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One Position Emerges As the Top Priority for the Cubs

The Chicago Cubs are improving defensively but one hole remains to be filled, so the search for depth at catcher begins in earnest.

The Game Plan Remains Fluid for the Cubs

There Is Hope At Third Base

While his progress overall is uneven, Christopher Morel continues to improve defensively. Although he still ranks at the bottom of the league in outs above average (-10), his success rate (65%) is on the rise. He doesn’t play in the field every day, trading places with Patrick Wisdom and the recently recalled David Bote.

Morel still hasn’t acquired the instincts needed to field the position well. He can still look surprised by a sharply hit ball down the line. But he has made only one throwing error so far in June.

Backed up by Bote and Wisdom, Morel will likely get the remainder of the season to improve his game. Given the Cubs’ recent slide, manager Craig Counsell can afford to take a chance that Morel will continue to grow, both as a hitter and a fielder. Overall his numbers at the plate have declined. Morel is currently slashing just .193/.303/.674, but he leads the team in home runs (13) and runs batted in (41). So there is still plenty of upside to explore there.

A Deficit Behind the Plate: Catcher Becomes Top Priority for Cubs

The Cubs remain high on rookie catcher Miguel Amaya despite his offensive and defensive deficiencies. Baseball Savant ranks Amaya’s value as poor in batting run value, base running run value, and fielding. He gets higher marks for exit velocity and pitch framing and he still earns his highest grade for his blocking ability behind the plate. But he is last in the major leagues in runners caught stealing and earns low marks for pop time and barrel rate.

Compare these stats with Morel, who ranks very poorly (1 percent) in fielding but very high in arm strength (90). Morel also has one of the fastest bats (97) in all of baseball and consistently high marks in many offensive categories.

Although his sample size is still pretty small, Pete Crow-Armstrong has obvious upside. His hitting struggles may yet land him back with Triple-A Iowa in the near future, but he is an all-world defender. PCA ranks among the highest in the majors (94 percent) in fielding run value. Add to that the fact he is one of the three fastest runners in MLB and his value to the team becomes apparent.

Roster Moves Tell A Story

The Cubs’ brass understands this as well and their recent moves indicate they are trying to find ways to support Amaya. Veteran backstop Yan Gomes was designated for assignment on June 19 and the club signed another veteran, Tomas Nido. Nido, 30, has never been known for his bat with a career slash of .214/.251/.313. But he is an A-level defender and has a 21 percent caught stealing rate, which is around the league average.

While he won’t help the Cubs hitting, which is in desperate need of another dependable bat in their lineup, Nido would shore things up defensively. Having a veteran with good defensive skills will give their young catching prospect someone to learn from. Best of all, Nido comes cheap. The Mets are on the hook for most of his $2.1M salary, with the Cubs paying only the required minimum for his stay on the roster this season.

The Cubs have shown great interest in making a deal for Rockies catcher Elias Díaz. But Diaz, 33, is on the 10-day injured list with a left calf strain and hadn’t resumed running as of June 16. The veteran backstop is an A-plus defender and he’s having his best year as a pro at the plate with a .303/.352/.791 slash line. The Nido signing gives the Cubs a short-term fix while they weigh other options.

Prospects Aren’t An Option This Year

The Cubs won’t be able to depend on top catching prospects Moises Ballesteros and Pablo Aliendo this season. The 20-year-old Ballesteros (Cubs number 6 prospect) was the Cubs’ 2023 Minor League Player of the Year in 2023, slashing .285/.374/.449 with 14 homers at age 19. His superior hitting has continued with Triple-A Iowa this season. But his heavy frame and substandard agility may eventually land him at first base.

Aliendo, 23, is a more likely candidate to become a big league catcher. Smaller, quicker, and more agile than most catchers, the Cubs number 16 prospect is still growing in his role with Double-A Tennessee. He has an .845 OPS with six HR and 21 RBI so far this season for the Smokies. But he needs to improve his fielding overall to be a serious consideration for a stint in the big leagues.

While the team recently acquired prospect William Simoneit from the Phillies, he likely won’t be on the big league radar in 2024 either.

Cubs Brass Angling for Success

The recent moves should help the Cubs continue to gain consistently defensively going forward. But the club will no doubt be looking to add a bat to the lineup and it would be no surprise if it appeared in a catcher like Diaz.

It’s all a part of an outlook that remains fluid for the Cubs this season. The team appears focused on adding near-term stability while supporting and nurturing young talent. But in a city like Chicago, whose fans are as demanding as they are loyal, the team’s performance on the field is of utmost importance as well.

 

Photo Credit: © Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

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