Cubs looking for energy sources

MESA, Ariz. — Developing homegrown power has its perks, as the Cubs once took advantage of after Kris Bryant, Javy Baez and Kyle Schwarber blossomed as stars.

But since the departures of Anthony Rizzo, Bryant, Baez and Schwarber, the Cubs’ power has been zapped to the extent that White Sox free agent Jose Abreu is a viable option.

Insider help could be coming, albeit gradually, with 2022 breakout sensation Matt Mervis bolstering his case in the Arizona Fall League while Abreu talk swells with the free agency filing period starting immediately. after the conclusion of the World Series.

“I try not to think about it,” Mervis said last month of the Cubs’ attempts to add power outside of the organization. “I took everything during the season day to day and tried to play a good game. I do the same here and control what I can control.

Mervis, who hit 36 ​​homers at three minor league levels last summer, can’t dictate how the Cubs will fare this offseason. Jed Hoyer, president of baseball operations for the Cubs, recognized the team’s need for more power — likely through the free agent market with shortstop Carlos Correa and Abreu as attractive options.

The Cubs ranked ninth in the National League in home runs (159), slugging percentage (.387) and total bases (2,097) — all well below league averages. They haven’t homered in five consecutive games (July 13-17).

This added stress to a pitching staff that often had little or no room for error.

“We have to be a bit quicker than we were,” Hoyer said last month during his end-of-season press conference. “I like the fact that we are making more contacts. I thought there were times when we crushed bats. We didn’t have the ability to retire in different games. And that’s something we need to improve. »

The Cubs replaced hitting coach Greg Brown after just one season with Dustin Kelly, their minor league hitting coordinator. But two of Kelly’s best students are recovering from their injuries.

Outfield prospect Alexander Canario suffered a dislocated ankle and shoulder in a Dominican Winter League game on Oct. 27, which could sideline him for at least another week. spring training. Canario, 22, hit 37 homers at three minor league levels last season, and a return to Triple-A Iowa to start the 2023 season to reduce his 147 strikeouts could hasten his move to Wrigley.

Outfielder Brennen Davis was considered the organization’s top prospect before undergoing lower back surgery that sidelined him for 2½ months in Iowa, and recurring back discomfort prompted Davis to end his AFL season after 14 at bats.

Davis hit 19 home runs in 100 games at three levels in 2021 and hit two home runs in the Futures Game at Coors Field. Davis will be protected on the 40-man roster later this month, but he’ll have to make up for missed shots at Iowa in early 2023.

Once Canario and Davis are fully healthy, they could provide energy at a tiny fraction of what it would cost to sign Correa or Abreu.

The homegrown power produced by Bryant (43 homers in 2014), Baez (37 in 2013) and Schwarber (18 in 72 games in 2014) in the minors allowed the Cubs to spend much of their frontline money throwing toward the 2016 World Series title.

Mervis, 24, could be the first homegrown talent to reach the majors after an impressive season. Mervis hit five homers and hit just five in his first 51 at-bats for Mesa in the AFL – which is often considered finishing school for the majors.

Mervis was signed as an undrafted free agent from Duke in 2020 and will not need to be added to any 40-player rosters this month.

Nonetheless, his output — which included 15 homers in 209 at bat and a .977 OPS at Triple-A Iowa — along with the lack of stability at first base since Rizzo was dealt at the 2021 trade deadline and the multiple needs of the Cubs could allow the left-handed hitter Mervis to receive at least one spring audition.

“He’s putting himself on the map,” said Hoyer, who called Mervis’ 2022 season (in which he batted .309 with 119 RBIs) “one of the best minor league seasons I’ve had. known”.

The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Mervis boasts a powerful hitting frame and continues to mature at the plate after spending much of his time on the mound during his first two seasons at Duke.

The COVID pandemic limited his senior season at Duke to 16 games, but he produced three homers, 15 RBIs and a 1.048 OPS.

Mervis needed little prompting to sign with the Cubs after not being selected in the first five rounds, thanks to a plan hatched by Cubs hitting director Justin Stone.

“A lot of it was about reducing my momentum, being as simple as possible and being repeatable, being consistent,” Mervis said. “It’s a simpler swing than I had in college and when I first signed. It’s just a matter of making it repeatable and finding the same point of contact.

Before Davis’ latest back ache, he stressed the need to get stronger this winter.

Third baseman Jake Slaughter (23 homers) and second baseman Chase Strumpf (21) have shown power potential at Double-A Tennessee and are under consideration for protection on the 40-man roster.

Catching remains a priority, especially if Willson Contreras rejects the team’s $19.65 million qualifying offer, and Hoyer plans to add experience to a young but promising bullpen.

But adding more power would reduce pressure on the pitching staff.

“We played so many close games throughout the year because we couldn’t extend games,” Hoyer said. “It really imposes a bullpen and leads to more randomness. The best baseball teams blow people away.

Rosemary C. Kearney