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April 22, 2024

With Matt Chapman still unsigned, Cubs will have Christopher Morel focus on third base

With Matt Chapman still unsigned, Cubs will have Christopher Morel focus on third base

MESA, Ariz. — Cody Bellinger or Matt Chapman? The Chicago Cubs are keeping both free agents on their radar, league sources said, waiting to see how Scott Boras proceeds and whether a deal will fall into their range. For Jed Hoyer’s group, it appears to be more about lining up the right deal than choosing between a former MVP and a Gold Glove third baseman. The uncertainty is a persistent topic around the Sloan Park training complex. Within the clubhouse, there is curiosity about what it will take to break the logjam. Playing off the standard question in spring training — who’s your Opening Day starter? — a reporter jokingly asked new Cubs manager Craig Counsell to name his favorite Boras client.

Counsell talks like someone who works in the front office, highlighting the overall health of the organization and the untapped value within young talent. With his open-minded nature and problem-solving skills, Counsell will shift his thinking and adapt to the moment. This isn’t even necessarily trying to create leverage because the Cubs are monitoring the situation more than aggressively pursuing Chapman. But Counsell’s updated plan to play Christopher Morel at third base is intriguing.

“Christopher’s done so much with the bat that it’s our job to figure out the best way to deploy him,” Counsell said Saturday. “My idea at the start of camp is to kind of focus mainly at third base. Let’s see where we’re at. Let’s evaluate that as we go. But let’s give him a chance at third base. Let’s give him some consistency at third base and see where we’re at, roster-wise, at some point in camp and then go forward from there.”

Morel will be there for Monday’s first full-squad workout, which wasn’t guaranteed when last season ended and the trade speculation began. Morel’s most natural position would probably be second base, where Nico Hoerner has become a Gold Glove defender and one of the team’s most valuable players. The Cubs’ two primary corner outfielders, Seiya Suzuki and Ian Happ, are each signed through 2026 and earning around $20 million per season. Former manager David Ross — who always collaborated closely with his coaching staff and the front office — viewed Morel as unlikely to stick as an everyday third baseman.

Nico Hoerner won his first Gold Glove in 2023 for his work at second base. (David Banks / USA Today)

As the offseason unfolded, the Cubs decided they would not trade Morel, 24, for a rental player. After starting last season with Triple-A Iowa, Morel electrified the team by generating 26 home runs in 107 games. Morel’s .821 OPS represented an 80-percentage-point improvement from his rookie season. It should also be noted that it helped when Ross gave Morel a midseason timeout on the bench to observe and exhale. At last month’s Cubs Convention, Hoyer described some of the trade rumors as “laughable” and “an alternate universe.”

“Players that get asked about, that’s a good thing,” Counsell said. “Those are good players, so there’s nothing wrong with that. I look at this as a young player who’s had a lot of offensive success at an early age. We’ve got to figure it out positionally. We don’t have to decide today. But hopefully we get some definition of what we’re asking him to do defensively because there’s too much offense to ignore.”

To recap, the Cubs wanted Morel to work at first base while playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic and even assigned coaches to help with that project. But the Cubs do not control the lineup for ​Águilas Cibaeñas, so Morel did not get any game repetitions at first base. From the Winter Meetings through Cubs Convention, team officials highlighted the value of Morel’s versatility. When Rhys Hoskins, for example, signed with the Milwaukee Brewers, it did not dramatically change the offseason trajectory because the Cubs had already acquired Michael Busch to be their primary first baseman and slotted Morel as their main right-handed-hitting DH.

More than sending a message to Boras, this seems like Counsell weighing in with all his experience in player development and roster management. After so many years in Milwaukee, Counsell can take a fresh look at Morel, who has been in the Cubs organization since he was a teenager. Morel missed out on a minor-league season in 2020 and made his major-league debut after a minimal amount of Triple-A at-bats. With Morel and third base, it doesn’t yet feel like the Cubs have exhausted that possibility.

“I’m really excited about the offensive potential and know that, defensively, this is still a young player,” Counsell said. “It’s work that we’re going to have to put in and see where that work gets us.”

(Top photo: Benny Sieu / USA Today)

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