In MLB these days, bullpens are a churn-fest. While teams at the MLB level struggle to find the eight- to 12-reliever bullpen that’s needed to survive the season, successful options from the upper minors get chances regularly. Since my mindset is the Cubs pipeline, you might think the Cubs ought to “promote from within” with Dakota Mekkes this season. However, due to baseball’s rules, Mekkes’ time probably should be delayed until 2019.
Mekkes, for those who don’t know, was a 10th-round choice by the Cubs out of Michigan State in 2016. In his travels through the minor league affiliate levels, the 6-7 reliever hasn’t struggled much. Relying more on deception than velocity, Mekkes’ career MiLB WHIP is right around 1. His ERA in his minor league career is an absurd 1.19.
He’s currently in Triple-A Iowa, and has represented at that level, as well. If league rules didn’t get in the way, promoting Mekkes soon would make sense. However, MLB does have rules, and those rules provide a disincentive to calling up Makkes this season.
In general, teams in the hunt for postseason berths will seek and trade for at least one relief pitcher. Fans will rarely complain, as many have unrealistic expectations from their own bullpen. “Our bullpen sucks” is a rather regular mantra, regardless the success level of relievers.
I imagine the Cubs will trade for a reliever or three between now and August. As a number of the Cubs relievers can’t be returned to Iowa, not all of the options to be sent to Iowa are viable. As such, adding more relievers from Des Moines shouldn’t be necessary unless the run of injuries worsen.
The first reason to not call up Mekkes is that he shouldn’t be needed. The second reason is that there doesn’t seem to be any special reason to think he would be significantly better than any of the primary bullpen options in 2018. While I could “hope” that Makkes would be a better reliever down the stretch than one of the veterans, I’d be hard-pressed to locate any “historical justification” for the belief.
Much like the person who “wants” the Cubs starter on a certain night to go seven strong innings before the bullpen is needed, “want” doesn’t create results. Wanting a player to do well doesn’t serve as a justification for a call-up. Especially with the well-defined reasons against.
Baseball has some straightforward rules regarding rosters. To oversimplify, a team has a player with no strings for his first three full seasons. Mekkes hasn’t reached that point, and won’t until December 2019. If the Cubs bide their time with Mekkes, he doesn’t take up a 40-man roster spot.
While some like to be dismissive of 40-man roster spots, the Cubs were able to add Randy Rosario for about free because of the availability of a roster spot. As soon as Mekkes is added (and he should be eventually), it becomes a long-term proposition. Yes, a player can on occasion be removed from the 40-man without incident. However, the better solution seems to be to delay the decision until it is almost undebatable.
If Mekkes is rostered in 2018, another bit of domino action would become a reality. While the Rule 5 Draft doesn’t get much play, what does get discussed would be the MLB portion. However, teams are allowed to protect 38 players every year beyond the 40 Man roster. Players left unprotected in the Triple-A phase can be acquired very cheaply by another team without the MLB Rule 5 specifications. The Cubs lost three players in the Triple-A Phase last season.
Should Mekkes be left in Iowa to retain a fringe minor league player? No. However, any consideration against increases what’s needed to counter the argument.
Mekkes might, or might not, be a valid MLB reliever. He should be in MLB camp in February, either way. With the appearances he’ll get there, he’ll add the necessary experience to make a more valid case for promotion. However, similar to Dillon Maples this season, Mekkes should likely start 2019 in Iowa. While he could well be considered a replacement option then, he should “lose most tie-breakers” in being called up. Which is par for the course for a non-roster invitee to camp.
When a player like Mekkes is ready for his MLB debut, it will probably be obvious. His numbers will scream “Call me up.” The comparisons between Mekkes and the “worst current option” will tilt in Mekkes’ favor.
However, the Cubs figure to make a slight adjustment through trade over the next month. I’m the worst person to ask who, though. Because I’m more pot-committed to tracking Wyatt Short in Double-A Tennessee than Brad Hand in San Diego.
However, it would be entirely irresponsible of me to say “don’t do that one thing” without having a few better options in mind. Kyle Ryan had been in the minor league version of Witness Protection (extended Spring Training) for much of the early season. However, the former Tigers reliever has an ERA of 2.27 and a WHIP of 0.916 this season in Des Moines.
My only warning with Ryan is that he still retains one option season. As such, he would make great sense as a call-up in late August, when he is unlikely to be returned to Iowa in 2018. That way, if retained (he should be), he could be returned to Iowa in April. And retained thusly for all of 2019, if desired.
Ryan should be prioritized over Mekkes in 2018, as he will need to use a roster spot this winter, anyway.
The other side of the pillow is James Norwood. A Cubs draft pick out of the University Of St. Louis in 2014, Norwood’s path to Triple-A was anything but direct. The 6-2 RHP was plucked in the seventh round that year, and his numbers haven’t always been pretty. Mekkes sped by Norwood, who hadn’t gained traction yet.
This season, he started in Tennessee. He had usually taken a second season to advance past a level, with a portion of each season being split at the prior level. After a 5.30 ERA in Tennessee in 2017, the mark dropped to 2.48 this time around. In 5⅓ Triple-A innings this season, he limited hitters to three hits, no walks, and eight strikeouts.
“Yeah, that’s cool, but I prefer Mekkes.”
Did I mention Norwood is throwing high octane 98 and 99 gas?
“That is different.”
And Norwood’s callup came this week, and he represented well against the Giants, before running out of gas in extra innings.
With Norwood, he’s Rule 5-eligible this off-season. I’m as velocity-agnostic as anyone, but if the Orioles wanted Pedro Araujo last season, do you think they might want Norwood in December?
As part of my research, I asked Iowa Cubs announcer Alex Cohen his preference. He thinks Mekkes has done enough to earn the call over the other two. Ryan is “still working his way back from an injury,” Norwood “is still raw,” and Mekkes “would help the Cubs most.”
And I can’t argue with any of those assessments. However, Mekkes is still a free asset until added to the roster. It is, but it isn’t, like delaying a decision on Kris Bryant until absolutely necessary. Which happened to be the most beneficial day for the Cubs to make a decision.
Mekkes’ time will come. Perhaps sooner than later. As often is the case, I ask you to remember three things. Roster spots are limited, and adding players too early can backfire. Norwood would likely be claimed in December if not on the 40. (He’s a rather easy pick for a Solar Sox roster spot.) With 40-man roster spots, vacancies are a benefit.
I’m a Mekkes guy. However, this time around, a veteran in a minor trade makes more sense. The Rosario/Bass/Mazzoni contingent has dome well enough, anyway. Norwood makes more sense long-term than Mekkes, as well, for the next five months. League rules matter, and roster space becomes a limiting factor regarding Mekkes when he is added to the parent club, but not until then. Mekkes has been a great 10th-round pick. His time with the Chicago Cubs should start in 2019, but not 2018.