Cubs focus on Morel's defense after electric season at the plate

December 11th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Jordan Bastian’s Cubs Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

CHICAGO -- One of the subplots to the Cubs’ pursuit of Shohei Ohtani this offseason was how the chase potentially impacted ’s place on the roster. Adding a full-time designated hitter would have landed Morel in positional purgatory.

Ohtani ultimately chose to join the Dodgers via a record 10-year, $700 million contract, forcing the Cubs and the rest of the superstar’s suitors to pivot in their offseason planning. For Morel, it means he can continue to hone his skills at multiple positions, while knowing the DH safety net still exists.

“He's earned his way into a lineup, there's no question about that,” new Cubs manager Craig Counsell said during the Winter Meetings last week. “He's an exciting young hitter.”

Throughout the Cubs’ courting of Ohtani, the 24-year-old Morel has been playing for the Águilas Cibaeñas in the Dominican Winter League. He has mostly been playing at third base, while also getting innings in at second, shortstop, left and center. Cubs GM Carter Hawkins noted that Morel has been getting pregame work in at first base, too.

Jed Hoyer, the Cubs’ president of baseball operations, floated the idea of Morel playing first base during the GM Meetings in November. Given the makeup of Chicago’s roster, combined with Cody Bellinger (still unsigned) and Jeimer Candelario (headed to the Reds) hitting free agency, testing Morel at first makes sense.

“We've sent some coaches down there to work with him,” Hawkins said. “He's getting a lot of pregame work in and is excited about that aspect of things. And, honestly, him playing third is beneficial for us as well. I think that's a potential positional fit for him, too. And really, any reps he's getting on defense are going to be great for us.”

The way the Cubs tackle the offseason in the wake of Ohtani’s decision will make Morel’s path to the lineup more clear.

The North Siders have in-house options at third base in Nick Madrigal and Patrick Wisdom, but they could pursue a full-time fit like free agent Matt Chapman. The Cubs are also looking at free agent Rhys Hoskins as a possible fit for first base. Then, of course, there is Bellinger, who moved seamlessly between center field and first for the Cubs in 2023.

The reality Chicago is facing is that Morel has posted negative numbers across the board defensively (in defensive runs savedouts above average and UZR/150) at every position he has played, with the exception of second base. While Morel is versatile, he has yet to truly gain full trust at any particular spot. That said, Counsell noted that Morel’s ability to move around the diamond can help the club’s depth.

“Positional versatility creates a good floor for your team,” said Counsell. “So that when things inevitably happen to your team during the season, you're choosing from better options than just one option. That's where the players that have defensive versatility are incredibly valuable players.”

In the batter’s box, Morel has been electric.

After posting video-game numbers (1.156 OPS) at Triple-A Iowa to start last season, Morel slugged .508 with 26 homers in 107 big league games in 2023. He averaged one home run per 14.92 at-bats, which was a touch below the rate of 14.97 posted last year by Dodgers star Mookie Betts. Morel’s power comes with a high strikeout rate (31% overall in 2023), but he showed flashes of improved discipline as the season progressed.

Throughout the 2023 campaign, Morel got most of his starts at DH (59), followed by second (16), center field (10), right field (seven), third base (four), left field (four) and shortstop (one). That came after he moved between center, second, third and short in his rookie season in 2022.

“The Cubs have, up to this point, moved him around the field,” Counsell said, “because he's forced his way into the lineup. And that's a good thing. I see that as a really good thing. The positional part, we're going to have to figure that out. And that's going to be part of the challenge of Spring Training.”