Let’s Talk About Christopher Morel’s Playing Time with the Chicago Cubs
Although he was very successful early on in his age-22, straight-from-Double-A promotion to the big leagues last year, Christopher Morel did deal with the dreaded league adjustment. From July 25 through the end of the season, Morel hit just .163/.238/.340/63 wRC+, with his strikeout rate climbing to 36.5%, his soft contact rate rising, his hard contact rate dropping, and his barrel rate sinking.
None of that was concerning for a developing player – especially one who’d played so little at the upper levels of the minors and who was trying to play multiple defensive positions in the big leagues. It was good experience, in fact.
But it is to say that, when the Cubs made the decision to send Morel to Triple-A Iowa to open the 2023 season, it was a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Not only was there roster crowding, but it was fair to want to see Morel deploy at Triple-A some of the things he’d worked on in the offseason. It’s actually a model the Cubs have used before: bring up a young player, get him sufficient big league exposure that those pitchers basically TELL YOU the things you need to work on, and then get to work in the offseason.
Then Morel kinda threw a wrench in the plan by exploding Triple-A pitching so completely that it became impossible NOT to bring him up. Even as Morel’s strikeout rate at Iowa hovered around 30%, which is concerning, he was doing so much damage the rest of the time that it didn’t really matter (.330/.425/.730/184 wRC+). In other words, it kinda looked like the next step for the 23-year-old utility man was to come to the big leagues where he would either (1) contribute offensively because he just hits the ball so dang hard that he can survive as a 30+% strikeout rate guy, or (2) get exposed in a different way by big league pitching, and then he can once again take that back to the minor leagues to try to work on a specific change. Admittedly, that second route could be tricky if Morel is just too good for Triple-A pitching, but we’ll get there when we get there. For today, it was clear that Morel needed to be up with the big league team.
So, the next question: where will Morel play, and how much will he play?
Well, just last week, Cubs President Jed Hoyer suggested that Morel wouldn’t come up until he could play regularly. So there’s that. But then David Ross discussed Morel, after the promotion, this way (Tribune):
“I don’t know that there’s this big path for everyday at-bats,” Ross said Monday. “The ability to get Velázquez back (to Triple A) and not let him sit on the bench and some ability to mix Mo in time to time is probably going to be more of a role than just everyday at-bats.
“The guy’s set the world on fire down there — he’s earned this coming up. … You can’t ignore the numbers. Mo’s done a really nice job down there. I know he’s going to help us out in a big way ….
“One thing I know about Mo is he’s going to be ready when I put his name in the lineup. He’s going to be ready when I call his name off the bench. There’s a lot of guys that have long resumes, have earned playing time and earned contracts and earned a lot of things that are there. As a young player, you understand that but you’ve also got to stay ready for your opportunity, and Mo will do that.”
I won’t go over the words with a fine-tooth comb, because I think Ross was guarding his words very closely there, and you can do a whole lot of tap-dancing around words and phrases like “regular” and “everyday” and what-have-you. We know that Morel’s defensive versatility will allow him to play more often than, for just the one example, Nelson Velazquez’s outfield-only role would. I’d like to believe Morel will be playing much more regularly than Velazquez was; otherwise it would make zero sense to say that you want to send Velazquez down to get more playing time, and bring up Morel to get substantially less.
So, while I think the roster is such that it’s fair to say there isn’t obvious every-single-day playing time for Morel, I would characterize three or four starts a week as “regular” playing time, and that may be enough to accomplish the goals you’d assume accompany this promotion (i.e., contributing to the big league team, and also developing).
And that level of starts absolutely SHOULD be available for Morel. You’ve got Patrick Wisdom in a deep slump, and clearly needing more match-up protection to maximize his production. You’ve got Nick Madrigal playing really well defensively at third, but still not hitting at all. You’ve got a trio of outfielders who could probably stand to get a day off every now and again. Just two or three games at third base per week and one game in the outfield per week and, boom, you’ve got “regular” playing time for Morel.
That approach still leaves three or four games at third base per week for Wisdom and Madrigal, and it means the regular outfielders are each sitting down only once every THREE weeks. Come on. How is that not a reasonable way to approach things, especially with a bat that has been as hot as Morel’s and whom you absolutely need to see face big league pitching regularly enough to adjust?
Oh, and all that was BEFORE Nico Hoerner’s hamstring injury last night! We’ll see what happens and I don’t want to assume the worst, but this whole calculus gets even easier, for now, if Hoerner heads to the Injured List.
Putting it plainly: if Hoerner has to miss time and Morel isn’t starting EVERY SINGLE DAY, I will be absolutely irate.
With Hoerner around and locking down second base, I can understand the challenge of getting Morel more than a start every other day or so. But if Hoerner is out, I cannot fathom a good reason why Morel shouldn’t be playing every day – some at second, some at third, and some in the outfield.
Let me conclude with just a fan-type thing, because that’s a non-zero factor for me in all this. Frankly, I also just want to see Morel play really often because I like watching him play. He’s fun out there! He’s fluid and athletic. He’s got a cannon for an arm. He reveals his inner joy constantly. And he can hit the crap out of the ball. I want to watch that guy play professional baseball as much as I can.