Cubs still looking for answers at the corners
Allan Henry - USA Today Sports

Cubs still looking for answers at the corners

by - Staff Writer -

The Cubs entered the offseason with a noticeable hole at the corner infield positions. Last season, the Cubs shuffled through names like Trey Mancini, Eric Hosmer, and Cody Bellinger (when he wasn’t playing CF) at first base. At third, the Cubs opted to roll with Nick Madrigal, Patrick Wisdom and Christopher Morel handling the duties. Morel had the offensive upside of a top third baseman but struggled to learn the position defensively, which is why Madrigal — the better defender — factored into the rotation at third. The Cubs acquired Jeimer Candelario at last year’s trade deadline to address both positions, but he departed in free agency to the Cincinnati Reds so the Cubs began the offseason with the same issues to correct.

Instead of bringing back Candelario, the Cubs opted to address both corner positions in an alternative way. Christopher Morel, who has struggled to find a position at the big league level, was to be given the lion's share of work at third. If he could figure it out at third, which has turned out to be a big if, it would give the Cubs an awful lot of lineup flexibility to rotate their designated hitter. The Cubs still had Nick Madrigal and Patrick Wisdom on the roster, which could make up for Morel’s lack in defense — however their bats leave holes. Wisdom has dynamic power but is nowhere near the defender Madrigal is and he has a ton of swing-and-miss. Madrigal is a plus defender and great at putting the ball in play but struggles to drive the ball. So aside from Morel, an already imperfect answer, the Cubs’ other options certainly have flaws.

Morel ranks near the bottom of the league in almost every defensive statistic at third base. He has a good glove and a rocket for an arm — but has been inconsistent in making the throw from third base and is very raw with his glovework. He ranks last among first basemen in outs above average and has eight errors on the season. For that bad of play defensively, Morel needs to be elite at the plate to justify the disparity. Instead, he has faced his share of struggles there as well.

Morel is hitting .198 with 13 home runs and 40 RBI on the season. He has certainly delivered some massive swings of the bat this year but has mostly been inconsistent and cold for extended periods of time. To his credit, his strikeouts are down in 2024, but unfortunately so is his batting average. Morel has been a victim of bad luck as well, in fact, some metrics point to him being the unluckiest hitter in terms of expected batting average on balls in play and his actual batting average on balls in play. But either way, he still hasn’t been good enough at the plate to justify him being out there defensively, costing the Cubs on that side of the ball. It has actually been reported that the Cubs have been looking into other options at the hot corner.

Matt Chapman was the top third basemen on the market this offseason. After an extended free agency, Chapman eventually signed with the San Francisco Giants on a 3-year, 54 million-dollar contract with opt-outs included. Chapman was coming off a season with 17 home runs and 54 RBI while slashing .243/.313/.395. Not to mention he won the Gold Glove in the AL. So far this season Chapman has eight homers and 29 runs driven in — he has accumulated a 2.6 WAR compared to Morel’s 0.0. Not only would Chapman be a clear defensive upgrade, but he has been a stronger offensive weapon this year too.

On the first base side of things, the Cubs made a splash via trade to address their need at first base. The Cubs traded Jackson Ferris and Zyhir Hope to the Dodgers for Michael Busch and Yency Almonte. Busch was a highly rated prospect in the Dodgers system. He was drafted as a first baseman, but with Freddie Freeman locked up on the Dodgers for a long time — the Dodgers experimented with Busch at third base, and once it appeared that third base wasn’t going to work for Busch, they were willing to trade him.

Upon acquiring Busch, the Cubs made it clear that the plan was to make Busch the everyday first basemen on the 2024 Cubs. It was an experiment, although it did not take long for Busch to make history. Busch homered in five straight games from 4/10-4/15 and has a .254 average with eight home runs so far this season. He has, without a doubt, been one of the Cubs’ most productive players, but has also dealt with some prolonged slumps. One plus to Busch’s game has been his ability to not struggle vs lefties as well — however he is not an excellent fielder and has a strikeout rate near the tops in baseball.

Rhys Hoskins was a name that was rumored to be in the Cubs’ target this Winter. The former Phillie returned from injury with a two-year, 34-million-dollar deal with the Brewers. He has battled injuries as well this season but has clubbed 10 homers this year.

Now, Busch and Morel are both solid players with some developing to do, but they are not the stars you need at first or third base. Neither have lived up to their potential offensively to justify the concerns defensively. The Cubs are ranked 22nd in OPS at 3rd base in MLB and 4th worst in average — while they have the most strikeouts in MLB at first base.

As the Cubs explore ways to manipulate their lineup, it appears Michael Busch will be the victim of losing at-bats when the Cubs move Cody Bellinger to first base in an effort to clear up the outfield for either Pete Crow-Armstrong or Mike Tauchman. Christopher Morel DH-ing instead of playing 3B would mean one of David Bote or Patrick Wisdom has to play third and one of the Cubs outfielders has to sit — which hurts the struggling offense even more. The Cubs could explore Michael Busch at 3B, Bellinger at 1B, and Morel at DH if they’d like, but defensive concerns at third would still exist.

It’s no secret that the Cubs did not do much to address glaring needs before the 2024 season, with the bullpen at the forefront of the list. But for a team that had to provide a lot of answers at the corners, the same questions still exist as the team tries to battle out of last place.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize why the Cubs are rumored to be interested in players like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Pete Alonso.

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