The Cubs made a series of transactions in advance of tonight’s game against the division-rival Pirates. Most notably, center field Jason Heyward is headed to the COVID-19 injured list. He won’t count against the 40-man roster while he’s on the IL, and Chicago selected reliever Brandon Hughes to the majors in his place. The Cubs also optioned Conner Menez to Triple-A Iowa and recalled rookie Christopher Morel from Double-A Tennessee.
The team didn’t specify whether Heyward has tested positive for the virus. Manager David Ross told reporters (including Jordan Bastian of MLB.com) he’d been battling body aches and dehydration but is feeling better at the moment. Under the league’s 2022 health-and-safety protocols, players who test positive are subject to a 10-day absence from the club, though it’s possible to be reinstated in less time if the player has gone 24 or more hours without a fever, received a pair of negative PCR tests, and has been given approval from a team physician and the MLB/MLBPA joint committee (a panel of one league-appointed and one union-appointed physician).
Heyward is off to another slow offensive start. He’s hitting just .208/.288/.264, collecting only three extra-base hits (two doubles and a triple) through 80 trips to the plate. That’s not too dissimilar from his .214/.280/.347 showing over 104 games last season. Aside from a resurgence during the truncated 2020 season, Heyward has posted average or worse numbers at the plate throughout his tenure in Chicago. The five-time Gold Glove award winner has continued to play excellent defense in right field, and he’s worked as the team’s primary center fielder this year.
Rafael Ortega will probably hold down center with Heyward out. The left-handed hitter owns a .236/.333/.361 line in 29 games while bouncing between all three outfield spots and designated hitter. Ortega, a depth outfielder for the bulk of his career, posted a career-best .291/.360/.463 showing last season. That strong work was propped up by a .349 batting average on balls in play that has regressed towards his career norms.
Morel could work his way into the center field mix as well. The 22-year-old primarily played on the left side of the infield during his early days in the low minors, but he’s begun to log more time at all three outfield spots of late. The native of the Dominican Republic draws praise from evaluators for his athleticism and arm strength, so he could play a multi-positional role off the bench.
The righty-hitting Morel has been on the Cubs’ 40-man roster since the 2020-21 offseason, but this is his first MLB promotion. He’s posted big numbers with the Smokies in the early going, hitting seven homers with a .306/.380/.565 line over 28 games. He checked in 16th among Cubs’ prospects at FanGraphs and 29th at Baseball America this past offseason. Both outlets suggested Morel’s swing-and-miss proppensity is likely to keep him as a utility type but praised his power potential.
Hughes is also in position to make his MLB debut. The left-hander was a 16th-round pick in 2017 coming out of Michigan State. A college center fielder, he converted to pitching in 2018 after a rough season at the plate in A-ball. Hughes took to the mound and has posted excellent minor league numbers, with a 1.96 ERA over 91 2/3 innings of relief. He has fanned 34.3% of career opponents against a manageable 8.6% walk percentage — with that latter mark standing out as particularly impressive control for someone so new to pitching.
This season, Hughes has split the year between Tennessee and Iowa. He’s yet to allow a run over 16 2/3 innings, serving up just five hits and a trio of free passes while punching out 22. Hughes has never appeared on an organizational ranking at FanGraphs or at BA, but that dominance in the upper minors will earn him a big league look.
In other Cubs’ news, Ross provided reporters an update on Marcus Stroman (via Bastian). The offseason signee has been out since May 8 after landing on the COVID list, but he’s been cleared to rejoin the club. Stroman threw a bullpen session today and could make his next start if he responds well to today’s mound work.