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23 for ’23: How will Cubs balance development for key young players while competing for NL Central crown?

1 year agoTony Andracki

Between position battles, roster additions and new rules, there are plenty of questions surrounding the 2023 Cubs. We attempt to provide answers for 23 of the most intriguing questions heading into the season.

The last year and a half of Cubs baseball has been mostly about identifying pieces for the future. 

That has often meant giving a long runway to young players as they work through their struggles.

But 2023 is shaping up to be different. Jed Hoyer’s front office was busy over the winter adding veteran talent all over the field. 

That means playing time will be harder to come by for some youngsters and the Cubs will have to strike the balance between development and contending. 

That has been apparent already this spring and will likely be reflected in the Opening Day roster decisions next week.

What the Cubs do with Christopher Morel and Nelson Velázquez is a perfect example of this.

Morel, 23, burst onto the scene in mid-May last year when the Cubs needed a short-term fill-in and he played so well that he forced the team’s hand. Not only did he stay in Chicago the rest of the year, he carved out a regular role in the lineup and even spent a large chunk of the summer leading off.

But Morel also faced a learning curve as the league caught up to him and he struggled down the stretch, hitting .183 with a .633 OPS from Aug. 1 on.

With the signing of Cody Bellinger, the everyday center field job is now secured. Morel can also play all over the infield but the middle is already locked in with Dansby Swanson and Nico Hoerner and third base is crowded with Patrick Wisdom, Nick Madrigal, Edwin Ríos and Zach McKinstry. 

The Cubs are now faced with a question: Is it better for Morel to get everyday at-bats in Triple-A or see sporadic playing time in a utility role in the big leagues? 

“Some guys, you’re doing a disservice in having them be young in their career and maybe young in age and trying to sit for 10 days and come in and play or come off the bench,” David Ross said. “I think that’s a very difficult job.

“Guys that have experience and simplified swings understand what it’s like to prepare yourself and play once every five, seven, 10 days with how our roster shapes out.”

It seems plausible the Cubs would choose the minor-league route for Morel, especially considering he has only played in 10 games at the Triple-A level after jumping straight from Double-A to the big leagues last summer.

The 24-year-old Velázquez doesn’t have much more experience than Morel, with only 34 games at the Triple-A level (all coming last season). 

He also was away from Cubs camp for a couple weeks playing for Team Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic, though he announced his return to the Cubs in style Sunday:

Even with the injury to Seiya Suzuki and an open spot in the outfield to begin the year, the Cubs could still opt to send the pair of young outfielders down to begin the year and add depth with a non-roster veteran like Mike Tauchman.

“You’ve got young guys coming — Neli, Morel, what does all that look like?” Ross said. “How do they continue to, big-picture-wise, fit in? I’ve said this before, we all put so much emphasis — players especially and I was in the same boat — on making the Opening Day roster but there’s a lot of guys in camp that won’t be on the Opening Day roster that are going to help us win ball games this year. 

“It’s about everybody continue to maximize their skillset, come in here prepared, have a great year, help us win and then leave the tough decisions to me and the front office.”

The Cubs are facing a similar conundrum with the pitching staff. Hayden Wesneski and Javier Assad look like they have bright futures but the front office still re-signed veteran Drew Smyly to provide stability to the rotation and with Kyle Hendricks still recovering from a shoulder injury.

Wesneski and Assad have both had impressive springs and one of them may be in line to claim the fifth starter spot in the Opening Day rotation. The other would either be relegated to a multi-inning role in the bullpen or sent down to Iowa to serve as depth.

“He’s in the mix,” Ross said of Assad. “He’s in the mix for being on the team. I think that’s all that matters to them. Yeah it doesn’t matter whether it’s starting or relieving. When he’s pitching like that, he can really help us. As long as he continues to do that, he’s setting himself up to make really tough decisions for us. Those are good decisions. The more tough ones we have, that’s a good thing.”

The same goes for fellow pitching prospects Caleb Kilian and Jeremiah Estrada, who were both part of the Cubs’ spring cuts on Saturday. The pair of right-handers debuted in 2022 and could factor into the pitching staff at some point this season but they will begin 2023 in the minors.

Maybe the best example comes in the form of Matt Mervis, the slugging prospect who broke out in a big way in 2022. The Cubs could have handed the first base or DH job to Mervis to start this year but they instead opted to sign both Eric Hosmer and Trey Mancini.

That leaves Mervis a likely bet to begin the campaign with Iowa and possibly push his way to the majors midseason.

After a year and a half of transition, the Cubs are in a different spot in 2023 with a roster chock full of established veterans. Injuries are inevitable and performance could also dictate roster changes but the team will be prioritizing competing over development to start the season.

23 for ’23 series

What will the Cubs’ new era at catcher look like?
What is the Cubs’ plan at third base?
Who steps up in the wake of the Seiya Suzuki injury?
What role will Christopher Morel have on the 2023 Cubs?
Who will win the Cubs’ 5th starter spot?
Where does Nick Madrigal fit on the roster?
Who will close for the Cubs?
What kind of impact will Dansby Swanson have in his first season in Chicago?
What is the plan for Matt Mervis?
Who are some under-the-radar players that could make the Opening Day roster?
What will Trey Mancini and Eric Hosmer bring to this team?
Which young Cubs pitchers will take the next step this season?
What can we expect from Kyle Hendricks when he returns this season?
What does the Opening Day bullpen look like?
Will the Cubs’ pitching staff pick up where it left off?
What will the Opening Day lineup look like?
After career years with Cubs, what’s next for Ian Happ and Nico Hoerner?

Will Cody Bellinger return to his MVP-caliber form?

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