State of the Cubs

State of the Cubs: Center field is up for grabs in 2023

3 months agoTony Andracki

The 2022 season is over and the Cubs are facing one of the most important offseasons in recent memory. Before the stove starts heating up, we examine where the Cubs depth chart stands at each position and where the holes might be for Jed Hoyer’s front office to fill.

Next up: Center field

DEPTH CHART

1. Christopher Morel
2. Nelson Velázquez
3. Rafael Ortega
4. Narciso Crook
5. Brennen Davis
6. Alexander Canario
7. Darius Hill

ANALYSIS

While the corner outfield spots are locked in with Ian Happ and Seiya Suzuki, the Cubs center field job is very much up for grabs.

Morel played the most games (50) at the position in 2022 after making his MLB debut in mid-May and provided a spark (.850 OPS, 9 HR, 9 SB in his first 58 games). But he struggled offensively over the final couple months of the season (.163 AVG, .578 OPS, 36.5% strikeout rate) and spent more time moving around the diamond, playing third base, shortstop and second base.

Still, it was a really solid rookie season for Morel, who wasn’t on the radar for the center field spot entering 2022.

“The one thing he did was put himself on the map really early with his performance and it’s hard to take him out of a lineup when they do that,” David Ross said. “He’s had some ups and downs, some growth. I think a lot of his inexperience in the youth and being at Double-A has shown at times in the field and he’s had a lot of growing moments.

“But then he’s also come out of those a better baseball player and he’s a better baseball player here now than he was when he started the season. That’s the goal. He’s super young. He’s got a lot of skills that we believe in.”

Ortega also saw a lot of time in center (47 games) but was unable to repeat the same success he had at the plate in 2021 and missed the final few weeks of the season with a broken finger. He’ll be 32 in May and might be one of the casualties of the Cubs’ roster crunch this fall.

Jason Heyward was actually the Cubs’ Opening Day center fielder after he switched positions to make room for Suzuki. Hoyer announced in August that the team will part ways with Heyward this offseason so the veteran won’t be a factor in the outfield moving forward.

Like Morel, Velázquez and Crook both earned call-ups and made their MLB debuts during the 2022 campaign. Crook only appeared in 4 games before he was sent down in early July and is 27 years old.

Velázquez will turn 24 in December but struggled (-0.6 WAR) during his first season in the majors. He played only 34 games in Triple-A before making the leap to Chicago.

Davis is the top prospect in the Cubs’ system and many thought he would make his MLB debut in 2022 before a back injury derailed those plans.

“It was awful. I was in so much pain,” Davis said in August as he detailed the injury that forced him to miss more than three months of the minor-league season.

Meanwhile, Canario and Hill enjoyed breakout seasons.

Canario, 22, mashed 37 homers with 26 doubles, 97 RBI, 23 stolen bases and an .899 OPS while playing at three different levels and finishing the season strong at Triple-A.

Hill, 25, started the year out strong at Double-A Tennessee before earning a promotion to Triple-A in the summer. All the while, he never stopped hitting with a .314/.359/.453 slash line (.812 OPS). He can play all three outfield spots and provide something that is currently in short supply on the Cubs roster — a left-handed bat.

Canario is already on the Cubs’ 40-man roster while Hill is expected to be added this fall.

WHAT’S NEXT?

The Cubs could certainly address this position in free agency with an established player like Aaron Judge and Brandon Nimmo.

Judge actually played more games in center field in 2022 than at any other point in his career but will turn 31 in April and is primed for an absolutely monster contract after his record-setting season. Nimmo would fill several holes for the Cubs as a left-handed bat with a career .385 on-base percentage who has spent almost his entire career as a leadoff hitter.

But the most likely path here is the Cubs opt to fill center field with in-house options and invest their resources on other positions (shortstop, first base, pitching) instead of adding another veteran outfielder to block the stable of prospects ascending through the system.

It’s entirely possible Davis wins the job out of Spring Training and becomes the team’s primary center field option in 2023. But that seems unlikely and more than anything, he simply needs to remain healthy.

“He’s taken such a far step back and just to get back on the field was a win for him this year,” Ross said of Davis earlier this month. “So going into this offseason, continuing towards that and going into next year putting himself on the map with his performance in Triple-A or wherever he may be.

“It’s hard to go into Spring Training and giving somebody a job with the adversity he’s been through.”

Morel figures to factor into the center field picture at some point in 2023, even if that’s not his primary position. The Cubs like his defense in the middle infield and he can play third base.

The Cubs could also opt to give Morel or Velázquez more seasoning in the minors in 2023 as the team expects to climb back into contention following a pair of rebuilding seasons.

Speaking of young outfielders, Pete Crow-Armstrong is a name to watch as a possible center fielder of the future. He has drawn rave reviews for his defense at the position and put up a stellar offensive season in 2022. But he’s only 20 and finished the year at Advanced Class-A South Bend, so he is a year or two away from Wrigley Field.

BOTTOM LINE

There may not be much clarity in center field until Spring Training and even then, this will likely be a fluid situation.

Morel, Velázquez, Davis, Canario and Hill could all be in competition for the Opening Day job throughout the Cactus League and if Ortega and Crook stick around, they will be in the mix as well.

State of the Cubs series
Catcher
First Base
Second Base
Third Base
Shortstop
Left Field
Center Field
Right Field
Designated Hitter
Starting Rotation
Bullpen

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