As Cubs seek next generation of players, Christopher Morel makes strong impression


Jim Hendry, the former Cubs general manager, once said: You can’t cheat players. Hendry came into office with the perspective of his years of training, scouting and managing an agricultural system. Hendry might have sprinkled this observation with a little more colorful language, but his point was the 25 guys in the clubhouse to know. They see and hear things, so you can’t sugarcoat the truth or always pretend everything is fine. An organization may portray a certain image or message to fans, the media, corporate sponsors, and its employees, but it won’t necessarily look that way in the shelter. There are also ideas that can only be acquired by people in the field.

Hendry’s line echoes as Cubs field staff talk about Christopher Morel, who predicted he would hit a home run in his first major league game at bat on May 17, then hammered a pitch to left field that cleared the stands at Wrigley Field. Morel, 22, then became the first Cubs player since 1904 to start at four defensive positions — third base, second base, center field and shortstop — in his first five career starts. In a reconstruction team drained of star power, Morel was a jolt of electricity.

“He’s not scared,” Cubs catcher Willson Contreras said. “He is not scared.”

Morel’s confidence and enjoyment on the pitch can be explained, in part, by the freak accident he suffered as a teenager in the Dominican Republic, an incident detailed by NBC Sports Chicago’s Gordon Wittenmyer. In a hurry to catch the bus, Morel nearly lost his left eye when the glass door he tried to open wouldn’t give way and shattered on top of him. Morel had officially signed with the Cubs organization in August 2015 — the month Joe Maddon’s young team took off — and then missed the entire 2016 season as he recovered from those injuries.

Morel worked through the pandemic-shortened 2020 season at the alternate training site in South Bend, where he faced the same advanced pitchers over and over again. At this point, Morel had never played above the A-ball level. There were internal disagreements over whether Morel should be added to the 40-player roster after the 2020 season, although the team acknowledged that players with his raw ability, defensive skills and batting speed ultra-fast are so hard to find. An instructor who worked with Morel noticed his maturity, learning from experience how to better channel his emotions and understand how pitchers attack him.

“I’m really impressed with his at-bats,” Cubs infielder Nico Hoerner said. “He’s got the really electric aggression that will always be a part of his game, but he hasn’t chased much. He’s been hit situationally. He’s had some tough knocks beyond just the results he’s had. do his thing and go from there. That energy he provides is very real and contagious.

As Hoerner pointed out, Morel doesn’t move into the easier positions where teams can hide weaker defenders: “It’s not a first base/left field/DH type thing.” That versatility won’t necessarily be enough to keep Morel in the majors for the rest of this season — the Cubs promoted him from Double-A Tennessee when Jason Heyward joined Clint Frazier, Nick Madrigal, Michael Hermosillo and David Bote on the roster. injuried people. Managing every spot on the 40-man roster is clearly a priority for Jed Hoyer’s front office, but Morel creates value in different ways and believes he can play anywhere on the pitch.

“I don’t doubt it,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “(Bench coach) Andy Green asked (handgun reliever) Scott Effross if he was upset that Morel threw harder and sank more on the diamond than him. We all laughed. (Morel) could probably throw. I wouldn’t doubt it if he threw something like 90, like 99 (mph) off the bump if he was just cleaning up a few things.

Ross described Morel as an “elite” center fielder and a legitimate “big league shortstop”. Ross also trusted Morel enough to make him the leading hitter for three games this week in Cincinnati. In that small sample of nine games, Morel has 10 hits on 32 at-bats, four walks, two homers, two doubles, two stolen bases and seven runs scored (which still might not be enough for a rookie who may be optioned back to minors when the roster is next tightened).

“He told me in spring training that he was going to be here,” Ross said. “It’s the first thing he said to me when he walked through the door, ‘I told you I was going to see you this year.'”

Morel has added a lot of strength and power over the years, making his listed weight in the 2022 media guide – 140 pounds – funnily obsolete. Contreras loved hearing the booming trumpet sounds in Morel’s song at Wrigley Field — “Narco” by Blasterjaxx & Timmy Trumpet, the entrance music Joc Pederson borrowed from Mets-closer Edwin Díaz the season last – and said, “It was fire.” Cubs fans enjoyed the viral moment of Morel flipping his bat and initially forgetting to touch first base during his home run celebration.

“You talk about some of the things you’ve learned from other managers,” Ross said. “Joe Maddon would be the one to stand out and say, ‘Hey, let these guys be themselves. “”

Maddon’s positive vibes had an undeniable impact on the last-place team he took over after the 2014 season. This attitude helped Contreras, Javier Báez and Anthony Rizzo grow as players, giving them the freedom to take risks without fear of making mistakes. This philosophy helped deflate some of the pressure that surrounded Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber at different times earlier in their careers.

So much has already gone wrong this season. The Cubs have eight games under .500 going into Memorial Day weekend. There’s little buzz about the south side’s next two games against the White Sox. “The Next Great Cubs Team” remains a distant concept. But there is an opportunity for a new generation of players who watched “El Mago” and gravitate to Contreras and dreamed of this moment.

“We try to be us,” Morel said. “If you’re a good player, trust yourself, keep playing and have fun.”

(Photo: Justin Casterline/Getty Images)


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