January 29, 2023

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'He's my bestie': Morel, Velázquez share a baseball brotherhood

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CHICAGO — Christopher Morel had a text message waiting for him after the Cubs’ game against the White Sox on Sunday at Guaranteed Rate Field. It was from his close friend, Cubs prospect Nelson Velázquez.

Velázquez let Morel know that he would be seeing him soon.

“I told him, ‘Stop kidding with me,'” Morel said via Cubs translator Will Nadal.

It was no joke, as evidenced by the social media activity of Velázquez, who shared post after post of people congratulating him on Instagram on Sunday, followed by a photo outside Wrigley Field. By Monday morning, Velázquez had a locker two stalls to Morel’s left in the Cubs’ home clubhouse.

Morel was in the leadoff spot for both a 7-6 loss to the Brewers in Game 1 and a 3-1 defeat in the nightcap of a Memorial Day doubleheader. Velázquez also started both games in right field for the Cubs, who continue to use this season to provide glimpses of the future.

In his first Major League at-bat in the opening game, Velázquez sent a pitch from Brewers rookie Ethan Small bouncing to the right of the mound. The 23-year-old outfielder hustled up the first-base line, beating the throw for his first career hit. Velázquez added another infield single in the seventh inning of Game 2.

“Man, for me, it means everything,” Velázquez said of reaching the Majors. “It is a dream come true. It’s everything I wished in my life.”

Morel led off the first inning in Game 1 with a double that shot off his bat at 112.9 mph, per Statcast. That made it the second-hardest hit of the season for the Cubs. His sixth-inning single in Game 2 gave him a 10-game hitting streak (longest for a Cubs hitter this season) and 13-game on-base streak (tied for longest to start a career in Cubs history).

Less than a month ago, Morel and Velázquez were in the lineup together with Double-A Tennessee. Soon after, Velázquez was promoted to Triple-A Iowa in the wake of an offensive tear. Then, Morel was promoted to the Cubs from Double-A on May 17.

Velázquez knew his time could be coming, too.

“[After] they called him to The Show, I said, ‘I’m pretty close,'” Velázquez said. “We have been playing together a lot of years. He’s a little bit more electric than me, but we have kind of the same game. We’re aggressive every time.”

Morel and Velázquez’s history together dates back to 2017, when the Cubs made the latter a fifth-round MLB Draft pick out of the PJ Education School in Carolina, Puerto Rico. Two years earlier, Morel was signed out of the Dominican Republic.

“Nelson, for me, is like a brother, really,” Morel said. “Inside the baseball field. Outside the baseball field. The only thing that’s missing is blood between us.”

The proximity of their home countries, plus their personalities, made the pair fast friends. They climbed the organizational ladder together. Morel found his way to the 40-man roster ahead of the 2020 season. Velázquez followed suit this past winter after a torrid showing that earned him Arizona Fall League MVP honors.

On Opening Day this year, Morel hit second with Velázquez in the three-hole behind him at Tennessee. Morel hit .306 with a .945 OPS in 28 games before the Cubs came calling. Velázquez had a .914 OPS between Double-A and Triple-A prior to his promotion.

According to MLB Pipeline, both Velázquez (No. 16) and Morel (No. 21) are among the Cubs’ Top 30 prospects. Morel has been developed as a versatile defender (he can play multiple infield positions and man center, if needed) with big offensive tools. Velázquez has made swing changes over the past year-plus to help cut down his whiff rate and tap into his raw power.

“With Nelson, it’s obviously a ton of power,” Cubs vice president of player development Jared Banner said earlier this month. “And Nelson’s the type, once he sees one go out, he can get hot in a hurry.”

That is what happened earlier this season at Double-A, where Velázquez hit .148 with 16 strikeouts in his first 29 plate appearances (seven games). From that point on, he hit .359 (1.383 OPS) in 15 games prior to the call to Triple-A. That included a 10-game stretch in which he belted seven home runs.

Injury setbacks to second baseman Nick Madrigal, center fielders Jason Heyward and Michael Hermosillo and, most recently, right fielder Seiya Suzuki, have created windows of opportunity for the two young Cubs prospects.

“I know him and Morel have got a long history,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “So, to see those guys, see everyone, how happy they are for these young guys, it’s super rewarding. I think it’s the fun part about my job sometimes.”

Velázquez was not kidding. He and Morel can continue their journey now in the Majors with the Cubs.

“For me, it means a lot,” said Velázquez, who smiled. “He’s my bestie. I’m very happy that he’s here with me right now.”

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