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Why now was the time for the Cubs to call up Matt Mervis

Ryan Herrera Avatar
May 5, 2023

Matt Mervis wasn’t expecting to be in Chicago this weekend. In fact, he was in Columbus, Ohio, for the Iowa Cubs’ series against the Columbus Clippers on Thursday, and in the early afternoon, his parents were at the airport back in Baltimore getting ready to meet him there.

But Mervis wouldn’t even play in Iowa’s game that night. Not after he received a call from Cubs vice president of player development Jared Banner, who asked Mervis, “Are you ready to play in Chicago?”

Mervis said he “kind of blacked out for a minute” after Banner told him to pack his bags and head to Wrigley Field, and then the first person he called was his mom, Ellen Van Bergen. And that’s not just because he wanted to share the moment with her and his dad, Jeffrey Mervis — after all, he had to let them know they shouldn’t go to Columbus anymore.

“They’d just gotten to the Baltimore airport, so I called her and said, ‘Change your flight. You’ve got a new new destination,'” Mervis said. “I don’t think she believed me for a second. I think she started crying right away.”

Of course, Mervis more than earned the shot.

After a disappointing 2021 season, he shot up through the Cubs’ farm system in 2022. He started the season at High-A South Bend, and by the end of July, he was already raking for Triple-A Iowa. Across the three levels, Mervis posted a .309/.379/.605 slash with 36 home runs and 119 RBIs.

That success didn’t earn him an Opening Day roster spot. The Cubs still had things they wanted him to work on. Most of all, they just wanted him to go down and continue to prove that he was ready for the call up.

And he did exactly that. In 24 games with Iowa, Mervis posted a 140 wRC+. His walk rate 16.1 percent) was the highest of his career, and his strikeout rate (17 percent) was the second-lowest). He’d already hit six homers and drove in 27 runs. He was hitting .286 with a .962 OPS. It was almost like he had nothing left to prove.

“Obviously, he’s been on the radar for a while, and you want to let him build off what he did last year,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “I truly believe each year is unique within itself for every player — pitchers and hitters, offense and defense. We didn’t get to see a whole lot of him in spring. The main thing was sending him down there and just be able to get back in the rhythm of what he did last year. Obviously, he did that to a really nice first month for them.”

While Mervis continued to mash, the Cubs’ offense sputtered.

Over their first 24 games, when it came to hitting with runners in scoring position, the Cubs were among the best in the majors in plenty of offensive categories. In those situations, the Cubs were hitting .310 (third in MLB), had 94 RBIs (sixth), and posted a 125 wRC+ (fifth). After what seemed like years of teams constantly failing to deliver big hits with runners in scoring position, the Cubs were finally doing it consistently. That played a big part in their 14-10 record heading into the last road trip.

In comparison, their three games in Miami and four in Washington over the last week were a disaster. The Cubs’ wRC+ with RISP was just 22, by far the worst mark in MLB during that stretch. Their average (.158) and OPS (.443) were also at the bottom, while they drove in the fourth-least runs (12) and owned the ninth-highest strikeout rate (26.5 percent) in those situations. Saying the offense “broke” may be hyperbolic, but there’s a reason they lost all but one of those seven games — and five of them by just a run.

Fans had already been clamoring for promotions for Mervis and Christopher Morel (arguably the top hitter across Minor League Baseball). The lack of production when it mattered only amplified those calls. Maybe this was a team that wasn’t necessarily built on run production just coming back down to earth, but considering it came at a time when the Cubs could’ve climbed up the division standings, it was frustrating all the same.

The offense’s poor performance combined with Mervis’ continued success forced the Cubs’ hand. They finally pulled that level to try and give the lineup a spark.

“Usually these things are pretty obvious, right?,” Ross said. “Somebody gets hurt or you just need a little offensive jolt, and right now, we could use an offensive jolt at the bottom.”

“We were really good on offense early in the season. Obviously we’re in a bit of a dip right now,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said. “That’s the nature of baseball. You go up and down. We’re calling him up in part because we’re struggling a bit, but I would also say we’re not expecting him to carry our lineup or do anything more than he can do.”

The Cubs may not put that expectation on Mervis, but there are certainly expectations from the fan base for someone who’s hit as well as he has for over a year now. Nobody should be looking at him as an offensive savior, but fans want to see him help the offense get back on track.

Hoyer was around when the last crop of prospects with high expectations (Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, etc.) arrived. He could perhaps provide Mervis some insight on how those former Cubs dealt with it all as they got their feet wet in the big leagues, but he also knows not every player deals with things the same way.

“Some guys block out the noise and the distractions exceptionally well, some guys, that impacts them,” Hoyer said. “It’s a big jump going from being in Triple-A in Iowa to the big leagues with the expectations and the pressure, and I think every guy handles it differently. I’m not sure any word of advice that we give is going to be that right one. We have to believe in the makeup, and we do [believe] in Matt’s case that he’s going to keep doing the things that got him here.”

It’ll be a while until we see if Mervis lives up to those expectations. He only just made his MLB debut at first base Friday afternoon, going 0-for-3 to start his day before finally connecting for an RBI single in the bottom of the eighth. If he somehow didn’t know how much fans were excited to see him reach the majors, he had to after witnessing the ovations he received throughout the day.

But of course he’s seen what people have said about him. As a 25-year-old, Mervis is obviously on social media. He sees the memes, the shirts, the nicknames — all of it. He knows that expectations are high.

However, nobody has higher expectations for his career than him — and he doesn’t plan on letting himself down.

“I have high expectations for myself,” Mervis said. “I expect to come in and help us win right away, so whatever Twitter or the media is saying about me, then I’m sure I’m thinking the same thing about my own performance.”

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