This is part 2 of a 4-part series on the decisions the Cubs need to make this week regarding Rule 5 eligible prospects. Part 1 is here.
I suppose this is a controversial take: I think it’s a no-brainer the Cubs should add a reliever with a 5.29 ERA in Triple-A last year to the 40-man roster. For me, Dakota Mekkes is the easiest choice after Miguel Amaya to protect from the Rule 5 Draft.
This belief is founded on two things: need and the belief that Mekkes could fill it. First, and Brett touched on this last week, the Cubs simply have a bullpen filled with question marks. On top of that, they enter 2020 with much of the bullpen “depth” either out of options (Mills, Underwood, Hultzen) or with one remaining (Maples, Norwood, Wieck, Alzolay).
The Cubs possess the necessary roster flexibility to give Mekkes a developmental-focused year on the 40-man roster simply to ensure he’s in the organization in 2021 (when surely many of the relievers listed above will not be). Simply put, the risk of losing a potentially-useful middle innings arm, under team control, is more damaging than the 2020 roster space he would occupy.
Beyond that, there’s also reason to believe Mekkes can be useful immediately, despite the ugly ERA number. A massive righty with abnormal extension and a strange arm slot, Mekkes’ fastball plays up well beyond what you think it should. While he shows the ability to dial up to 94-96 mph once every few weeks, he usually is just as effective pitching at 91-93 mph.
I might make the argument that if I needed to get a right-handed hitter out tomorrow, there are not three relievers on the Cubs current projected Major League roster I’d want to turn to before Mekkes. In the 2019 Pacific Coast League, one of the more hitter-friendly league environments in baseball history, Mekkes allowed a .556 OPS to right-handed hitters. And that, insanely, is the highest number he’s allowed to them in any professional season. Righties absolutely cannot square him up.
As I reviewed video on Mekkes, I actually came away pretty impressed by his command, which is weird for someone with a 14.7% walk rate. Against righties, Mekkes moves the fastball all around the zone, and walks seemed more a byproduct of just-missed corners than a total lack of feel.
As I dug later into the season, I saw him breaking out a few new secondary tricks, as well:
Reviewing Dakota Mekkes video and finding that his changeup really improved late in the season. Here, on August 23, you see something I’ve never seen from him: two strike changes versus right-handed hitters. Including one on a full count! pic.twitter.com/lA0M03tdiH
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) November 14, 2019
That poor batter just had no idea.
As I compliment his performance against righties, you already know the problem Mekkes ran into this season. For the first time, Mekkes’ fastball couldn’t carry the whole load against lefties. Check out the batting lines he’s allowed against lefties in his three full pro seasons:
2017 – .174/.283/.239 (wow, beautiful)
2018 – .233/.316/.314 (mmhmm, nice nice)
2019 – .343/.477/.643 (OH DEAR GOD MY EYES)
Now, part of that 2019 abomination was due to an absolutely absurd .435 BABIP. Another was due to to a HR/FB affected by the juiced ball at AAA. But there aren’t only execuses here. Mekkes is also to blame, both for the 18.2 BB% vs LHH, and the consistent hard contact.
I can’t shake one at-bat I saw when I think about his season. It was August 9, and Mekkes ran into huge trouble in his second inning of work. The leadoff hitter, lefty Trace Loehr, had a great at-bat that speaks volumes:
Pitch 1 = High 90 mph fastball, foul
Pitch 2 = High-away 91 mph fastball, foul
Pitch 3 = Outside corner 93 mph fastball, foul
Pitch 4 = Up-and-in 92 mph fastball, foul
Pitch 5 = High-and-away 92 mph fastball, ball
Pitch 6 = Outside corner 91 mph fastball, foul
Pitch 7 = High-and-away 92 mph fastball, foul
Pitch 8 = High 92 mph fastball, foul
Pitch 9 = High 91 mph fastball, singled to left
Nine pitches, nine fastballs, all either off the plate or leading to contact. If Mekkes is going to succeed at the highest level, he needs to trust his secondaries more to lefties. I charted every pitch Mekkes threw at home in August for the Iowa Cubs, and here’s his pitch usage against lefties: 47 fastballs, seven changeups, two sliders. 84% heater is just not enough – a changeup is supposed to be a swing-and-miss pitch against lefties.
Here’s the thing, though: the problem is diagnosed and the solution doesn’t seem complicated. Here’s Mekkes to Evan Altman at Cubs Insider last month: “…I’m trying to work on more of a put-away pitch, whether that be my changeup or a tighter slider.”
This is true, and the progress there will probably ultimately decide the degree of Mekkes’ Major League utility. We don’t know how the 3-batter minimum rule is going to impact speciality relievers, and as such, I feel uncomfortable with the idea of the Cubs potentially losing someone with such likely success against more than half of the Majors’ hitters. Keep Mekkes, continue to work on his secondary development, and get creative about how to utilize his ability against righties in 2020.
Other RP Decisions
- Sometimes you send a guy to the Arizona Fall League to get in some extra work, and you end up regretting it because you’ve showcased him for the other MLB teams two months before the Rule 5. This is definitely the case with Jordan Minch, who had 14 strikeouts against one walk and two earned runs in 10 innings in Arizona. Minch, a 26-year-old southpaw, touched 97 mph in the AFL, and continues to dominate righties with a backfoot slider he’s really gotten good with.
- Minch saw his average fastball velocity rise a tick and a half in 2019, now over 94 mph, and his command was as good as it’s ever been over the summer and in the AFL. A team that loved his work in October could take a shot in the Rule 5, but I think the Cubs depth with left-handed pitching in the upper levels probably will convince them to take the risk see if he passes through unselected.
- I’ll be crossing my fingers that few other teams noticed both the late-season velocity that Michael Rucker flashed, mixed with the good early season changeup. I’ve already told you about the sleeper I see there.
- Extreme deep cut: I’m really hoping the Cubs protect 23 year old Manuel Rodriguez from the minor league phase of the Rule 5 Draft. He’s one of my favorites. A short, stout righty from Mexico, Rodriguez had 65 strikeouts, 17 walks and just one home run allowed in 47 innings in High-A Myrtle Beach last year. When I saw him in Spring Training, he was throwing a good-spin 96 mph with a really nasty curveball. He’s not experienced enough to warrant 40-man roster consideration, but you absolutely throw him on the AAA roster list, thereby protecting him from the minor league phase of the Rule 5. The Cubs don’t have enough mid 90s arms to lose one there.