Do the Cubs Have a Future Multi-Year Starter at First Base Somewhere in the Organization?

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Do the Cubs Have a Future Multi-Year Starter at First Base Somewhere in the Organization?

Chicago Cubs

One of the reasons I always kind of figured the Cubs would retain Anthony Rizzo beyond his last contract was, when I looked at the minor leagues at the time, I saw a wasteland at the first base position. But then the Rizzo trade happened, and the second half saw these fun breakouts from Frank Schwindel and Alfonso Rivas, and it reminded that finding a first baseman is theoretically baseball’s easiest task.

However, 2022 has been a mixed bag on this front.

At the Major League level, it’s been rough. The Cubs have received sub-replacement level projection, ranking 24th in the Majors at fWAR at the position.

In the minors, however, things have been better, with some is-this-a-breakout happening to multiple guys. It has all combined to make for a cloudier future at the first base position than ever before, so I thought I’d check in with the relevant players and give an update on how we might think about them moving forward.

Frank Schwindel (Age: 29, Level: MLB, wRC+: 91)

Arbitrary Endpoints: It seems the de facto endpoint to use is what Schwindel has did since that near-walkoff in San Diego, which of course came days after he was ever-so-briefly optioned back to Iowa. Over those 27 games, Schwindel has hit .274/.325/.509, with just 19 strikeouts in 117 plate appearances.

Pluses: The combination of consistent contact and actualized power is rare in modern baseball.

Minuses: We kept looking and hoping for reasons why Schwindel could continue to have a large distance between his wOBA and xwOBA (it was .403 vs .332 last year), but the likelier reality was the latter number just described who he was – a below average MLB 1B – better.

Current Opinion: To be frank (sorry), I think Schwindel will spend the rest of the 2022 season fighting to prove he deserves a job for the 2023 season.

Alfonso Rivas (Age: 25, Level: MLB, wRC+: 70)

Arbitrary Endpoints: Last 50 plate appearances: .133/.200/.178 with 18 strikeouts.

Pluses: Best defensive first baseman in the organization, and will add more value with walks than anyone (maybe with the exception of Ball) on this list.

Minuses: There seems to be an issue against breaking balls that I really didn’t see coming. In his MLB career, Rivas is now 1-for-33 against breaking balls, and pitchers are now throwing them at a much higher clip than last year (26.6% vs 18.7%). It seems they figured something out.

Current Opinion: I think he has to go to Triple-A and earn his way back to the big leagues. I love watching Rivas hit, but a bit of that two-strike approach that was so good in the minors hasn’t translated and needs rediscovery.

Jared Young (Age: 26, Level: AAA, wRC+: 108)

Arbitrary Endpoints: Young missed two months last year with an injury, returning June 30. Since then, over 114 games: .275/.345/.474, good for as 119 wRC+.

Pluses: Pretty new both to drawing walks and hitting for home run power, and both skills suggest that more could come down the line.

Minuses: The numbers do kind of suggest a poor man’s Schwindel, just one that bats from the left side and adds a little more defensive value/versatility.

Current Opinion: If Young’s season continues to look more like a good step forward, and less like an explosive breakout, it’s hard to see the Cubs adding him to the 40-man roster in 2022. He wouldn’t be a minor league free agent until 2023, so you have him play another season in Des Moines, serving as valuable emergency depth, and you evaluate him at the end of that season.

Nelson Maldonado (Age: 25, Level: AAA, wRC+: 110)

Arbitrary Endpoints: Slumping hard after an initial hot streak in Iowa, here are Maldonado’s last 100 plate appearances: .191/.260/.292 with a .225 BABIP.

Pluses: Some of the better bat-to-ball, line drive skills in the organization.

Minuses: The lack of power and defensive value have always made first base look like a tough fit. Cubs have been trying him in left field more often recently.

Current Opinion: It’s hard for me to imagine Maldonado checking enough boxes for you to feel good about him being a 1B starter at the Major League level, and given the depth here, I don’t think he’ll grab a 40-man roster spot this offseason. I think he’ll be in Iowa for a little while here (maybe even asked to go back to Tennessee when logjams happen), and you just ask him to kick the proverbial Chicago door down with big results.

