The Cubs have made a number of additions to their lineup, none more impactful than the signing of Dansby Swanson at shortstop. That pushed Nico Hoerner over to second base. Chicago also brought in Cody Bellinger to play center field, signed Tucker Barnhart to share time with Yan Gomes at catcher in place of Willson Contreras, and added Trey Mancini and Eric Hosmer for the first base/designated hitter mix.
It was a dramatic overhaul, with the corner outfield tandem of Ian Happ and Seiya Suzuki the only players whose positions haven’t seemed up in the air at any point. The other position the front office left untouched, third base, looks as if it’ll come down to a battle between a handful of internal options with the free agent market all but picked through. There are two players who have the clearest path to reps at the hot corner in the early going.
Wisdom has been the primary third baseman on Chicago’s north side for the last two seasons. He’s tallied just under 700 plate appearances at the position since the start of 2021, handily topping second-place Matt Duffy (204 PAs in 2021). The only other player with even 100+ trips to the dish as a third baseman, David Bote, lost his spot on the 40-man roster at the start of the offseason.
Signed to a minor league deal over the 2020-21 offseason (following a cup of coffee with the MLB club the year before), Wisdom has combined for 53 home runs and 41 doubles in 239 games over the last two years. He carries a .465 slugging percentage and .248 isolated power mark over 909 plate appearances, continually making an impact from a power perspective. The right-handed hitter has paired that with significant on-base concerns, however. He’s hit just .217 while reaching base at a below-average .301 rate. That’s mostly due to massive swing-and-miss in his game, as he’s gone down on strikes in 37% of his plate appearances. That’s the highest rate in the majors for any player with as much playing time, narrowly topping Joey Gallo’s 36.6% clip.
Wisdom’s power has been sufficient to manage a slightly above-average slash line in spite of the contact issues. That’s fine production, particularly when paired with the above-average defensive grades he managed in 2021. Metrics like Defensive Runs Saved and Statcast’s Outs Above Average estimated he was well below average with the glove last season, however, leading both FanGraphs and Baseball Reference to value his 2022 campaign around one win above replacement.
The 31-year-old has proven he deserves a spot on an MLB roster and the Cubs have made out exceptionally well on their no-risk signing two years ago. Yet the on-base and defensive concerns suggest Wisdom might be better suited as a role-playing power bat who can rotate through all four corner positions off the bench than as an everyday third baseman. He’s been far better against lefties (.238/.329/.533) than against righties (.209/.290/.438) over the past two seasons.
If the Cubs were to scale back Wisdom’s playing time, Morel would seem to be the primary beneficiary. The 23-year-old made his major league debut last season and generally impressed, albeit with some of the same question marks facing Wisdom. Morel connected on 16 home runs, 19 doubles and four triples in just 435 trips to the plate. He posted an overall .235/.306/.433 line through his first 113 big league contests. That slightly topped Wisdom’s .207/.298/.426 showing from last season.
That said, Morel also struggled significantly to make contact. He struck out in 32.2% of his plate appearances. Perhaps more alarming was that he swung and missed at 18.1% of the pitches he saw. That was the sixth-highest rate in MLB (minimum 400 PAs), and those concerns became more pronounced down the stretch. Morel carried an impressive .266/.338/.477 line into the All-Star Break despite a 30.7% strikeout rate. In the second half, his strikeout percentage jumped to 34.2% and he limped to a .194/.269/.376 finish.
At age 23, Morel is certainly capable of taking a step forward as he gains experience against big league pitching. He’s long flashed promising power but posted higher than average strikeout totals throughout his time in the minors. Concerns about his bat-to-ball skills kept him from emerging as a top-tier prospect prior to his debut despite evaluators’ praise for his power potential, athleticism and arm strength. Morel’s an interesting player, but one whose approach could make him a volatile offensive performer. He had reverse platoon splits in 2022, hitting .190/.297/.300 against left-handers against a .251/.313/.470 mark versus righties. That’s too small a sample from which to glean meaningful conclusions, though Wisdom’s more traditional splits could point towards him getting a few more reps against left-handed arms than Morel will.
It’s a similar story on the other side of the ball. Morel played mostly infield in the minor leagues, with third base his primary position. The Cubs bounced him around the diamond at the MLB level but deployed him most often in center field, hoping his speed and arm strength would translate. DRS and Statcast agreed he was a below-average center fielder in spite of his athleticism, as his inexperience at the position was evident. He also drew lackluster marks in limited action on the left side of the infield, though the sample in that case was exceedingly small.
While Wisdom and Morel seem the two likeliest candidates to battle for playing time, the Cubs have a few other infield options on the 40-man roster. Miles Mastrobuoni, 27, was acquired from the Rays at the start of the offseason. He has only eight MLB games under his belt but hit .300/.377/.469 with 16 homers and 23 stolen bases in 573 plate appearances with Triple-A Durham last year. He’s primarily been a second baseman in the minors but has experience everywhere on the diamond aside from first base and catcher. His left-handed bat would pair well with the righty-hitting Wisdom and Morel if skipper David Ross wanted to play matchups. Mastrobuoni mashed at a .315/.396/.497 clip while holding the platoon advantage in 2022.
Nick Madrigal was displaced by Hoerner’s move to second base. He had a dismal 2022 season, hitting just .249/.305/.282 in 59 games while thrice landing on the injured list thanks to a back strain and strains of both groins. Madrigal had started the previous season with a solid .305/.349/.425 showing for the White Sox before suffering a season-ending hamstring tear. He’s only ever played up the middle dating back to his time at Oregon State — primarily at the keystone — but third base might be the clearest path to getting his bat in the lineup if the front office is still intrigued by his elite bat-to-ball ability.
His 5’8″, 175-pound frame isn’t the build of a traditional third baseman and that’s been manifested in his below-average arm strength. Perhaps that’s untenable at third base, though the Cubs could at least consider getting him some work at the hot corner to expand his defensive flexibility. It’s also at least worth contemplating whether Hoerner could kick to third base if Madrigal earns everyday playing time but isn’t capable of manning the left side of the infield.
The Cubs also picked up Zach McKinstry from the Dodgers in last summer’s Chris Martin trade. The 27-year-old has just a .208/.269/.384 line in 121 big league games over the last three years. He got 171 trips to the plate for the Cubs down the stretch, hitting .206/.272/.361. McKinstry has the ability to play second, third and both corner outfield spots and is a .323/.401/.550 hitter in parts of three Triple-A campaigns. He’s out of minor league option years and has to stick on the active roster or be taken off the 40-man entirely. Given his lack of big league track record, he could find himself on the bubble — particularly if the Cubs want to give Mastrobuoni a lengthier look instead.
There are a handful of players behind this group on the depth chart who’ll be in camp as non-roster invitees. Bote, Esteban Quiroz and Jared Young all remain in the organization after clearing waivers in November. Sergio Alcántara signed a minor league deal this offseason, while former second-round pick Chase Strumpf got an MLB invite after hitting .234/.379/.461 with Double-A Tennessee.
While there are a few candidates who could play their way into consideration, it’d appear the third base job will be a battle between Wisdom and Morel to open the year. Both have minor league options remaining. The former has a more established big league track record, while the latter probably has greater upside but might also be more likely to post untenable numbers on both sides of the ball. They’re broadly similar as right-handed power bats with OBP concerns, though Morel has a little more defensive versatility if he’s relegated to a utility role.