You’d be hard pressed to find two infield prospects with less in common than Christopher Morel and Chase Strumpf.
Morel has been with the organization since 2015. Strumpf was drafted (in the second round) just last June. Morel is a dynamo third baseman, Strumpf is considered a question mark to stick in the infield, even at second base. Morel is a blur of excitement, either making the big play or the big mistake. Enjoying Strumpf is understanding the nuanced of a well-worked at-bat, a well-backspun fly ball.
There’s one important similarity: injuries in 2019 have kept them under the radar as the two Cubs offensive prospects with the highest probability of a jump onto 2020 prospect lists.
Morel is a guy that popped up most significantly on the BN radar last spring. Brett Taylor, himself ,came up to me on a day at the backfields, reporting Morel had just taken the best batting practice in a group that included more well-regarded A-ball hitters. And over my time in Arizona, his bat speed stuck out as the best in the Cubs system. I mentioned him as someone to watch.
His play in Mesa won Morel the South Bend third baseman job, on which he kept a pretty tepid hold on during the cold Indiana spring. After 40 games, on June 1, Morel was hitting just .234/.281/.372. He was essentially the only South Bend Cub with even two home runs at that point, but his lack of offensive polish was crushing him. At that point, his best attribute was defense that was routinely producing highlight reel plays.
2019 Midseason Update:
The Chris Morel show is in full swing at South Bend. Maybe the most exciting player to watch in the system, he brings an energy and aggressiveness to all facets similar to Javier Baez. Here are just a handful of the defensive plays he's made at 3B this year pic.twitter.com/teG13s2Imm
— Michael Ernst (@mj_ernst) July 9, 2019
I’m not going to tell you that a flip switched after that. I will tell you that I very much want to believe that. For the next 33 games, Morel hit .342/.364/.575, overshadowed only because his breakout coincided with the launch of Brennen Davis’ career. Morel’s month-plus of play gives hope not because of the success of the sample, but because it coincides with pre-existing beliefs that he 1.) is the system’s most exciting player to watch, 2.) has the best bat speed in the minors, and 3.) is a potential really good infielder.
But I need to be honest with myself: what am I hoping to be true, and what is really true when we’re talking about a stretch that involved a .402 BABIP and 3.8 BB%? Sure, that bat speed was probably translating into a lot of loud contact, but that alone won’t be enough. Can he improve overall? This is what will be answered in 2020, with Morel back on the field, and likely drawing the third base job at Myrtle Beach.
Over at second base on that Pelicans team, I suspect, will be Chase Strumpf. He was headed that way, certainly, in late July, when his debut was going incredibly. He’d played 17 games for the Eugene Emeralds then, was hitting .317/.421/.533, and us Midwesterners were anxiously waiting his promotion to South Bend.
For system thin on impact bats, boy would it be huge if Chase Strumpf proves to be more the hitter he was as a sophomore at UCLA (1108 OPS) than as a junior (888 OPS). If Cubs can heal some of the injuries he’s had, namely the back, I don’t see why he couldn’t. Advanced hitter.
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) January 3, 2020
Then a back injury struck, hopefully an annoyance that will have been solved during this offseason [EDIT: eliminated a previous incorrect item that Strumpf had first suffered the injury in college]. When Strumpf returned after a 10-day stint on the Injured List, he just wasn’t the same guy. In 15 games, split between Eugene and South Bend, Strumpf hit just .189/.302/.283. He would ultimately be left off South Bend’s playoff roster.
When healthy, Strumpf profiles as a Major League regular at the plate. The bat is that good. He has good pull side power, and I think adds a little more in the next couple years (you’ll see some room for muscle growth below). I’ve speculated his ability to backspin would have him my pick as the guy in the system who will most benefit when he meets the Upper Levels Juiced Ball (if it’s still a thing). Guy hits the ball haaard.
Strumpf has a good handle on the strike zone, too, and will wait out for a pitcher to make a mistake. He gets deep into counts, which has the side drawback of getting him more strikeouts than you’d expect from an advanced hitter. There is some swing-and-miss there, and his whiff rate will be the number I’m most anxious to watch in 2020.
The other thing to watch: defense. This is where scouts are most split on Strumpf, with opinions varying from “average” to “it’s not going to work.” I haven’t yet seen reason to think Strumpf will not be a capable second baseman, and I think the Cubs will give him every chance to succeed there. The lateral quickness is sufficient. Still, I’d give him some innings in left field in 2020, to add versatility if nothing else.
If I had to pick one of these two to break out in 2020, I’m going with Strumpf. He was a first-round talent had the spring been better. Don’t write off the possibility of him reaching Double-A in 2020, with a 2021 big league appearance not out of the question. For Morel, I expect the development will be slower, with Myrtle Beach’s extreme pitcher’s park a particular difficult assignment for a hitter with his experience level. Morel might have the higher upside, but it might be more difficult for him to reach it.
Either way, as long as these two are healthy, Myrtle Beach fans should have a lot of fun with their infield in 2020.