On the heels of a 83-79 season that saw the Cubs finish just outside of the NL playoff picture, president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer and his front office appear poised to be aggressive this offseason in their pursuit of returning the club to the postseason for the first time in a 162-game campaign since 2018. Chicago already shocked the baseball world this offseason by hiring Craig Counsell to manage the club on a record-setting contract and has been connected to high-profile free agents such as NPB arms Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Shota Imanaga, and Yuki Matsui as well as center fielder Cody Bellinger and first baseman Rhys Hoskins, to say nothing of two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani.
In addition to the rumors swirling around the Cubs and many of the league’s top free agents, the Cubs have been connected to many of the league’s top trade candidates including Padres outfielder Juan Soto, Mets first baseman Pete Alonso, and even Brewers right-hander Corbin Burnes. At the center of many of those hypothetical trade discussions has been young slugger Christopher Morel, whose name has appeared in early offseason trade rumors so frequently that MLBTR’s Anthony Franco ranked him #22 in his list of the Top 25 Offseason Trade Candidates.
Morel made his MLB debut back in May of 2022, just before his 23rd birthday. The youngster initially broke onto the club’s roster due to an injury to Jason Heyward, which provided Morel with the opportunity to get semi-regular reps in center field with the big league club despite having never played above the Double-A level to that point. Morel made the most of his opportunity, sticking on the club’s roster throughout the rest of the 2022 season and slashing .235/.308/.433 (108 wRC+) in 113 games while splitting time between center field, second base, third base, and shortstop.
That above-average offensive production and impressive versatility in Morel’s rookie season gave him the look of a potential big league regular, though there were certainly flaws in his profile. Morel was a well below average defender in center and seemed to be a fringy defender at both third base and shortstop as well, despite a solid showing at second base. On top of the defensive question marks, it was fair to wonder if Morel’s above-average slash line was carried by a hot first half; the youngster slashed just .194/269/.376 in 184 trips to the plate during the second half in 2022. Between that late-season slump and his 32.2% strikeout rate, which was sixth-highest in the majors among players with at least 400 plate appearances that year, it was fair to wonder if Morel’s production would be sustainable entering his sophomore season.
The questions about Morel’s glove were only exacerbated by the signing of Dansby Swanson, who slotted in at shortstop and kicked Nico Hoerner over to second base in doing so. With Hoerner now an obvious everyday solution at second base, Morel entered the 2023 season without a clear role on the big league club and started the season at Triple-A. He tore the cover off the ball with a comical .330/.425/.730 slash line in 29 games with the club’s Iowa affiliate before the Cubs had seen enough to bring him up to the big leagues. Though he logged occasional time at all three outfield spots, second base, third base, and shortstop, Morel spent much of the season as Chicago’s primary DH.
Morel took to his new role quite well, slashing .247/.313/.508 (119 wRC+) with 26 home runs across just 429 trips to the plate. Only Aaron Judge, J.D. Martinez, Yordan Alvarez, and Nolan Gorman hit more home runs in under 500 trips to the plate this year. What’s more, Morel’s .260 ISO ranked sixteenth among players with at least 400 big league plate appearances in 2023, ranking just behind Jorge Soler and just ahead of Ronald Acuna Jr. Though Morel’s strikeout rate of 31% is still high enough to raise plenty of eyebrows, the youngster managed to establish himself as a quality big-league power bat as the Cubs’ regular DH.
As previously mentioned, Morel has found himself at the center of trade rumors this offseason with the Cubs potentially in line to be aggressive this winter. Reports have suggested Morel as a potential piece of the return for both Soto and Alonso should the Cubs look to deal for either player, though other reports have indicated the Cubs might be hesitant to include Morel in a deal for a rental piece.
The decision on whether or not to shop Morel this offseason is an interesting one for the Cubs. The youngster is not yet eligible for arbitration and figures to remain under team control for five more seasons before being first eligible for free agency after the 2028 season. His power-oriented bat could prove crucial for the Cubs in 2024, particularly after the 2023 team landed middle-of-the-pack in terms of both ISO and home runs this past season, and it’s always possible that a player as young as Morel manages to find another gear and break out. That sort of upside could make it hard for the Cubs to part with Morel, especially given the amount of team control he has remaining.
That being said, with Nico Hoerner locked in at second base for the next three seasons while Ian Happ and Seiya Suzuki are set to patrol the outfield corners for that same term, Morel seems unlikely to find a long-term position in Chicago— at least, unless he takes to a new position this winter. What’s more, Morel’s propensity for striking out combined with just average walk rates for his career give him an uncertain floor as a player; if his power production dips, it’s possible the Cubs could be looking at a roughly league average offensive contributor taking up their DH slot on most days. That risk could make it sensible for Chicago to attempt to sell high on Morel this offseason.
What do MLBTR readers think about Chicago’s dilemma? Should the Cubs look to move Morel now, given his value may never be higher? Or should they hold onto him in hopes of a breakout that could make him an impact player in spite of his limited defensive value? Have your say in the poll below:
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