May 5: The Cubs officially selected Mervis’s contract this morning, as noted by MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian. In a corresponding move, infielder Edwin Rios was optioned to Triple-A Iowa. The club already had an open spot on the 40-man roster, so no additional move was required to select Mervis. Mervis will make his MLB debut in this afternoon’s game against the Marlins, playing first base and batting seventh.
Rios, 29, has struggled with the Cubs so far this season, albeit in a tiny sample of just 25 plate appearances, with a slash line of .100/.280/.300 and nine strikeouts. He figures to serve as infield depth for the club at the Triple-A level going forward.
May 4: The Cubs will select the contract of first base prospect Matt Mervis, reports ESPN’s Jeff Passan. He’s not with the team for today’s series finale in D.C. but will join the Cubs when they return to Chicago tomorrow to kick off a homestand with a series against the Marlins.
Mervis, 25, was a 39th-round pick of the Nationals back in 2016 but didn’t sign, instead opting to attend college at Duke. He wasn’t selected in the shortened, five-round iteration of the 2020 draft and wound up signing with the Cubs as an undrafted free agent.
That’s proven to be quite the find for the Cubs, as Mervis has laid waste to minor league pitching and established himself as one of the organization’s top-ranked prospects. Over the past two seasons, Mervis has skyrocketed from High-A to Triple-A (and now the Majors), batting a combined .305/.383/.615 with 42 home runs in 161 games across three minor league levels. That includes a torrid .286/.402/.560 slash and six home runs through his first 112 plate appearances in Triple-A this season.
Baseball America ranks Mervis fourth among Cubs farmhands, while MLB.com has him sixth. Mervis is generally regarded as an all-bat prospect, as he’s a sub-par runner and not a standout defender at first base. BA’s report on him notes that a shortened swing and refined approach at the plate unlocked a new level of performance for Mervis in 2022, and he’s clearly kept that up in 2023, given that he’s walked (16.1%) nearly as often as he’s punched out (17%). The left-handed-hitting Mervis was awful against left-handed pitchers in his first pro season, but he improved to .268/.339/.529 against southpaws in 174 plate appearances last year and is 6-for-20 with two homers, two doubles, six walks and six strikeouts in 27 plate appearances against same-handed opponents so far in 2023 (.300/.482/.700).
Mervis’ ascension to the big leagues comes at a time when veteran first baseman Eric Hosmer is struggling, having batted just .250/.294/.363 in 85 plate appearances. Cubs first basemen are still hitting .296/.331/.470 on the season, though that’s skewed by the fact that the vast majority of Trey Mancini’s production has happened to come while he’s playing at first base rather than in the outfield or at designated hitter. Mancini is certainly capable of playing either outfield corner and has enough bat to be an option at DH, so there’s room to get both into the lineup.
Keeping Hosmer, who’s also a lefty hitting, first base-only player on the roster alongside Mervis would be trickier, though there’s no direct indication yet that Mervis’ promotion puts Hosmer’s roster spot in jeopardy. Hosmer himself recently acknowledged that may end up being the case in an interview with Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, though he voiced nothing but support for Mervis.
“This is my 13th year in the league,” Hosmer told Rosenthal. “I’m not going to sit here and be bitter about a young kid coming up. That’s not right. … I was in spring with Matty. I was always trying to help, give him my two cents on what’s coming for him in the league, how you can simplify some stuff. It’s not something where I’m watching over my shoulder, or living and dying by his at-bats. When it comes that time, that’s when you can move on and do something else. I know he’s going to be a big part of this organization. I’ve got to help him any way I can.”
While future optional assignments can always impact a player’s timeline to arbitration and free agent, it’s worth at least outlining where those milestones currently stand for Mervis. If he’s in the big leagues for good from this point forth, he’ll fall shy of a full year of service in 2023 (barring a top-two finish in NL Rookie of the Year voting). That means he’d be on pace to reach free agency after the 2029 season, although an early-May call-up will surely afford him enough service time to qualify as a Super Two player. As such, he’d reach arbitration following the 2025 season and be eligible four times rather than the standard three.
If Mervis does manage to secure a top-two place in NL Rookie of the Year voting, he’d gain a full year of service and bump his free agent timeline up to the 2028-29 offseason in the process. He’d still be arb-eligible following the 2025 season, but he’d get there as a player with three years of service and thus only be eligible three times.