Of all the possible routes the Chicago Cubs could take in the offseason to upgrade the roster, the outfield features some of the least positional flexibility.
Barring the Cubs looking to move left fielder Ian Happ, 28, ahead of his final year of team control, the corner spots are locked in with the switch-hitting Happ and right fielder Seiya Suzuki, who is completing Year 1 of his five-year contract.
Center field, however, remains unsettled heading into the offseason.
Christopher Morel made his team-high 50th start in center in Wednesday’s 15-2 victory over the Cincinnati Reds in the season finale. He was one of five players to start at least 19 games there this season with Rafael Ortega (47 starts), Jason Heyward (23), Nelson Velázquez (21) and Michael Hermosillo (19).
Happ and Narisco Crook each made a lone start in center. Patrick Wisdom also logged seven innings there in two appearances after in-game defensive changes, cleanly handling all three putout chances.
Heyward will be released after the season. Hermosillo was designated for assignment Sept. 27, outrighted to Triple-A Iowa and is an impending free agent. And Ortega, who is out of options, ended the year on the injured list because of a fractured left ring finger.
“I wouldn’t mark anybody off on that list (of returners),” manager David Ross said this week. “Everybody has a chance, and that just goes into you don’t hand anybody jobs at this level.”
Deciding how to allocate payroll for 2023 and beyond will have an impact on the direction the Cubs go in center field. Signing one of the top free-agent shortstops should be a priority, and though the Cubs have improved their pitching depth, they lack a top-tier starter. Both would be expensive additions.
“It just goes into what players you’re able to find and spend money on, what that cost is and how you delegate that,” Ross said. “If you get an unbelievable first baseman and an unbelievable third baseman and you spend $100 million on that, maybe there’s no room for that in center. It’s the cost of things and how much that goes into budgeting and all that.”
The 40-man roster gives the Cubs options to weigh during the offseason and spring training. Triple-A outfielder Alexander Canario logged 63 starts in center field between High-A South Bend, Double-A Tennessee and Iowa in 2022.
Canario, ranked the Cubs’ No. 10 prospect by Baseball America, recorded two errors and four outfield assists in 546 innings in center, where he played more than any other position. His prolific power production — 37 home runs, 26 doubles and 97 RBIs this year — creates an enticing element to consider for the lineup.
No. 2 prospect Brennen Davis, currently playing in the Arizona Fall League, will need to be added to the 40-man roster by early November to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. Back surgery cost Davis most of the minor-league season, but the 22-year-old outfielder possesses the upside to be an impactful player in center field at some point in 2023.
“The strength that he built up he lost, and with the back stuff, he’d taken such a far step back that just getting back on the field was a win for him this year,” Ross said of Davis. “So going into this offseason continuing to work toward that, and going into next year putting himself on the map with his performance at Triple A or wherever he may be. It’s hard to go into spring training giving somebody a job with the adversity he’s been through.”
Among the current center-field mix, Morel stands out. His athleticism, range and arm make him a good fit as he continues to acclimate to the outfield. Morel’s 96.1 mph average on his throws from center this year is easily tops among the 71 big-leaguers at the position (minimum 100 throws), according to Statcast.
“The one thing he did was put himself on the map really early with his performance, and it’s hard to take them out of the lineup when they do that,” Ross said. “He’s had some ups and downs and growth. He continues to grow. A lot of his inexperience and the youth and being at Double A has shown at times in the field and he’s had a lot of growing moments.
“But then he’s also come out of those a better baseball player. He’s got a lot of skills that we believe in.”
A ball hit over Morel’s head in center gave the Reds a walk-off 3-2 victory Tuesday that positioned them to sweep the season-ending series before the Cubs took the finale to finish 74-88.
With nobody out in the bottom of the ninth, the Reds’ Spencer Steer drove a ball off Brandon Hughes over Morel’s head to the wall, scoring Stuart Fairchild from first base. Morel was playing abnormally shallow before the pitch; he stood 28 feet closer to the plate than his season average with a runner at first, per Statcast.
Morel said he positioned himself where third base/outfield coach Willie Harris signaled him to be for that hitter.
Morel’s comfort in center field is focused on keeping things simple and always giving his best effort. While he’s aware of the opportunity that could exist in center next year, Morel is willing to play wherever the Cubs want him.
“I don’t try to overthink things or have too many things in my head, just try to make the play,” Morel said through an interpreter. “If it’s center field, then I would gladly take it.”