Barely a week after a Cubs owner uttered the now famous phrase about “biblical” losses, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, promising college first baseman Matt Mervis made an astute business decision.
Yankees or Cubs?
The Duke senior, who went unpicked in the pandemic-shortened, five-round draft that finished just short of where he might have been selected in 2020, had four teams he considered as a free agent, narrowed it to two, and then looked at the Yankees roster and their big-spending history. Then he looked at the direction of the Cubs roster.
Then took the road less congested. And so far it has made all the difference.
“Obviously, I wasn’t predicting a full trade deadline [selloff] and all that stuff,” Mervis said by phone the other day. “But the short answer is yes. I looked at Rizzo’s contract and his age and said either the Cubs are going to sign him and I play behind him for a couple years or the Yankees go out and sign a first baseman.”
Or the Yankees go out and trade for that first baseman, then sign him as a free agent?
Either way, get a load of the most prolific hitter in the Cubs organization now.
After two more hits for Triple-A Iowa on Wednesday, including his 33rd home run, he’s one off the lead in home runs for all minor leaguers and is working on a Cubs’ organizational Triple Crown, hitting .312 with 111 RBIs (and a .991 OPS) in 125 games.
“I think I made the right decision,” he said.
Mervis, 24, won’t get called up for a big-league look when his Triple-A season ends because the Cubs can’t spare the 40-man roster spot that would require.
But heads up, Frank Schwindel, Patrick Wisdom and anybody else who might have designs on filling that gaping hole at first base that still exists since Rizzo was sent to the Yankees last year in the Cubs Great 2021 Roster Purge.
Mervis, whose amateur stock jumped after a good showing in the prestigious Cape Cod League the summer ahead of his senior season at Duke, is headed to the Arizona Fall league in a few weeks and is expected to be back in Mesa for his first big-league spring training in February.
“We knew he could hit, and we absolutely believed in him,” Cubs farm director Jared Banner said, “but to say that we expected him to dominate at three levels would be disingenuous. To the level that he’s dominated and how quickly he’s done it is really impressive.”
After a pandemic-canceled 2020 minor-league season and a .208 performance in 72 games at two levels last year, these are Mervis’ numbers at each level of the system he’s played this season:
- High-A South Bend: 35-for-100 (.350), seven homers, 29 RBIs, 1.039 OPS, 27 games.
- Double-A Tennessee: 61-for-203 (.300, 14 homers, 51 RBIs, .966 OPS, 53 games.
- Triple-A Iowa: 49-for-162 (.302, 12 homers, 31 RBIs, .994 OPS, 45 games.
How did that happen?
To hear Mervis explain it, last year was the aberration. This is who he was then, and now.
“I don’t look at last year to this year as a big jump or breakout season,” Mervis said. “The numbers will say it’s a breakout, but this is what I knew I was capable of. This is what I expected last year. I didn’t expect to be at Triple-A, but I expected to be the same kind of player.
“The timeline was a little strange,” he said, “but this is about where I expected to be.”
He has broken out so big so fast this year that he has a nickname that is taking off almost as fast: Mash Mervis. It started last month when friend of the column Evan Altman, a writer and Cubs fan in Indiana, started tweeting it at Mervis and then showed up in Indianapolis for an I-Cubs game wearing it on a T-shirt.
Mervis said he reached out to Altman and bought one. I-Cubs broadcaster Alex Cohen has started using it on home run calls. And Obvious Shirts has picked up on it since.
“I think it’s pretty funny,” Mervis said.
But at least as appropriate would be borrowing the old-school tag worn by Louisville’s No. 1 overall NBA draft pick Pervis Ellison more than a generation ago.
That’s because Never Nervous Mervis has an obvious level of confidence in his makeup, an intangible those close to him say has been part of his game since at least college.
His agent, Burton Rocks, seems certain that’s been at least as big a factor as the physical ability in Mervis putting himself on the brink of a big-league debut — and even more in the majors after that.
Rocks obviously is as biased as any agent toward his client.
But this agent also trademarked an algorithm called Quantified Intangible Sheet, which is meant to predict successes based on behavior — something Rocks has applied to executive hiring processes as well as baseball players.
It can be a little hard to follow. But he has given a TED Talk on the premise.
What’s certain is that nobody in the Cubs organization has hit like Mervis this season, by far.
And his not-a-breakout season probably couldn’t have come at a better time for the left-handed slugger, who has one eye on the ball and the other on what looks like a wide-open opportunity to put in a long-term claim on that spot Rizzo vacated.
“He was the face of the franchise. Everybody loved him. I know he’s big in the community,” Mervis said. “So I obviously have some big shoes to fill if I do make it up there. I think he earned that.
“It’s not something where I can just come up and be the next Anthony Rizzo,” he added. “He won a World Series for the Cubs and did it for a number of years.
“I would love to become the next Anthony Rizzo.”
Cubs officials have been buzzing almost as much as baseball-prospect media over what Mervis has done and what might come next.
“We try not to think too far ahead,” Banner said. “He’s put him himself in strong position just to be on our overall radar. Everybody’s talking about Matt Mervis and what he’s able to do. He just keeps getting better and better, and when you do that, good things happen.”