MESA, Ariz. — Developing homegrown power has its benefits, as the Cubs once enjoyed after Kris Bryant, Javy Baez and Kyle Schwarber blossomed as slugging standouts.
But since the departures of Anthony Rizzo, Bryant, Baez and Schwarber, the Cubs’ power has been zapped to the extent where White Sox free agent Jose Abreu serves as a viable option.
Internal help could arrive, albeit gradually, with 2022 breakout sensation Matt Mervis strengthening his case in the Arizona Fall League while talk of Abreu 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 the organization. “I took everything during the season day-to-day and tried to have a good game. I’m doing the same thing here and controlling what I can control.”
Mervis, who hit 36 home runs at three minor-league levels last summer, can’t dictate how the Cubs will spend this offseason. Jed Hoyer, the Cubs’ president of baseball operations, has acknowledged 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 the league averages. They didn’t hit a homer in five consecutive games (July 13-17).
That added stress to a pitching staff that often had little or no margin for error.
“We have to be a little quicker-strike offense than we were,” Hoyer said last month at his season-ending news conference. “I like the fact we’re making more contact. I did think there were times we grinded at-bats. We lacked the ability to pull away in different games. And that’s something we have to get better about.”
The Cubs replaced hitting coach Greg Brown after only one season with Dustin Kelly, their minor-league hitting coordinator. But two of Kelly’s top pupils are rebounding from injuries.
Outfield prospect Alexander Canario suffered a broken ankle and shoulder dislocation in a Dominican Winter League game Oct. 27 that could sideline him through at least 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 cut down on his 147 strikeouts could accelerate his arrival at Wrigley.
Outfielder Brennen Davis was regarded as the organization’s top prospect before undergoing lower back surgery that sidelined him for 2œ months at Iowa, and recurring back discomfort caused Davis to shut down his AFL season after 14 at-bats.
Davis hit 19 homers in 100 games at three levels in 2021 and homered twice in the Futures Game at Coors Field. Davis will be protected on the 40-man roster later this month, but he will need to make up the at-bats missed at Iowa at the start of 2023.
Once Canario and Davis return to full health, they could provide power at a tiny fraction of what it could cost to sign Correa or Abreu.
Homegrown power produced by Bryant (43 homers in 2014), Baez (37 in 2013) and Schwarber (18 in 72 games in 2014) in the minors enabled the Cubs to spend much of their frontline money on pitching toward the 2016 World Series title.
Mervis, 24, could be the first homegrown power talent to reach the majors after an impressive season. Mervis has hit five home runs and struck out only five times in his first 51 at-bats for Mesa in the AFL —which often is viewed as a finishing school to the majors.
Mervis was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Duke in 2020 and won’t need to be added to the 40-man rosters this month.
Nevertheless, his production — which included 15 homers in 209 at-bats 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 Cubs’ multiple needs could enable the left-handed-hitting Mervis to receive at least a spring audition.
“He’s putting himself on the map,” said Hoyer, who characterized Mervis’ 2022 season (in which he batted .309 with 119 RBI) as “one of the best minor-league seasons I’ve been around.”
The 6-4, 230-pound Mervis possesses a power hitter’s frame and continues to mature at the plate after devoting 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 home runs, 15 RBI and a 1.048 OPS.
Mervis needed little proding to sign with the Cubs after not being selected in the first five rounds, thanks to a plan mapped out by Justin Stone, the Cubs’ director of hitting.
“A lot of it was cutting my swing down, being as simple as I can and being repeatable, being consistent,” Mervis said. “It’s a more simple swing than I had in college and when I first signed. It’s just a matter of making it repeatable and find the same contact point.”
Before Davis’ latest back discomfort, he stressed the need to get stronger this winter.
Third baseman Jake Slaughter (23 homers) and second baseman Chase Strumpf (21) displayed power potential at Double-A Tennessee and are under consideration to be protected on the 40-man roster.
Catching remains a priority, especially if Willson Contreras rejects the team’s qualifying offer of $19.65 million, and Hoyer plans to add experience to a young but promising bullpen.
But adding more power would take pressure off the pitching staff.
“We played so many close games throughout the year because we couldn’t stretch games out,” Hoyer said. “That really taxes a bullpen and leads to more randomness. The best teams in baseball blow people out.”