Chicago Cubs personnel assistant Jonathan Mota put his cap on the AstroTurf field at the Rogers Center in Toronto.
He positioned it about seven feet in front of first base to serve as a visual for the pre-game drill before returning to home plate, where bench coach Andy Green used a fungo bat to rip through balls from baseball on the third base line. Each time, Christopher Morel focused on his footwork to get him to do a baseball backhand and shoot it first.
The ball wasn’t meant to be a straight throw, though. With Morel’s momentum taking him towards the foul line, Green and Mota wanted him to jump first, where teammate Franmil Reyes stood to line the ball up. The one-hop approach creates more controlled movement and better sets up a first baseman to handle the potentially lopsided long throw.
Technique is part of the process to help Morel develop more consistency at third base, especially on his throws. Morel is a visual learner, so the Cubs used the cap as a point of reference and showed him a video to highlight where he needs to adjust. So if Morel misses the first baseman’s glove side during pregame work, the Cubs adjust the glove’s target location before his throw.
“The challenge is going to be working when he’s at third base, at second base, at shortstop, in center field – every day that has to be the main focus for him,” Mota told the Tribune. “It comes from the base. If he is compact with his legs, this will allow him to be compact with his upper body, which will transfer to his arm stroke. We have clues for him.
Morel’s versatility has been an asset to manager David Ross. Since his debut in mid-May, the 23-year-old has played mostly center and second base while supporting Nico Hoerner at shortstop.
But with Patrick Wisdom playing more at first base, then landing on the injured list Aug. 26 with a sprained left ring finger, 11 of Morel’s last 12 starts have come in at third overall. Prior to August, his only other start at that position came on his first league start on May 18.
At the minors, Morel recorded the majority of his games at third base from 2017-19 before moving into the infield and outfield starting last season.
Ross has already seen Morel clean up his play-reading early on, noting how aggressively Morel attacked the ball. And if he initially plays the ball badly, Morel’s arm strength can compensate for that.
“He’s got a real legit 70 (grade) arm from there,” Ross said. “It’s about getting reps. I mean, we moved it all over the diamond. … Utility-wise, he’s played in a lot of different areas that we feel comfortable in.
“A lot of them are just trying to figure out what’s best for him and how to maximize and keep developing. He’s so young and working really hard. He’s grown a lot this year and is still growing.
For Morel to become a viable regular option at third base next season, he needs more consistent and accurate shots. Sometimes the Cubs see his arm shot drop in a longer, outfield-type action. They want him to shorten his arm strokes, which starts with smoother footwork and proper positioning.
It’s all about third base, where quick reaction time and hard throws are needed in the major leagues.
“Adjustments for him are more like slowing down the game and mechanically how are we going to do that,” Mota said. “It’s just about staying on his legs and making sure he’s compact when he gets the ball out of his glove and then allowing him to use that athleticism that we all know he has.
“When it comes to the game, we all see how electric it can be. It has a price, and the price for him is that he can play too fast.
No. 3 Morel’s .913 fielding percentage is the third lowest among 80 major league third basemen with at least 100 innings at that position. Two of his four errors have come on throws, and he has minus-3 defensive points recorded in the small sample size.
He often works with Green and Mota before games on his third base issues, including extended work on days the Cubs aren’t batting practice.
“Normally when I play I kind of have an idea of what the pitcher is throwing,” Morel said through an interpreter, “so it helps you anticipate or prepare before the game. not happen. So really know the launcher’s directory when it’s there. It’s really about focusing on what I’m trying to accomplish when I’m there.
“Every time I’m out there – taking ground balls, training, preparing for the game – it’s with a purpose. Whenever I do something, just in case it comes up during a game situation, I’m ready for it.
How Morel’s positioning fits into the Cubs’ roster in 2023 will partly depend on offseason moves. Morel embraced his positional flexibility. If he can hone his accuracy from third base and be a more reliable defensive option there, the Cubs would have expanded the avenues they could pursue to build a better roster.