How Cubs manager Craig Counsell is handling playing time for Christopher Morel, Nick Madrigal at third base

Chicago Cubs’ Christopher Morel, right, fist-bumps third base coach Willie Harris after hitting a home run during the third inning against the Colorado Rockies, Tuesday, April 2, 2024, in Chicago.

Erin Hooley/AP Photos

Five games into the season, manager Craig Counsell’s plan at third base, as Christopher Morel continues to gain experience at the position, has become more clear.

Morel and Nick Madrigal have been trading starts at the position, based on a variety of factors. Morel, who hit his second home run of the season Tuesday against the Rockies, is the bigger offensive threat. Madrigal is the more consistent fielder.

So when the Cubs have a ground-ball pitcher on the mound, Madrigal is more likely to start at third and Morel at designated hitter. With a fly-ball pitcher on the mound or when Counsell sees an offensive matchup to exploit, Morel is the top candidate at third. And Counsell will adjust throughout the game.

In the Cubs’ 12-2 victory Tuesday against the Rockies, Morel served as the DH and Madrigal started at third.

‘‘Obviously, the goal is to go out there and win,’’ Morel said through an interpreter before the game. ‘‘Whatever decision the manager makes, whether it’s to have Madrigal going in and playing at third or whatever he decides, I just see it as watching out for the team and looking out for the best for the team, and that’s ultimately what matters.’’

Morel, who spent all spring working at third base after previously serving as a utility player, already has made mistakes at the position. So far this season, he has dropped two hard line drives and committed a throwing error. But he also has the potential to make spectacular plays and has shown off his range.

‘‘This is about consistency for Chris and getting him over there every day, getting practice over there every day,’’ Counsell said. ‘‘And then we measure this in a little bit bigger chunks, to just keep improving.

‘‘The reason why you do things like this is because it affects other parts of the team, and I think it can make the team better in general. But I think he’s getting better. And he’s going to have to pass tests, of course. But we’re making progress. . . . He’s going to have some bad days. We’re gonna have to live with that, and that’s OK. But just keep making progress.’’

To be fair to Morel, though the Cubs are built on solid defense, that hasn’t been a strength so far this season. Madrigal and Gold Glove shortstop Dansby Swanson also have failed to come up with rockets hit to them. Swanson also made an error on a grounder up the middle, and right fielder Seiya Suzuki lost a ball in the lights at Globe Life Field.

‘‘The way he’s going to get better is by playing,’’ president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said of Morel. ‘‘And we’ve never given him that opportunity in a Cubs uniform. We’ve never just given him a position and said: ‘Go work on it every day. Go get comfortable and acclimate.’ ’’

Some players — such as former Cub Kris Bryant, who is in town with the Rockies — thrive in super-utility roles. Others, such as Cubs left fielder Ian Happ, bloom with consistency.

When the Cubs had Madrigal move from second base to third last year, they didn’t know how the transition would go. But he’s made his defense at the hot corner a strength. He made a diving play to end the sixth inning Tuesday, robbing Bryant of a hit up the third baseline.

“Nick uses his feet really, really well,” Counsell said, calling that an underrated skill. “They put him in position to get good hops for him, and he also uses his feet really well to get himself on line for accurate throws.”

Madrigal might not be a power hitter, but he’s been a good contact hitter in his career when healthy. He drove in three runs Tuesday with line drives into the outfield in the second and third innings.

The way Counsell has approached the third base position reflects his commitment to using his whole bench. Mastrobuoni also made a late-game appearance at third in Texas. And corner infielder Patrick Wisdom (strained back) could alter the equation when he returns from the IL.

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