With a few individual exceptions, the corner spots — first base in particular — on an MLB roster traditionally supply most of the power. The Cubs, however, find themselves near the bottom of the league when it comes to offensive production at first. Frank Schwindel wasn’t able to come close to last year’s performance and the resultant revolving door has produced an 85 wRC+ (26th in MLB) with 17 home runs, a .354 slugging percentage, and a .118 ISO (all 27th).
For what it’s worth, the Pirates are dead last in wRC+ (60) and SLG (.315), but they have more homers (20) than the Cubs and are tied in ISO. Rather than going further into comparisons between teams, I think we’re all comfortable agreeing with Ross on this point. Alfonso Rivas has very little power and neither P.J. Higgins nor Patrick Wisdom look like everyday answers. Not a great set of options for a team that needs more pop, and really needs it from the left side.
"A monster mash, a smash!"
— Minor League Baseball (@MiLB) September 27, 2022
Enter Matt Mervis, who just hit his 36th homer of the minor league season Monday night to put his season slash at .310/.380/.610 with 119 RBI to boot. And as we’ve noted here many times, he’s doing it with significantly lower strikeout and BABIP marks at each of his three stops this year. That there hasn’t been a fourth stop is more a procedural function than anything, as the Cubs want to keep all their options open for as long as they can.
“He’s having a phenomenal season,” Ross said. “There’s no doubt he’ll have a great opportunity in front of him moving forward, unless something transpires in the offseason that would negate that.”
That last bit could be interesting if you choose to view it as anything more than surface level, but I think it’s really just Ross being honest. It’s possible the Cubs go out and sign a veteran like Josh Bell, which would block Mervis and possibly even make him expendable in a trade. At the risk of disparaging Bell, who is a very solid switch-hitter with excellent plate discipline, I think he would represent a desire to raise the floor rather than the ceiling.
If the Cubs are going to spend big this offseason, and I believe they will, they’d be better served to make a significant upgrade to one of the other infield spots in addition to bolstering the rotation. They could also extend/re-sign Willson Contreras — an unlikely scenario because they’ll probably opt to go with a defense-first backup type — and do a little work around the fringes of the roster. The first base issue could then be resolved by giving Mervis the inside track to earn the gig out of camp, using Wisdom as a utility platoon guy across multiple positions.
When it comes to earning a spot, Mervis still isn’t done after putting up one of the organization’s best offensive seasons in recent memory. Once he’s finished at Triple-A Iowa, where his numbers are more impressive than at either Double-A Tennessee or High-A South Bend, he’ll head to Mesa for the Arizona Fall League. That assignment will allow him to prove himself further against high-level pitching while also logging more games in preparation for the longer MLB grind.
That might be as important as anything else in terms of the strategy here, as Mervis played only 72 professional games last season following a shortened 2020 campaign that saw him get just 16 games for Duke before COVID shut things down. His busiest amateur season came in 2019, when he played 86 games between Duke and the Cape Cod League. Provided he can maintain anything close to his current pace this fall, there should be a big role waiting for him in Chicago.
This seems to me like one of the easier decisions the front office has to make, and I’m not just saying that to sell some more t-shirts. Okay, you got me, that’s at least a small part of why I’m saying it. But given all the directions the Cubs could take, trying to figure out how to upgrade first base doesn’t require any sort of detour. Just check that one off and address some bigger needs to turn this thing around in a hurry.