Mervis' power (33 HRs) continues to impress

September 15th, 2022

CHICAGO -- The disappointment of not hearing his name called during the MLB Draft two years ago was real for . He felt he had earned that phone call, the one that brings a lifelong dream to fruition, even if he also understood the unique circumstances in play.

The 2020 Draft was trimmed to five rounds at the height of the pandemic, creating a free-agent signing period for players who would have been selected in normal years. Mervis had a great showing in the Cape Cod League the previous summer, and he was putting up impressive numbers at Duke when baseball stopped.

"I thought I could play myself into an earlier round," Mervis said. "Obviously, that didn't end up happening. I was upset the night of the Draft."

Mervis chatted with this week from Des Moines, Iowa, where the first baseman is putting the final touches on one of Minor League Baseball's best breakout campaigns. He has soared through three levels, landing at Triple-A Iowa and giving the Cubs plenty to think about as they plan for 2023.

In a 10-5 win over Memphis on Wednesday, Mervis sent a pitch clanking into the right-field bleacher seats at Principal Park, marking his third homer in a four-game stretch. It gave him 33 long balls on the season, moving him one behind Rockies prospect Hunter Goodman for the most in the Minors this season.

Beyond the homers, the 24-year-old Mervis has slashed .312/.376/.615 with 38 doubles, 82 runs scored and 111 RBIs (second overall in the Minors) through 125 games this year. He will continue to get at-bats in the Arizona Fall League next month, giving him the chance to keep seeing quality pitching while getting accustomed to a longer season.

"I've always felt confident that I could do something like this," said Mervis, who is ranked No. 21 on MLB Pipeline's Top 30 Cubs prospects list. "Now, I can believe it and know that it's possible to continue doing this."

That self-belief was evident in how Mervis handled himself in the hours after the Draft did not go how he hoped.

Rather than sulk in the absence of that life-changing call, Mervis said he "accepted that it didn't happen," and he went to work. The signing bonus would not be the same, but the landing spot was now in his control. Mervis started researching organizational depth charts, prospect development and started forming his list of preferred ballclubs.

Mervis had identifed four teams that were at the top of his list, which included the Cubs. The North Siders were not necessarily "leading the charge" in Mervis' mind, but he enjoyed his pre-Draft conversations with team personnel and was impressed with the recent history of developing position players.

Then, Mervis waited.

"The minute that the free-agent period officially started, Matt was inundated with [calls]," said Burton Rocks, Mervis' agent. "Teams were sending him even pictures of what he would look like in their uniforms. It was a mass frenzy, because everybody recognized that he's a future elite power hitter."

Mervis was overwhelmed. Even though he organized his own thoughts, he did not expect the volume of messages that flooded in. He had to take a minute to figure out how to go about answering, considering who reached out first and weighing it against his list.

"I had to take a deep breath and kind of restructure my day," Mervis said. "I didn't think it would be all at once. I had a good idea that I'd get some interest. But I think all the MLB teams' strategies was to just get their phone calls out right away."

One of those calls was from Justin Stone, the Cubs' director of hitting. Stone had connected with Mervis previously, and Chicago felt he was the right person to follow up when the non-drafted signing period opened. Rather than have manager David Ross phone with his pitch, or have a front-office executive be the first point of contact, the Cubs wanted it to be someone Mervis would be working with in-person from the start.

"It had been 20 years since I'd been a college coach and recruiter," Stone said with a laugh. "So I had to put that hat back on a little bit."

Stone's approach was simple: deliver a plan to Mervis as if the first baseman was already in the Cubs' system. He discussed some swing feedback and changes that were easy to tackle right away, and he mapped out how Chicago's newly reconfigured hitting infrastructure would accomplish those goals.

The Cubs sent Mervis a handful of videos to explain how he had been too "rotational" as a hitter in college and to show ways to keep his barrel in the zone longer. They sent Mervis the app the Cubs' development team uses with its players, and they set up a Zoom call to continue the conversation.

"I wanted to really impress upon Matt that, 'Hey, man, I'm going to be with you every step of this journey, and the staff underneath me is going to be in your corner as well,'" Stone said. "That made it even easier for when Matt actually stepped in a Cubs shirt for the first time. We hit the ground running."

The fact that Stone led the recruiting process did make an impact on Mervis, who was weighing the Cubs vs. the Yankees when it was time to make his decision.

"That was pretty important to me," Mervis said. "It just felt more comfortable than some of the other teams, just knowing that it wasn't a scout or a front office person. It was somebody that I'd actually be working with, reassuring me that they had a plan for me."

Mervis' first season in the Cubs' system, which was spent mostly with Single-A Myrtle Beach, was a struggle. He hit .209 with a .677 OPS in 73 games, but Mervis has a theory now on what was going wrong.

"It was more me getting in my own way," he said. "I tried to move myself through the system too fast. I tried to hit too much, instead of just letting the game come to me and swinging at the right pitches."

This year, Mervis' play has pushed him swiftly up the organizational ladder. He is not among the crop of players in need of Rule 5 Draft protection this offseason, though, so Mervis has not been among the high-priority promotions for September evaluation in the Majors.

After Mervis' experience with the MLB Draft, he has a better grasp of how to handle the absence of such a call. He knows it might still be just around the corner.

"I let it get in my head for probably two days," Mervis said. "Like, 'I really want to be up there. I think I've earned it.' You know, that sort of thing. But at the same time, I've taken a day-by-day approach every day this year, and I just I want to have a good game every day.

"So if I have a good game, then my numbers get better and I improve in the eyes of the system. So once I got that out of my head, I got back to playing baseball every day, instead of worrying about things I can't control."