Christopher Morel doesn’t swing at everything, but aggressive is certainly an apt description of his current approach at the plate. Thankfully, the 20-year old also shows good barrel control, allowing him to square up pitches even when reaching out of the zone to get to them. He did make strides on waiting for better pitches to hit in 2019, which was a big reason for his success. He’ll need to continue improving in that area if he ever hopes to tap into his above average raw power and reach his ceiling as an everyday player.
2019 Midseason Update:
The Chris Morel show is in full swing at South Bend. Maybe the most exciting player to watch in the system, he brings an energy and aggressiveness to all facets similar to Javier Baez. Here are just a handful of the defensive plays he’s made at 3B this year pic.twitter.com/teG13s2Imm
— Michael Ernst (@mj_ernst) July 9, 2019
Morel is one of the more energetic on-field presences in the Cubs system. He shows a penchant for exciting plays in the field and on the bases. If given the opportunity, Morel could probably play any position on the field, including short (his inital pro position) and center. I’m not big on comps, but there are shades of former 15-year MLB veteran and Cubs utility man Jose Hernandez, who finished his career with a .312 OBP but also 168 homers, while playing 50 or more games at six different positions and making appearances everywhere except pitcher and catcher.
There will be more power to come as well. Morel is only 20 and still getting stronger. Some of his many doubles and triples will start getting over the wall in the coming years. In the meantime, enjoy watching him go for third base with frequent abandon. pic.twitter.com/WD6ZISzlWB
— Michael Ernst (@mj_ernst) July 9, 2019
The acquisition of Luis Rivas didn’t elicit much notice this offseason. A 2018 4th rounder by Oakland out of the University of Arizona, the first baseman has hit just 10 home runs across his first 800 professional plate appearances. But he’s also batted .290 with a .390 OBP as a pro, while already receiving a cup of coffee in AAA a year and a half into his career. He continued to show well in the AFL (.306/.417/.449) as well.
Rivas is likely to open 2020 in AA (he skipped AA to make his late season appearances in AAA last year), but don’t be surprised to seem him in Iowa by midseason as the Cubs don’t have a natural first baseman set for Iowa. A left-handed hitter, his lack of power production makes it difficult to project him into a full-time MLB role at 1B, but the Cubs are making some adjustments to help him turn on some more pitches rather than taking everything the opposite way. Rivas is also a solid athlete with plenty of arm for the corner outfield so proving he can become an adequate defender out there will go a long way toward securing a future bench job.
His other path to a Major League role would be to unlock additional power. He’s not a big guy, but he does have enough bat speed. The trouble is his swing is grooved for the opposite field. He’ll need to learn to turn on pitches more frequently. We saw him do so on a run scoring triple in a ST earlier this week.
At this time last year it appeared that Jared Young was poised to put himself into the same conversation. Another 1B/COF, Young had already begun tapping into some power in 2018 (16 HR), then made a strong impression last spring. He’d hit a few home runs over the first couple of weeks once the AA season opened, but everything fell apart from there, as a lack of plate discipline and an inability to lift the ball consistently haunted him the rest of the way. Young would finish with just 5 HR in 123 games. His struggles continued in the AFL (.196/.315/.304, 1 HR).
It certainly looks like Young is in danger of being bypassed in the system by Rivas. A former middle infielder, he has the advantage of being the better athlete, but he’ll need to rediscover his power stroke to put himself back on the map. This figures to be a pivotal season in his career.
While P.J. Higgins has settled in as a catcher while still retaining enough athleticism to handle the infield, Cam Balego didn’t take quite as well to the catcher conversion. He’s stuck mostly to third base, but still offers the ability to step behind the plate if necessary. A year ago that may not have mattered much, but with the extra bench spot now available on MLB rosters, coupled with the offensive improvements Balego made at Myrtle Beach in 2019, it isn’t out of the question Balego could eventually factor in as a AAA/MLB shuttle player down the road.
I can’t really wrap my head around Nelson Maldonado at this point. A low bonus, senior sign out of the University of Florida, his contact skills translated immediately at the pro level. He put the barrel on just about everything (.332/.378/.456) for both Eugene and South Bend. But as an undersized right-handed first baseman, he’ll either need to show he can play corner outfield or develop some home run power. He’ll get his chance at Myrtle Beach to start the year.
Myrtle Beach will also feature three maybe-but-probably-not prospects at the infield corners (Tyler Durna, Luke Reynolds, Jake Slaughter) drafted the year before Maldonado. Durna offers good defense and plate discipline but like Maldonado lacks much juice in his bat. Reynolds has pop, but probably never hits enough to fully access it. Slaughter is the best athlete and a potential late bloomer, but after a disappointing collegiate career at LSU, his pro career started slow as well. He finally showed some progress at the plate as an over-ager for Eugene and then after a call up to South Bend late in 2019. I’m not a big believer, but he can at least move around the diamond to make up for some of his current short comings at the plate.
The Cubs used a 13th round pick last July on Ryan Reynolds, who is the son of former Houston Astros hurler Shane Reynolds. His career at Texas was rather non-descript and he failed to make much contact in his stint on the Cape in 2018, but he is a good athlete and it seems like the Cubs are betting on him as another late bloomer. The contact issues cropped up again for the switch-hitter in his pro debut. My guess is he’ll open the year in South Bend, but I wouldn’t rule out him staying behind in extended spring training either.
A short season bat to keep an eye on is 19-year old Widimer Joaquin. Praised as a raw power bat when signed off the international market in 2017, there were concerns raised regarding whether Joaquin’s hit tool would develop. Well, two years into his pro career Joaquin has hit at least .290 in each season, so I’m going to take that as a win. The power has yet to come around, but from the initial scouting reports, that was likely to be expected. I’ve yet to see him live or really even on video, so I can’t offer any insight, but he figures to get his first taste of Eugene this season. I’ll definitely be watching.