How Cubs’ Christopher Morel became a big-league outfielder in one year

CINCINNATI — Rookie Christopher Morel tracked a long fly ball off the bat of former Cub Albert Almora Jr. to the warning track. The young center fielder leapt and snagged the ball out of the air a step and a half before the wall, preventing further damage in a game that had already spun out of control for the Cubs on Thursday.

Since Morel made his MLB debut last week, he’s played four different defensive positions: third base, second, shortstop and center field. He’d checked off all four in his first five major-league starts, becoming the first Cub to start at that many different positions in so few opportunities since 1904 (Solly Hoffman).

“That’s so cool,” Cubs shortstop Nico Hoerner said this week. “And those aren’t easy positions either. It’s not a first base, left field, DH type of thing, he’s all over the place. And he’s done a great job. He’s going to be able to do the spectacular stuff as well as anyone and continues to do the basic parts of the game well.”

Morel started in center field in the Cubs’ 20-5 loss Tuesday, a pummeling even drearier for the Cubs as the weather. Cubs manager David Ross was ejected for the second day in a row, this time after catcher Willson Contreras was hit by a pitch. The Cubs hadn’t allowed 20-plus runs in a game since 1999.

Now that Hoerner is back from the injured list, Ross anticipates Morel playing more outfield.

“He’s really got a lot of things to like,” Ross said. “He can run, obviously the arm, to have a guy who can play short, second, third and center, all three outfield positions. … You can put him anywhere, real power, still getting his feet wet at this level, and it’s just nice to see him feel comfortable every single day.”

Now, consider the fact that Morel added outfield to his list of positions only last year. Before then, he’d played one game in the outfield professionally, in Single-A South Bend in 2019.

Morel has been in big-league spring training camp with the Cubs the past two years. He said that last year, Ross commented on the speedy infielder running around the outfield to shag fly balls during batting practice.

Morel recounted: “I said, ‘I’ve never played outfield. If you need me in the outfield, I’m going to be ready.'”

Later, he found out that he’d primarily be playing outfield that season.

A year later, he’s playing the position in the major leagues.

Playing long fly balls off an ivy-covered brick wall wasn’t something Christopher Morel had done before last week. But when he got the chance at Wrigley Field, playing center field against the Diamondbacks in his first week in the majors, he made it look like he’d done it dozens of times before.

Morel was just going by feel, he said.

The Cubs’ roster has done plenty of shifting since Morel’s debut — when he homered in his first major-league at-bat. But Morel, who Ross described as a “one-man-bench-type player” has stayed.

“He was always wiry and athletic, but you look at him now, he’s put on some real strength,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said of Morel’s development the past couple years. “The ball just comes off the bat hot now. The arm strength has always been there, the versatility has been there, but I just think that he’s stronger now. And I think that that makes a huge difference as you play in the upper levels.”

Through 32 at-bats, Morel is batting .313, with a .968 OPS.

When the present isn’t so cheery for Cubs fans, like during a blowout to the cellar-dwelling Reds, maybe Morel can also offer hope for the future.

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