Few teams have been linked more prominently to Matt Chapman this offseason than the Cubs. Chicago’s recent move to re-sign Cody Bellinger on an $80MM guarantee makes that decidedly less likely. Chapman remains on the open market but the Bellinger deal pushed the Cubs to the edge of the luxury tax threshold.
There aren’t many other external options. Maybe there’s a trickle-down effect once Chapman does sign — the Giants may be the favorite for his services and could market J.D. Davis if they landed him — but the Cubs seem likelier to stick with their in-house candidates. President of baseball operations Jed Hoyer suggested at the Bellinger press conference that Chicago feels good about the roster as it stands, although he said the front office would consider opportunities that might present themselves.
Let’s run through the current options to take the hot corner:
While Madrigal doesn’t look the part of a third baseman, he narrowly led the team in playing time there last season. Previously a career-long second baseman, Madrigal handled himself well defensively. Statcast credited him with 10 runs above average in only 560 1/3 innings. The range he’d shown in the middle infield remained on display. Before he moved across the diamond, there was concern about his arm strength. That wasn’t much of an issue. Madrigal doesn’t have a great arm, but it’s not poor enough to prevent him from making most plays.
The bigger question is whether he hits enough to profile as a regular anywhere on the diamond. Madrigal’s very slight frame leads to minimal power projection. He has preternatural bat-to-ball skills but needs to hit a lot of singles to compensate for the lack of power and very low walk rates. Last season’s .263/.311/.352 batting line in 294 plate appearances more closely resembled utility production.
Wisdom has the polar opposite profile from Madrigal. He has massive raw power and has topped 20 homers in three straight seasons. He connected on 23 longballs in only 302 plate appearances a year ago. While Madrigal has perhaps the best pure contact ability of anyone in the majors, Wisdom swings and misses as much as any regular. He fanned in nearly 37% of his plate appearances last season, a rate he has matched over three-plus years in Chicago.
The end result was a .205/.289/.500 slash. Chicago valued his power production enough to keep him around on a $2.725MM arbitration contract. That’s not an exorbitant cost for a right-handed bench bat, a role that probably suits Wisdom better than playing regularly at third base. He has an above-average arm but limited range, leading to subpar defensive grades in each of the last two years.
Morel, 24, might have the best physical tools for the job. He has big power, blasting 26 homers in 107 games a year ago. Morel has hit 42 longballs over his first 854 MLB plate appearances. That comes with a lot of strikeouts, albeit not quite at Wisdom levels. He punched out 31% of the time last season, hitting .247/.313/.508 in 429 trips.
Even with a lot of whiffs, Morel is a valuable hitter. He has had a much harder time on the other side of the ball. Despite being a good athlete with top-of-the-scale arm strength, Morel has rated poorly in the outfield and in a very limited sample of third base work. Hoyer suggested early in the offseason the Cubs felt he’s best suited at second base, but Nico Hoerner has that position secure in Chicago.
That makes third base the logical choice. Manager Craig Counsell told reporters that they’ll play Morel primarily at the hot corner this spring (link via Meghan Montemurro of the Chicago Tribune). It’d be a major boost for the Cubs if he’s capable of handling the position. If he doesn’t show the necessary hands or instincts to play there regularly, they’d be left looking for ways to shoehorn his bat into the lineup.
The job is likely to fall to someone from that trio early on, with Madrigal and Morel standing as the likeliest options. Miles Mastrobuoni picked up 24 starts there last season. He remains on the 40-man roster but projects for a depth role after hitting .241/.308/.301 through 145 plate appearances.
Trade acquisition Michael Busch logged a bit of third base action as the Dodgers experimented with ways to get him into the lineup. He’s not a particularly good defender anywhere, the biggest reason he never forced his way into everyday reps in Los Angeles. The Cubs are planning to give him more regular run at first base, although he could theoretically move across the diamond from time to time if Chicago moved Bellinger to first base to plug Pete Crow-Armstrong into center field.
The Cubs entered the 2023 season with a similar group as they have now. They addressed the position at the deadline with the Jeimer Candelario trade. That could be the path again — Davis and Brandon Drury are among the players who could move this summer — but there’s also a chance that last year’s first-round pick forces his way to Wrigley Field midseason.
Matt Shaw is already viewed as one of the sport’s most promising minor league hitters. The Maryland product shredded pro pitching at a .357/.400/.618 clip after the draft. He only has 15 games of Double-A experience, so he won’t be an option on Opening Day. As an advanced college bat, he could get to the big leagues by the end of his first full professional season. Shaw was a middle infielder with the Terps, but third base is the clearest path to an MLB debut in 2024.