Cubs' farm may have fix for lack of first base power

September 25th, 2022

PITTSBURGH -- There was a period of time last season when Frank Schwindel capitalized on his moment of opportunity with an elite level of production. It did not ease the sting of the trade that sent long-time first baseman Anthony Rizzo to the Yankees, but it at least gave Cubs fans a cult hero to rally around.

Schwindel was not able to recapture the same magic this year and was recently granted his unconditional release. The Cubs have given Alfonso Rivas a chance to grab the job at first, but he has endured some expected big league growing pains. Patrick Wisdom has been willing to play the position, but that may not be his best fit on the roster.

"I think there's a big hole for me at first base," Cubs manager David Ross said prior to Saturday's 6-0 loss to the Pirates at PNC Park.

The topic was raised via a conversation about prospect Matt Mervis, who has slugged his way to Triple-A Iowa from High-A South Bend this year as part of one of the best stories of this Minor League season. Entering Saturday, Mervis had 35 home runs and a Minor League-leading 115 RBIs.

Rather than get a call to the Majors -- Mervis is not one of the players who needs to be added to the 40-man roster for Rule 5 Draft protection -- the first baseman will keep getting at-bats in the Arizona Fall League next month. It will give Mervis the chance to see better pitching, while also getting used to the physical toll of a longer season.

This winter, when the Cubs are expected to be aggressive on the open market, the club will have a clear need for added power for the lineup. Given that fact, plus that "big hole" at first base, Ross was asked if the 24-year-old Mervis has potentially put himself in that conversation.

"He's definitely put himself on the radar," Ross said. "From my knowledge, he's having one of the better Minor League seasons for any player there is. Maybe there's a couple in the running for Minor League player of the year. When you do that, I think that is a staple of, like, the next step is the big leagues."

Mervis (No. 21 on Pipeline's Top 30 list) and outfielder Alexander Canario (No. 9) each had 35 home runs through Friday, putting them in a tie for the third-most blasts in all of the Minors this year. Mervis ranked ninth in slugging percentage (.609) and Isolated Power (.301), with Canario not far behind (.551 SLG and .299 ISO).

Over the past 15 years, only Kris Bryant (43 homers in 2014), Bryan LaHair (38 in '11) and Javier Báez (37 in '13) had more homers in a Minor League season than Mervis and Canario this year.

Looking ahead to 2023, those are two power bats -- along with outfielder Brennen Davis (No. 2) -- who could find their way to the Cubs. The North Siders will hope to have a natural uptick in slugging from Seiya Suzuki, as well, plus the potential to keep power-hitting Franmil Reyes in the fold, while finding the right ways to maximize Wisdom's power.

The Cubs made strides this season in addressing the lack of contact in years, but injecting more slug is on the wish list.

"You need a balance," Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said recently. "Having an entire team of guys that don't slug a lot and put the ball in play is not the way to go. And having a team of high-strikeout, power guys is hard. You ultimately want to blend in that way.

"You have sort of multiple ways to beat teams. And I do think we battled some really good pitchers well this year, because we put the ball in play. We don't strike out of a ton. But, I do think the lack of explosiveness is something we have to address."

The Cubs tried to take a step in that regard with the midseason waiver claim of Reyes, who is still just 27 years old and under control through 2024. Reyes launched 92 homers across 2018-21 with a .503 slugging percentage and a .243 ISO. With his 0-for-4 on Saturday, he now has a .363 SLG and .141 ISO with just 13 homers in 110 games.

"Chicago gave me this opportunity and you know, I can't waste it," Reyes said. "Even if I'm not hitting, I want to be that guy that shows everybody, every time, I'm trying to make an adjustment. And I know myself. And everybody here, if they give me this opportunity, it's because they know who I am."

Reyes fits into the offensive mix as a designated hitter, so that does not address the issues at first base. Entering Saturday, the Cubs ranked 14th in the National League and 27th in the Majors in both slugging percentage (.354) and Isolated Power (.120) out of first base this season.

Given the feedback Ross has received from the Cubs' front office leaders and player development staff, the manager is not ruling out Mervis being in a position to help that area next year.

"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."