The Cubs won the first game of their series in DC and have now dropped two straight in which they couldn’t muster more than a single run. They haven’t won consecutive games since sweeping the A’s in Oakland and they’ve scored three or fewer runs in seven of 13 games over that span. The makings of a very strong team are still there, but now the weak links are starting to compromise the integrity of the chain.
Eric Hosmer was brought in for his veteran leadership and also his Gold Glove pedigree at first base, though one-third of his plate appearances have come as a designated hitter. Hosmer was the DH in Wednesday’s loss because Trey Mancini was at first base, where he’s already posted an MLB-worst -3 defensive runs saved in just under 139 innings. Hosmer has 0 DRS over 123 innings, which we’ll get back to in a bit.
At the risk of treating this immature data as anything close to definitive, I think it’s fair to say Matt Mervis could be at least as competent defensively at first base. For what it’s worth, slugging Red Sox prospect Tristan Casas is also at -3 through 215 innings while batting .157 with a .598 OPS and three homers. If the 18-14 Red Sox can continue giving Casas ABs to figure things out, why can’t the Cubs do the same for Mervis?
“It’s a multivariable conversation,” GM Carter Hawkins shared recently. “You’re taking into account the macro view of the major-league team and where there are opportunities to improve. And then you’re looking at a particular minor-league player and where he is. There’s the roster status piece, how many options he has, service time, the roster spots that we have, how he’s playing. Will he get to play every day when he comes up?”
I highlighted the service time piece for a couple reasons, the first of which is that Hawkins just said the quiet part out loud and may have opened the team up to a grievance if there is indeed an issue there down the road. Even if we disregard that aspect, it’s a bullshit concern because Mervis is already 25 years old and it’s not like they should be worried about his salary escalating via arbitration to the point where they’ve got to move him before he’s 30.
Christopher Morel was also a subject of the GM’s conversation with Patrick Mooney of The Athletic, but Morel has already spent a good bit of time in the majors so fear of starting his clock is moot. Roster status, roster spots, and playing time are all valid concerns, but only because the front office is still stubbornly refusing to address obvious weaknesses.
I was all aboard the Edwin Ríos hype train this spring after a swing change led to a big jump in production, but he’s played sparingly and has not produced when given opportunities. Though 25 plate appearances can’t be used to tell a good story, Ríos has a .100 average with a 36% strikeout rate and a 67 wRC+ and .580 OPS. My foolish hope back in March was that he and Nick Madrigal would form a nice little platoon at third while Patrick Wisdom spelled Seiya Suzuki in the early going.
Madrigal held up his end of the bargain through that Oakland series, batting .345 with an .801 OPS and 122 wRC+ in 31 plate appearances. Those numbers are not as high since April 20, however, dropping to a .143 average with a coincidental .420 OPS and a wRC+ of just 11. On the season, his 76 wRC+ says he’s 24% worse than the average run producer.
We’re only looking at 78 PAs between Madrigal and Ríos, one or both of whom would likely need to be removed from the roster to facilitate a Mervis promotion, so that’s not enough playing time. A reduction in Hosmer’s action is the logical next step because he’s a lefty batter and isn’t going to produce as well as Mancini at the plate. The only reasonable explanation for Hosmer serving as DH with Mancini at first, then, is that the Cubs are prepping for Mancini to spend even more time there once Mervis comes up.
That might not be the result of a Hosmer DFA, as the 13-year vet has publicly professed a desire to serve as a mentor to his would-be replacement. Though it would cramp their roster flexibility to an extent, keeping Hosmer around in a role similar to what Ríos is serving now wouldn’t be the worst thing the organization could do. It’s certainly no worse than handicapping their potential like they have to this point.
Continuing forward with the current strategy is like installing a cheap drop ceiling in a home with ornate molding that could be beautiful with some touch-ups. Rather than putting in the work for what would be a much better result in the end, they’re hanging a flimsy metal grid and dropping in some mineral fiber squares. It just doesn’t make sense.
The front office has maintained that changes aren’t necessary because the better-performing players on the roster are picking up the slack for others. They’ve talked about all the different nuances that go into player personnel decisions and how it’s still early in the season, but they also said the intention was to compete for a postseason bid this year. Making good on that claim means moving forward with the best possible group by making at least one and probably two or three changes.
Morel remaining in Iowa is a little more understandable simply because the Cubs actually do have several very strong everyday performers at every position he might play. Between that and working on the strikeout totals, I can actually buy what the brass has said about not making a move yet. At the same time, there’s a point at which you need to look at which players need to be in the bigs.
Please understand that I’m not saying Mervis suddenly makes the Cubs a contender or that Morel will carry his incredible batting line from Iowa back to Chicago. Nor am I saying I necessarily buy the idea that Jed Hoyer guaranteed Hosmer a certain number of plate appearances this season, though that is something more than a few folks have questioned.
The point is that the Cubs are not good enough to compete for and in the postseason as currently constructed, but they have players within the organization who can come up and provide immediate improvements. We’ve reached the point — truth be told, we’re probably well past it — where refusing to make those improvements is actively harming their chances. At the very least, it makes sense to sink or swim with the players who are going to be around beyond this season.
Maybe it’s like that climactic scene in Point Break where Bohdi and Johnny Utah are in freefall and playing chicken to see who’ll pull his ripcord first. I can imagine Hoyer and Hawkins in their adjoining offices just staring each other down to see who’ll blink first and call Marty Pevey to tell the reinforcements to pack their gear.
Update: It’s about damn time. Mervis is being promoted and will join the Cubs in Chicago as they face the Marlins over the weekend.