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On Matt Mervis and flipping the switch

Should the Cubs give Mervis the first base job next year, or explore other options?

Photo by Jill Weisleder/MLB Photos via Getty Images

It’s no secret that the 2023 Cubs are expected to be more competitive than the 2022 Cubs. Ownership and management have made this point reasonably clear already, and surely the fan base expects an improved product on the field next year.

Ah, improved. That word opens up a nearly endless number of possibilities. There are so many different ways to improve. The best way to improve, of course, is in the way that works. Like most fans, I don’t particularly care whether improvement comes via prospect graduation, a shrewd trade, or a giant pile of cash being thrown at a premium veteran. I just want improved production and the wins that come with it.

There’s no sugarcoating the production that the Cubs received from first basemen last year: it was disastrous. Frank Schwindel proved unable to replicate his magical finish to the 2021 season and Alfonso Rivas posted just a .072 ISO despite a 30.3 percent strikeout rate. Add it all up and with contributions from P.J. Higgins and Jared Young, and Cubs first baggers combined for a .232/.304/.348 batting line for an 86 wRC+, slightly worse offensive production than Jason Heyward provided the Cubs during his poor tenure with the team (.245/.323/.377, 88 wRC+).

Needless to say, first base offers an incredible opportunity for the Cubs to improve.

But how to do so? This depends on what the Cubs want to be in 2023.

If the Cubs intend to flip the switch and compete for the NL Central crown in 2023, it’s likely that the club plans to acquire one of the four top free agent first basemen, two of them with Chicago ties. Half of the Chicagoans are now off of the market with Anthony Rizzo re-signing in New York, but José Abreu remains on the market and the Cubs have been understandably tied to him recently, Trey Mancini remains a viable starter on a likely short-term deal, and Josh Bell can be had, albeit likely for a lenghtier, pricier deal. Given Abreu’s position and age (36), signing him would likely require only a two- or three-year commitment at a relatively mid-level salary whereas Mancini can probably be had on a one-year deal for a similar salary commitment.

But all of this ignores Matt Mervis.

Mervis was a 39th-round pick by the Nationals in 2016, though he elected to attend Duke instead. Mervis primarily pitched for the Blue Devils in his early years, making 20+ appearances in each of 2017 and 2018. But he focused on his batting in 2019 and 2020, and needless to say, it worked. Mervis was fine at Duke in 2019, slashing .274/.357/.421 over 222 plate appearances. He did turn some heads the following summer, hitting a sizzling .325/.418/.571 over 91 plate appearances in the Cape Cod League. Mervis was splendid in 2020, slashing .304/.458/.589, but he did so over just 72 plate appearances as a result of the COVID-shortened season. Mervis went undrafted in the truncated, five-round 2020 MLB Draft, signing with the Cubs for a maximum $20,000 bonus for undrafted signees (as an aside, big-armed reliever Ben Leeper also fell into this $20,000 bonus bucket — we might see Leeper in Chicago this summer). Mervis spent 2021 in the Midwest League, slashing just .204/.309/.367 over 289 plate appearances for the South Bend Cubs.

If the above was the whole story, you’d be forgiven for expecting to hear that Mervis was released in a press release roster dump.

Instead, 2022 happened. In 2022, Mervis recorded at least 100 plate appearances at High-A Myrtle Beach, Double-A Tennessee, and Triple-A Iowa, amassing a sparkling composite line of .309/.379/.605 with a 156 wRC+. The power was there: Mervis had a .297 ISO with 36 homers. The walks were there: his composite walk rate was 8.7 percent and his rate increased each time he climbed a level. The strikeouts were limited: his composite strikeout rate was 18.5 percent and his rate decreased each time he climbed a level. Mervis went to the Arizona Fall League and largely held up with a .262/.324/.590 line, including six homers and just eight strikeouts over 17 games. Lots of players mash in the AFL, but the League proved tougher than normal this year, with notable blue-chip bats like Jasson Dominguez and the Cubs’ own Owen Caissie struggling.

Simply put, Mervis earned the “Mash Mervis” nickname in 2022.

But what about 2023?

If the Cubs are content improving just a bit in 2023 with an eye on truly competing in 2024 and beyond, the organization should absolutely hand Mervis the first base job in 2023 and let him sink or swim over the course of 500+ plate appearances. If, on the other hand, the Cubs want to capital-i Improve in 2023, pushing for a flag, can they really afford to take a chance with putting Mervis into a full-time gig given his relatively light history of offensive production?

There have been times in dealing with prospects where the answer was clear. For example, few doubted that Kris Bryant would be the Cubs’ primary third baseman in 2015, even if he didn’t break camp with the team, and thus it made no sense to block him with another full-time player. At the other end of the spectrum, it was less clear whether the Cubs should hand a rotation job to Adbert Alzolay in 2022 (and as it turned out, Alzolay’s health undercut his shot at a job).

To me, Mervis exists in the middle. His 2022 production was earth-shattering, and it should change the way that the franchise views him going forward. On the other hand, Mervis isn’t close to the tier of Bryant, Adley Rutschman, Julio Rodriguez, or any other recent elite prospect. Proceeding without a backup plan to Mervis is likely a fool’s errand, even if I’d like to see Mervis break camp with the big club in 2023.

So, what do you think? Should Mervis have a full-time gig in 2023? Or should he be sent back to Iowa for a few months to prove that 2022 was no fluke? Or something in the middle?

Poll

How should the Cubs proceed at first base this winter?

  • 38%
    Hand the job to Matt Mervis and let him sink or swim in 2023
    (298 votes)
  • 55%
    Sign a top free agent (Jose Abreu, Trey Mancini) on a short-term deal
    (430 votes)
  • 3%
    Sign a top free agent (Josh Bell) to a lengthier deal
    (26 votes)
  • 1%
    I don’t like any of these options — trade for someone else
    (13 votes)
  • 1%
    The Cubs should tank — roll with Alfonso Rivas and Jared Young for another year
    (9 votes)
776 votes total Vote Now