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

Since Morel made his MLB debut last week, he’s played four different defensive positions: third base, second, shortstop and center field.

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Cubs rookie Christopher Morel has played four defensive positions since his major-league debut last week.

Cubs rookie Christopher Morel has played four defensive positions since his major-league debut last week.

Justin Casterline/Getty Images

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

Since Morel, 22, made his major-league debut last week, he has played four positions: third base, second base, shortstop and center field. He’d checked off all four in his first five starts, becoming the first Cub to start at that many positions in so few opportunities since Solly Hoffman in 1904.

“That’s so cool,” 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 in the Cubs’ 20-5 loss Thursday, a pummeling even drearier for the Cubs than the weather. Manager David Ross was ejected for a second consecutive day, this time after catcher Willson Contreras was hit by a pitch. The Cubs hadn’t allowed at least 20 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 [is great]. . . . 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 day.”

And it was only last year that Morel added outfield to his list of positions. Before then, he’d played one game in the outfield professionally, in High-A South Bend in 2019.

Morel has been in big-league camp with the Cubs the last 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 majors.

Playing long fly balls off an ivy-covered brick wall wasn’t something 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.

Morel was just going by feel, he said.

The Cubs’ roster has done plenty of shifting since Morel’s debut — in which he homered in his first major-league at-bat. But Morel, whom Ross described as a “one-man-bench type of 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 last couple of 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 makes a huge difference as you play in the upper levels.”

In 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 against the cellar-dwelling Reds, maybe Morel can offer hope for the future.

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