The Cubs are planning to get slugger Christopher Morel some work at first base in winter ball this offseason, president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said at this week’s GM meetings, via Meghan Montemurro of the Chicago Tribune. The 24-year-old Morel has impressed the club with his power through his first season-plus in the big leagues but has yet to settle into a defensive home. Hoyer noted that Morel is a “very capable second baseman,” but the presence of Nico Hoerner there and Dansby Swanson at shortstop clouds Morel’s positional outlook.
Morel made his big league debut with the Cubs in 2022, appearing in 113 games and taking 425 plate appearances while bouncing all over the field. He logged a nearly identical amount of playing time in a similar role this past season. On the whole, he’s played in 220 games, taken 854 plate appearances, and posted a combined .241/.311/.471 slash with 42 home runs and 16 steals.
The power Morel has to offer is obvious, but it comes with some red flags as well. Morel has fanned in 31.6% of his plate appearances. Though he draws walks at a roughly average 8.7% clip, the frequent strikeouts lead to low batting averages and drag down his overall on-base percentage. Couple that with sub-par defensive grades at every position other than second base, and he’s been something of a square peg in a round hole on the Cubs’ roster.
Looking to the 2024 season, however, Chicago doesn’t have an obvious solution at first base. Free agent Cody Bellinger manned that position frequently in 2023 after a head-scratching run with Eric Hosmer didn’t pan out and after prospect Matt Mervis failed to hit the ground running. Mervis is still just 25 and has posted video game numbers in two Triple-A seasons, but he batted only .167/.242/.289 in 99 big league plate appearances during his debut. He could get another look this season, but Morel has already produced at the plate in the big leagues, so there’s plenty of sense in taking the offseason to see if he can handle the position to get his bat into the lineup.
Of course, given the lack of a clear fit on the Cubs’ roster, it’s only natural to wonder whether Morel might end up being utilized as a trade chip. Montemurro suggests such a path is possible for the Cubs, and Hoyer himself followed his comment about Morel being a capable second baseman by noting that “another team might be able to put him [at second base].” That said, Hoyer also noted that finding a defensive home for Morel on the Cubs’ roster “would be really valuable,” noting that first base specifically fits the Cubs’ needs.
There’s no definitive declaration that Morel will be shopped this winter, but it’s easy enough to see the appeal. Questions about his hit tool notwithstanding, when Morel does make contact, it’s typically quite loud. Beyond the raw home run numbers, he was in the 91st percentile or better in terms of average exit velocity, hard-hit rate and barrel rate, per Statcast. He also boasts 81st percentile sprint speed and 99th percentile arm strength on his throws (which would seem something of a waste at first base).
On top of the loud tools, Morel has less than two years of big league service time. Any club acquiring him would be picking up five years of control over him. Morel probably won’t be eligible for arbitration until after the 2025 season, although he’s on track to finish the 2024 campaign right on the cusp of Super Two eligibility, so there’s some chance that’ll come after the 2024 campaign. Regardless, he’s under team control through the 2028 season.