, there’s no guarantee that either make it to the end of the season in the big leagues, let alone that either is a future contributor on that future perennial contender. There are other enticing prospects throughout the farm system, too, but few are likely to make their own debuts in 2022. So, there is still plenty more progress that needs to be made before that team arrives.
In 2016, Contreras was one of the last top Cubs prospects joining a contender, not one coming up early to help get the team back on track. His moment featured raucous fans who came unglued after he cracked that ball over the center-field wall in his first at-bat as a big leaguer, but there were many other moments that sent the Wrigley Field crowd into a frenzy that season, and a lot of them revolved more around winning.
With the Cubs still sitting five games under .500 (15-20) even after winning their third series in a row, it doesn’t appear many of those latter moments are on the way.
For now, Cubs fans will just have to savor moments like the ones they got from Morel and Hughes on Tuesday, which — as Ross helped put it — were pretty damn cool moments to see.
“That’s the stuff you dream about,” Ross said.
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