It has been almost two full years since the Cubs have had a full-time first baseman. Since Anthony Rizzo was traded on July 29, 2021, 10 different players have taken turns in his place.
The Cubs went into this season with Eric Hosmer and Trey Mancini set to platoon until Matt Mervis was ready to come up from Triple-A Iowa and take over. Or something along those lines. Hosmer was released on May 25, a few weeks after Mervis was called up, while Mervis put up a 47 wRC+ in just under 100 plate appearances and was optioned to Iowa on June 15.
On Tuesday, the Cubs called up Jared Young — already part of that group of 10 thanks to a brief stint in the majors last September — to be the next first baseman du jour.
“We’ve been watching him for a while,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “He’s been swinging the bat really well.”
Young is hitting .326 with 13 homers for the I-Cubs this season. This after he was outrighted and cleared waivers back in November. Young had to be added back to the 40-man roster on Tuesday in order to be called back to the majors.
“When stuff like that happens, you go back to work,” Young said. “I kind of looked at it as I want another opportunity to get back here.”
The question in the short term for Young is how well he can carry over what he’s done with his bat in Iowa to the big leagues. In his first go-round with the Cubs, he had a .732 OPS in 19 plate appearances. But his performance at the plate in Triple-A this season attracted enough attention for another shot. It’s tough to ignore a guy who has a 1.031 OPS and a .395 batting average in June.
And it’s tough to ignore the general lack of production from the group of first baseman Ross has had to write into his lineups in 2023. The aforementioned Hosmer was worth -0.4 fWAR, and Mancini -0.5 going into this week. The latter could typically be relied on to at least be a steady hand on defense, but he made costly errors in the second inning in London on Sunday that helped the Cardinals come back from a 4-0 deficit.
For what it’s worth, Mancini took the blame for that loss, and before Tuesday’s game, he was in the infield doing drills at first base — and doing so in air quality conditions bad enough to merit conversations between the league and the players association about whether or not to postpone the game against the Phillies.
“He’s out there working. That’s who he is. He’s a worker,” Ross said. “He owned his mistake and he’s going to try to be better for it.
“What more do you want out of your players than to take ownership of the mistakes or areas where they may have not had things go the way they want them to and then identify that and go out there and get better?”
While it is nice to see a veteran player do what Mancini did, the reality remains that the Cubs are still in contention, so they need more reliable and consistent production at first base. Especially with the stretch of 13 straight games against the Phillies, Guardians, Brewers and Yankees going into the All-Star break.
Unless he somehow hits in the majors like he has in Triple-A, Young is not going to fix this problem on his own. Cody Bellinger has stepped in as of late, but that is a move as much about easing him back into playing center field after his knee injury as it is about getting quality at-bats from the first baseman in the lineup. Where Young can provide value will probably be in specific scenarios for now.
“[He’s] mashing right-handed pitching,” Ross said. “That’s an area we’ve had some trouble in a little bit with when we have some heavy matchups, so he’ll be a guy who can pinch-hit off the bench, play some first, some outfield where it matches up.”
Obviously, if Young hits anything close to how he was in the minors, then he might force his way into more regular at-bats. Young believes he can do that.
“I think you take the confidence of everything that’s happened the last few weeks and the last couple months and bring it here,” he said. “I don’t think things are going to change.”
It’s more than simple confidence, though. Young said the hitting instructors in the Cubs’ system have done a lot to help mold him into the hitter we’re seeing this season, and he credited John Mallee in particular. Mallee is back in the Cubs system as the Triple-A hitting instructor, but when he was last with the team, Mallee was the major league hitting coach from 2014 through 2016.
“As you get older in baseball, you always look to learn more,” Young said. “With that knowledge, you put it into the things you’re good at. When things match up, that’s when you start to get some real production.”
Young wasn’t in the lineup against Phillies southpaw Ranger Suárez in Tuesday’s 5-1 loss, but the Cubs face righty Aaron Nola on Wednesday, so Young might get his first look then. But again, even if he does, it is not realistic to expect him to stop the revolving door of first basemen of the past two years.
One, because that doesn’t seem to be in Ross’s plans, unless Young keeps hitting close to .400. Two, because he can play other spots on defense too (Young has played first, third, right and left field for Iowa this season). And three, because there are still other options.
Mervis shouldn’t be ruled out just yet. He didn’t get the results the Cubs hoped for when he was called up and struck out close to a third of the time, but Mervis would hardly be the first hitter to flounder a little in his first look at major league pitching. When Rizzo debuted with the Padres in 2011, he batted .141 with a 51 wRC+ in 49 games.
The Cubs could fill a lineup card, and then some, with the guys who have played first base since Rizzo was traded. To name just a few: Alfonso Rivas, Frank Schwindel, P.J. Higgins, Hosmer, Mancini. Now enters Young, and maybe Mervis re-enters the picture the again in the near future.
In the meantime, the Cubs have clawed their way back into contention after being 10 games under .500 a few weeks ago, and they have a crucial stretch of games to win coming up. With or without a consistent first baseman.
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