There’s no question the Cubs really like the prospect they have in Christopher Morel. The “electric factory”, a term Brennen Davis used to describe him, is the only hitter in the Cubs system to spend the entire season at both the Alternate Training Site in South Bend and the Instructional League in Arizona. We ranked him at number 12 in the system in our last update of the system’s prospect rankings.
On November 20, the Cubs need to make decisions on what prospects to protect from the Major and minor league phases of the Rule 5 Draft. Here is a handy list of the players at the forefront of those choices, and I’ll weigh in on others this week. But I think there is no question that Morel is the most fascinating decision, because he’s both a) extremely talented and b) not close to big-league ready.
The decision facing the Cubs is this: to protect Morel from the Major League phase of the Rule 5, they need to add him to the 40-man roster before the November 20 deadline. If he’s not added, any team that picks him will retain Morel’s rights as long as he stays on the MLB roster all 2021 season. The Cubs lost Vimael Machin in this fashion this season (it’s also how they got, for example, Hector Rondon). Maybe you decide to keep things simple, and say Morel is a top 6-15 prospect in the organization, you can’t risk losing that, you add him. Maybe it’s that easy.
But I think that’s ignoring the consequences of adding a guy before he’s ready. First, you only have 40 of those roster spots, and whatever form baseball takes in 2021, I think we can safely say that having significant MLB-caliber depth will be important. Morel on the 40-man is one less spot for a guy that could contribute positively in 2021. Additionally, once added to the roster, Morel will be given three seasons during which he could be optioned to the minor leagues. You’d hope a player that receives this much developmental attention is ready by 2024, and if he’s not, you’d probably be okay with saying goodbye at that point, but is it worth starting the clock now now?
There’s also the question of how realistic it is that a team out there would put Morel, 21, on their big league roster for 2021.
Morel’s experience above complex ball is this: in 2018, the Cubs opted to have Morel skip the AZL and go straight to the Northwest League Eugene Emeralds. He hit .165/.172/.220 in 25 games, was demoted to the AZL and finished the season there, making some good impressions. In 2019, the Cubs started Morel with the South Bend Cubs. His season started slow there in the cold weather, just .214/.245/.337 in the first 27 games. But then he caught fire, overshadowed a bit by the emergence of Brennen Davis onto the prospect scene during the same time frame, but fantastic success for a 20-year-old in the Midwest League nonetheless: .327/.364/.547 in 146 games. Morel then was injured on a slide, missed the rest of the season, and that’s where we last left off in game action.
So, yes, you could say Morel’s prospect candidacy is built on 176 cherry-picked plate appearances in Low-A almost a year and a half ago. And when it’s put like that, I do think there are probably safer ways to spend a 40-man spot. Will any organization spend an entire season with Morel’s inexperience on their active MLB roster? While I think there’s some talent in his bat (good hand-eye coordination, quick bat, raw power), I think you’d have to project him at replacement level or worse as a hitter in 2021. Maybe much worse.
… and yet, I think the expectation should be that the Cubs do decide to protect Morel on Friday. I also think it’s the right call, for this reason: defense. I’ve posted this clip before, but it needs repeat love, because it’s key to understanding why Morel has real, calculable 2021 value to teams in the Rule 5:
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
When I watch Morel, I see a plus-or-better arm and fast-twitch defender at third base, plus-5 runs or better projected over a full season. The Cubs have hinted that they project him positively in center field, and I know he took grounders at shortstop and second base during his time in camps in 2020. I think a middling team could absolutely talk themselves into spending a pick on him in 2021 as a defensive replacement and pinch hitter against lefties, wanting to keep him long-term for his upside. And when you combine an easy-to-figure 2021 role with long-term projection, that’s the formula for a Rule 5 pick. Don’t get too cute, just take the medicine, add him to the 40-man.