One of the very few things I was looking forward to with the 2023 Cubs was seeing how Matt Mervis would do at first base after a truly impressive progression throughout the minors during 2022. It really seemed like there was no need for the Cubs to make Mervis continue to slash his K rate while boosting his power at Triple-A, he already did that over 240 plate appearances in Iowa, so the next stop was obviously Wrigley Field. Since this is still a Cubs team that projects at just around 75 wins, good for third or fourth in a weak division, it seemed like a perfect chance to see what Mervis could do with some runway at the big league level, and I was here for it.
Jed Hoyer and Carter Hawkins, however, appear to hate pretty much everything I enjoy about Cubs baseball, so they’ve decided to block Mervis’ playing time by investing in a truly uninspired platoon of Eric Hosmer and Trey Mancini at first base. I mean, look, you’ll get no argument from me that the Cubs need to improve at first, I wrote as much in the Hosmer version of this piece last month. I’d just prefer a team who has such a small chance of contending to let their farm talent have a shot at these jobs rather than taking one or two year fliers on veterans who sort of did it once a few years ago. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the numbers behind the decision to sign Trey Mancini to a two-year, $14 million contract.
I decided I should get a lay of the land in terms of first base offensive talent before writing this piece. To do that I ran a FanGraphs leaderboard of first basemen who had at least 950 plate appearances between 2021 and 2022. I was left with 25 major league first basemen. This offseason the Cubs signed the 22nd and 24th first basemen by fWAR on that list. You can see how they compare to the field yourself below:
Top 1B by fWAR 2021-22
|Freddie Freeman||- - -||1403||52||237||183||21||12.0%||14.9%||.195||.341||.313||.400||.507||.386||147||11.9|
|Vladimir Guerrero Jr.||TOR||1404||80||213||208||12||10.3%||16.1%||.246||.300||.292||.370||.539||.385||149||9.1|
|Matt Olson||- - -||1372||73||187||214||4||11.9%||20.6%||.252||.271||.255||.348||.507||.361||133||8.2|
|Anthony Rizzo||- - -||1124||54||150||136||12||9.8%||16.7%||.223||.238||.236||.341||.459||.345||123||4.5|
|Josh Bell||- - -||1215||44||153||159||0||12.0%||16.7%||.184||.287||.264||.355||.448||.347||121||4.0|
|Trey Mancini||- - -||1203||39||133||134||0||8.6%||23.1%||.165||.297||.247||.323||.412||.319||104||1.5|
|Jesus Aguilar||- - -||1017||38||88||144||1||7.3%||20.8%||.171||.279||.248||.305||.418||.311||99||1.0|
|Eric Hosmer||- - -||984||20||91||109||5||8.6%||16.6%||.120||.309||.269||.336||.389||.317||103||0.9|
|Carlos Santana||- - -||1165||38||118||129||2||13.5%||16.3%||.148||.219||.209||.318||.356||.300||91||0.6|
It really doesn’t get much better if you sort by wRC+ (22nd and 23rd) or wOBA (22nd and 23rd). They are tied for 18th in walk rate. The best news in this table is that Hosmer strikes out ninth least among this group of MLB first basemen — so yay?
It is worth noting that none of the players the Cubs trotted out at 1B last season even make this table. So while it’s depressing to see the Cubs former 1B, Anthony Rizzo, well ahead of both of his replacements on the North Side of Chicago, I guess we can all take comfort in the fact that Treric Hosmini is better than the cast of characters the Cubs trotted out at 1B in 2022.
As far as platoons go, Mancini complements Hosmer. You can see splits dating back to 2021 by handedness below:
Mancini & Hosmer Handedness Splits 2021-22
|Mancini v. L||410||.263||.334||.450||116||.338|
|Hosmer v. L||275||.288||.321||.396||101||.313|
|Mancini v. R||793||.239||.317||.392||98||.310|
|Hosmer v. R||709||.261||.341||.386||104||.318|
Unlike Hosmer, Mancini does hit the ball hard with a max exit velocity in the 80th percentile according to Statcast. He’s also got a 66th percentile barrel rate, and should benefit from moving to Wrigley Field, where a handful of his extra base hits would have been home runs in 2022 as you can see below:
Mancini is not a standout defender, although he did have two outs above average (OAA) at 1B last season. He’s had -21 OAA over his career, although that feels a bit unfair because most of that damage came early in his career and in the outfield. He’s been closer to zero total OAA at both 1B and corner outfield for the last two seasons.
That outfield piece is interesting though, because the most notable thing about this signing (other than blocking Mervis) from my perspective is that it appears to provide the Cubs front office a backup plan at a corner outfield spot if they are unable to extend Ian Happ. It would not shock me to see the Cubs try to trade Happ if they haven’t extended him by the time Spring Training wraps up because Happ has been a pretty volatile player over his career and 2022 was his best season. His trade value could collapse if he starts 2023 slowly and Mancini can absolutely play left if the Cubs find a suitable trade partner for Happ.
Mancini makes the Cubs better at first base, but we should not confuse “better” for “good.” This is a move to return the Cubs to average, or maybe ever so slightly above average, at a position where they’ve struggled since trading Anthony Rizzo to the Yankees. Mancini’s ability to play a corner outfield spot gives the Cubs front office some flexibility as they decide whether they should extend or trade Ian Happ. Like almost every other signing this offseason this feels like a step in the right direction, but one that still falls well short of turning the Cubs into a contender in the NL Central.