Bryce Ball (Age: 23, Level: AA, wRC+: 119)

Arbitrary Endpoints: I wrote about Ball a few weeks ago, noting his newfound tendency to hunt for early-AB pitches to hit, but also cautioning that the pitchers would adjust, and then we’d really learn about him. It’s been a mixed bag since that post: .247/.402/.325.

Pluses: I still believe the cut in the strikeout rate is meaningful and really huge for Ball’s long-term prospects. He’s Uber-patient, he can hit the ball as far as anyone, and now he makes contact at a rate better than league average. It’s a nice combination, when it’s all working together.

Minuses: This is the player on the list that feels the furthest from having the swing he’ll ultimately end up with (which makes sense as he’s also the youngest). Too many of his batted balls this year have not left the infield, be it grounders or infield flies.

Current Opinion: I’d like him to play the entire season at Double-A, and you let those results dictate whether to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft this winter. He’s not an Opening Day 2023 option, in my mind, but I’m willing to entertain that he could develop into a 2024+ option if he accesses more of that raw power.

Matt Mervis (Age: 24, Level: AA, wRC+: 178)

Arbitrary Endpoints: Started the season 5-for-27 in the first eight games. Since then, split between High-A and Double-A, it’s been jaw-dropping stuff: .368/.418/.743, with a laugh-out-loud 205 wRC+. Monster stuff.

Pluses: The swing. While Rivas probably has the most aesthetically pleasing swing, Mervis probably has the best swing for accomplishing what you are hoping your big league first baseman to accomplish: mash.

Minuses: The shortest track record, as we’re really only talking about 150 PA here where Mervis has been on the radar. Our level of certainty about his strengths just can’t be as high as others. It was only a year ago that he posted a 85 wRC+ as a 23-year-old in Low-A, after all.

Current Opinion: This is the really interesting one to me, given the combination of ceiling and newness. That he’s only two seasons into his minor league career means that he won’t require a 40-man decision until after the 2023 season, so you can really let this thing play out naturally. However, if you think this breakout is for real, it would likely inform some of the decisions you made with the five players above.

What I’d say first and foremost is that I’ve always loved Mervis’ swing (watch that back hip), and he’s long used it to provide some of those high-end exit velocities you need to see for a big league prospect. Mervis went on Aram Leighton’s podcast in May to discuss some of his changes from last year, particularly working on getting to the ball quicker and shorter. This is probably allowing Mervis to catch the ball a little earlier, creating a bit more loft, which would explain both the massive raise in BABIP and HR/FB%.

But are those new marks sustainable?

I think there is no question that Mervis’ ceiling can now be considered a multi-year starter in the big leagues, but I also think it’s too early to have any confidence in that as you build a long-term organizational plan. The Cubs will want to see Mervis fail for a stretch this year, and then see his adjustment to those failures, to have more faith in their internal evaluation of his future. MLB is off the table for this year – you won’t want to carry him on the 40-man for the winter – but AAA is not.

An important 2.5 months are coming.

Anyone in the Low Minors?

There’s no one readily apparent, no. BJ Murray has been fantastic in 2022 at Low-A Myrtle Beach, but he’s a contact-over-power guy, and I’d like to explore what he could do at positions like second and third base first. I like Felix Stevens some, given the max exit velocities that he’s capable of, but it’s hard to imagine it all coming together there.

Anyone who could come over from another position?

This is where you might be able to see it. Owen Caissie is a guy I’ve mentioned in the past – a little lumbering in the outfield (though he’s made some nice plays going back towards the fence lately), profiling to hit enough for first base. I might suggest you see if Caissie would be willing to spend the Arizona Fall League messing around at first? Jordan Nwogu has such a bad throwing arm that, ultimately, maybe 1B is a better fit. I also just want to say P.J. Higgins’ name somewhere, even though I don’t think you’d want him as more than a fill-in at first.

But the one I think we should start talking about is Chase Strumpf. He’s really improved over at third base, so his ascension would mean deciding what combination of Strumpf-Wisdom at 3B/1B works best defensively. But Strumpf’s work on getting stronger immediately has translated to more power, and he’s finding value by walking more than ever. This is a name I don’t think is being discussed enough, given what he’s doing over the the last six weeks.

Author: Bryan Smith

Bryan Smith is a Minor League Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @cubprospects.