How the Cubs view Matt Mervis’ breakout year as they explore free-hand options

In another sign of his rising profile, Matt Mervis recently switched agents and signed with Creative Artists Agency. CAA Baseball announced the move on an Instagram account that has nearly 20,000 followers. The agency’s website features clients like Shohei Ohtani and Trea Turner, who trumpet the combined value of $4.1 billion in deals negotiated since their baseball division’s inception. The Chicago Cubs don’t know where Mervis will end up in terms of potential career outcomes, but they want to find out as soon as possible.

The baseball industry didn’t rate Mervis highly enough to select him as an MLB Draft-eligible junior from Duke University in 2019 when the event lasted 40 rounds. As a two-way player, Mervis wasn’t fully focused on hitting or throwing, making him an intriguing prospect and harder to gauge. The COVID-19 pandemic limited opportunities to demonstrate those skills as a college senior in 2020, when Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association agreed to trim the draft to just five rounds. Despite this, 30 teams picked 160 players that year, and Mervis became an undrafted free agent who could sign for a maximum bonus of $20,000.

The Cubs are given credit for making Mervis a priority, conducting their recruitment interview, and providing him with resources to hone his talents. Yet no one in the organization would argue that they saw all of this coming so quickly for Mervis, who produced 42 home runs, 42 doubles and 131 RBIs this year combined at three minor league affiliates plus the Arizona Fall League. The Cubs can only guess if Mervis’ future contributions will be closer to Anthony Rizzo’s handiwork or the great halves of Bryan LaHair and Frank Schwindel, who bracketed the All-Star first baseman and were summarily fired. When submitting an Arizona Fall League scouting report, the athlete‘s Keith Law compared Mervis to Daniel Vogelbach, a former Cubs prospect who earned an All-Star selection in 2019 and eventually found his niche as a left-handed first baseman/designated hitter.

This platoon setup is a likely starting point for Mervis, whose name has been mentioned along with free agents such as JosΓ© Abreu, Trey Mancini, and Josh Bell. The Cubs will not name Mervis their opening-day first baseman and guarantee him more than 600 plate appearances next season. It’s still realistic to think Mervis will have a prominent role for a transition team looking to add left-handed power and create favorable matchups with a fluid lineup.

“He’s very much in our plans,” said Jed Hoyer, president of Cubs baseball operations. “But I think we will also actively look for alternatives.”

The Cubs first basemen scored a meager 86 wRC+, or 25th place in baseball, in 2022. Perhaps even more disturbing was the complete lack of power from a position that values ​​hitting greatly. Cubs manager David Ross described the position as a “big hole” that had an ISO of 0.116, almost 50 points below the league average for first basemen who could kindly be described as light-batting second basemen. The Cubs first basemen paired their weak hitting with a 25.3 percent strikeout rate, the eighth-highest for the position in the game.

This is where the best version of Mervis could come in handy. The left-hander joined Kris Bryant as the only minor league player to hit 35+ homers, hit 110+ carries and hit .300+ in the past decade. This season, Mervis was the only minor league to hit 35 or more home runs while still having the ball in play on at least 36 percent of his swings. Only five major leagues β€” Pete Alonso, Jordan Alvarez, Mookie Betts, Christian Walker and Rowdy Tellez β€” have pulled off that feat at this level. That’s a wide range of results, but each has its own value.

Mervis is an extreme pull hitter, but that’s an issue that probably would have been a bigger deal ahead of next season. With the extreme shift banned, Mervis’ pull-happy style β€” he ranked sixth in the underage with a 57.3 percent pull rate β€” could prove an advantage. That’s where his power lies – 1.035 slugging percentage on pulled pitches – and he’s able to handle and deal pull damage on distant pitches instead of just flipping them.

The question, of course, is how to implement all of this at the highest level.

“Certainly he’s a big part of our future,” Hoyer said. “We know he’s going to get a lot of recordings with us, he’s going to get a lot of playing time. We will continue to be in the bat market. There are several spots he can play. We just can’t lose sight of having real depth. It’s really important. We are passionate about what he does. We know it’s a big part of where we’re going. But at the same time we have to be aware that we have real depth. Injuries and things happen.”

After a slow start in 2021 and never finding his rhythm, Mervis never seemed to slump this year. He dominated High A (182 wRC+) for 27 games, advanced to Double A and never slowed. After 53 games with a wRC+ of 148 and an increasing walk rate coupled with falling breaths, Mervis forced the issue and earned promotion to Triple-A Iowa. Again, he never showed any sign of his offense falling off. His strikeout rate dropped to a remarkable 14.6 percent β€” and his walk rate jumped into double digits β€” as he hit 152 wRC+ in 57 games.

“Whenever you have the success that he’s enjoyed this year and then the hard work that he’s put in, it puts you in a lot of different conversations that you might not have anticipated before,” Cub’s vice president of player development said Jared Banner. “The ability to hit – and not hit – after performance and continue to adapt throughout the season is a really positive indicator of his future.”

Banner also downplayed the question of Mervis’ defense and how the 6-foot-4, 225-pound hitter would adapt to the position where Rizzo won four Gold Gloves and helped anchor some great defensive teams at Wrigley Field : β€œHe’s more athletic than people think. He knows the bag at first base. He’s a nice big target and he’s doing really well defensively. There are no concerns about that.”

A big part of Mervis’ turnaround from 2021 to 2022 was him stopping overthinking things after his slow start in 2021. That poor early performance caused him to start chasing numbers, causing him to abandon his approach and then start tweaking his mechanics in a way that led him astray. This year he focused on course selection, staying confident in his approach and not letting small dips get his mind. It culminated in one of the most unexpected breakouts in the minor leagues.

“It’s been particularly difficult to predict this season,” Mervis said during an October visit to Wrigley Field. “I know I’m capable of hitting home runs. But going into the year, I wouldn’t have said that those would be my numbers at the end of the year. On the other hand, I know I’m a good hitter. I know what I’m capable of. So I’d say last year at Myrtle Beach was the anomaly and that’s the hitter I’m expecting.”

(Photo: Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today)

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