CHICAGO — Cody Bellinger’s ability to play Gold Glove-level defense at another position once seemed like an afterthought, something agent Scott Boras mentioned while selling potential value to his client. Two-way quarterbacks are so rare in today’s game that it didn’t make sense for Bellinger to move away from his prime position. So far.
It’s easy to connect the dots from Bellinger starting at first base Tuesday night at the start of a rehab stint with Triple-A Iowa. It’s a way to reduce pressure on Bellinger’s left knee, which he injured while making a stunning catch against the wall on May 15, said Cubs manager David Ross. “The only thing that bothered the knee was just running fast.”
Ross also acknowledged how well Mike Tauchman has done at center field during Bellinger’s absence, and how first base remains a glaring weakness: “You’ve got to get somebody to go over there.”
Whatever happens between now and the trade deadline, that’s another reason the Cubs should at least consider bringing Bellinger back next season. The Cubs used a bunch of early champions who ranked last in the majors in the War (negative 1.7, per FanGraphs) at this position. Matt Mervis (. 535 OPS) is still adjusting to major league offers, and hasn’t had a chance since his promotion from Iowa and Eric Hosmer’s firing last month. It looks like he’s getting close to the point where Mervis could use a Triple-A reset.
Pete Crew Armstrong being a good prospect is not a good reason for the Cubs to rule out Bellinger. Crow-Armstrong has about two months experience in Double-A Tennessee, and this season has underscored the difficulties of making the jump from Triple-A to The Show. Maybe Crow-Armstrong will develop into a Gold Glove center fielder someday. When Bellinger is healthy, he can do so, play first base and re-form mid-order with his left power.
Bellinger, who turns 28 this summer, is on a one-year, $17.5 million contract that he signed after the Dodgers didn’t put him up for bid. He is the MVP of the National League and a World Series winner. It’s worth watching if his versatility is a reflection of his injury, a way back to Wrigley Field next season, or another way to market him before the trade deadline.
“We just try to find the best lineup for when Billy comes back,” Ross said. “He’s darn good at first base. Having another option there makes sense.”
San Francisco’s classic waterfront playground, now called Oracle Park, opened in 2000, or a year after Christopher Muriel was born in the Dominican Republic. It was overlooked during Kyle Hendrix’s almost no-hitter game against the Giants last weekend, but Morrell’s 365-foot run to right field in that game was only the 70th to right field by a right-handed hitter in that stadium’s history . .
Given this kind of quirky talent, isn’t part of this season finding out what the Cubs have in Muriel and taking the good with the bad?
“These are the major leagues, right?” Ross said. “So to take the good with the bad, that’s what losing teams have the ability to do. Opportunities presented themselves to him last year when we were in this place. He came out really hot, and then the second part of the season slackened a bit. He set the world on fire at Triple A This year. He came in and he was a really big spark. He’s got a really good skill set. When you watch him practice hitting, it’s probably some of the craziest power pop/home run I’ve seen in a really long time. I know he can get deep any garden.
“But I never want to get into a space as a manager to take the good with the bad. A good player across the board is expected here. Does Christopher still have areas to grow on? Surely, who doesn’t? All of us do, including me.” That phrase Better stay away from her.”
500 in eight games after Tuesday’s 11-3 win over the #1 Pirates at Wrigley Field—then developing Morrill should be a priority. It’s interesting to look back on the organization’s likely rankings heading into the 2022 season, and the general range in which Morrell’s name has fallen. Do you really think the Cubs have nearly 20 prospects with more athleticism and better attitudes than the very positive Muriel?
Muriel must have pace, arm strength and work ethic to become a capable defender somewhere on the pitch. Perhaps that focus is on the field or practicing all the arm angles needed to play third base or even the transition to first base. Swing-and-miss will always be a part of the hitter’s game that creates so much power. But as his 24th birthday approaches — and with 524 major league games on his resume — Morrell has had a career-high 27 home runs and a . 791 OPS.
“Morell has a bright future ahead of him,” Ross said. “I don’t know what the situation is. We gave him some runs (at third base) last year. He’s just kept getting better and working and we’ll take it from there. The lineup I’ve put together is the one I feel will give us the best chance of winning every day. That’s both offensive and defensive.”
Murrell came off the bench Tuesday night to replace Ian Happ (calf problem) and kicked a ball into Waveland Street.
The Cubs received minimal proceeds from Craig Kimbrel’s deal with the White Sox at the 2021 trade deadline. Codi Heuer continues to work through the Triple-A bullpen, trying to hone his pitches after recovering from Tommy John surgery. This sounds like Nick Madrigal’s last chance in Chicago, or a good chance to pitch himself to another team.
Credit Madrigal, 26, for his commitment to the offseason program to help him stay healthy and learn how to play third base at the major league level. Nor has it gone unnoticed how he responded to a recent demotion to Iowa, hitting . 488 (20-for-41) with six doubles, three triples, two home runs and seven RBIs in 11 games.
“I worked as hard as I could to make it difficult for them to keep me there,” said Madrigal.
The Cubs are trying to see if there is still a version of the hitter who posted . 764 OPS in parts of two seasons with two White Sox teams that made the playoffs. Madrigal factored in all the injuries in recent seasons—a torn right hamstring, a lower back strain, right and left groin strains—and concluded: “Last year, my body just wasn’t ready. I look at some of my ups and downs and I’ve been making up a lot.”
The Cubs couldn’t hand Madrigal a day job because he doesn’t play elite defense or generate a sufficient slugging percentage. The Cubs couldn’t give Madrigal the consistent hitting he feels he needs to lower his timing and improve his swing to the point where he hits doubles and triples. The Cubs can go in many different directions with all of these decisions given that they are only 5.5 games away from first place in a weak division.
Madrigal once showed enough at Oregon State that the White Sox made him the #4 pick in the 2018 draft. Think of this as another test.
(Photo by Christopher Morell: Michael Reeves/Getty Images)
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