When I originally thought of doing this post, I pretty much wanted to focus just on Matt Mervis and Bryce Ball. But as I thought about it more, I realized that there are other first base options in the lower part of the minor leagues who offer some more versatility. Some of them will actually appear on two different lists this winter.
Historically, the Cubs have not really been trying to develop a first baseman for most of the last 10 years because they had Anthony Rizzo locked up. They went from taking Jacob Rogers, who was a pitcher in college, and transformed him into a first baseman in 2012. And he was the last guy they took in the draft until Tyler Durna in 2018. In between, first base became a place for other position guys to get to more work. A lot of them were catchers, a lot were outfielders looking for ABs. It was a place to get in three to four more trips to the plate.
Last year’s 1B rankings were quite strange. There was not a single mention of Matt Mervis. It was all Alfonso Rivas, Nelson Maldonado, and Jared Young. Bryce Ball was sort of a footnote. I did allude that the Cubs had some guys with developmental issues in reference to Mervis.
Before spring training could begin this year, things were going to change on the first base landscape because Tyler Durna retired. After a rough year at South Bend in 2021, the left-handed hitting Durna decided that his life was going to focus on other things besides baseball. That transaction opened up a lot of doors for Mervis and for Ball to play unencumbered at South Bend and at Tennessee.
Here are this year’s top first baseman
1. Matt Mervis – Signed out of Duke as a nondrafted free agent in 2020, the former two way player took a while to get in the swing of things. At Myrtle Beach, he showed a pretty good knowledge of the strike zone, a high walk rate and the potential for power. He didn’t really put it together yet, but man did he put it together this year. North Side Bound’s hitter of the year actually did something we rarely see – he demolished four leagues. He did it in South Bend, in Tennessee, in Iowa, and the rarest of slams, he also did it in the Arizona Fall League. Now, he’s knocking on the door of being the everyday first baseman/DH in Chicago for the next six or seven years. That’s a sentence I didn’t think I’d be typing a year ago. In fact, no one would’ve thought that. That’s just how miraculous of a season it’s been for him. His last step in development is to develop at the Major League level and to learn to adapt there.
2. Nelson Maldonado – The youngster out of Florida began the year by tearing it up at Tennessee. He was promoted in early May to Iowa where he struggled before being sent back to Tennessee to finish the year. He recovered his stroke and looked to be back on track to try it again in Iowa in 2023. I really like to watch him hit as he showed some power this year as well as his usual ability to hit to all fields. Whether there is a path forward for him, that’s a little unclear with Mervis leapfrogging everyone.
3. Bryce Ball – Ball had an amazing start for the first half of the year. He was an RBI machine for Tennessee with 76 and I’m really surprised that he never got the bump to Iowa in late June. He displayed the ability to lay off the curve with two strikes. He did everything the Cubs asked of him to do in terms of using all three fields to hit. And he showed off some occasional power. He became much more of a hitter this year than just a guy who could hit the ball hard. There’s no real clear path for him to Chicago except as a back up to Mervis. The DH might be his only way forward.
4. BJ Murray – BJ began the year at Myrtle Beach and displayed an adaptability to manage the strike zone while also hitting for average with occasional power. When he was promoted to South Bend, he struggled mightily. It took him about a month to figure some things out before the Cubs finally saw the lightbulb go on as they moved him over to first base quite a bit in the second half. He still played third occasionally, but once Kevin Made came over, Murray became entrenched at first for the championship run. He made a couple of monthly All-Star teams at North Side Bound including July where he hit .378. Having that versatility is also going to allow him to move up the ladder this next year.
5. Felix Stevens – Considering who was in the outfield to start the year at Myrtle Beach, it was no surprise to see Felix move to first base this year to get some playing time. It was not the greatest year at the plate for him, but he did show some mammoth power from time to time and flashed a little bit of why the Cubs are very high on him in terms of his bat. The former outfielder wound up playing 50 games at first this year while also clubbing 11 home runs and driving in 43 in just a little over half a season. He probably goes to South Bend to start 2023, but he’s going to have a lot to work on including some pitch recognition stuff because he’s going to have his hands full in the Midwest League facing more advanced pitchers. But the potential for him to connect is going to be exciting.
6. Haydn McGeary – Wait a second, wasn’t he in last week’s breakdown? Why, yes, yes he was. McGeary’s versatility is going to carry him through the system a little bit quicker if his bat does well. We got just a brief glimpse of the kind of damage he can do with that last year in Myrtle Beach for a few games. Let’s just say I am really intrigued and he’s one of my top 10 players I can’t wait to see to start 2023. He can play catcher, he can play first, and he can do the outfield, although I don’t think he’s going to be on the list for the latter. But if the bat is anything like the little flash we saw at the end of the season, I really don’t care where he plays; just that his bat does.
First base has seen a really big change over the past two years and I think we’re going to see it change quite a bit this year as Mervis graduates to Chicago and we will see what happens in the lower parts of the system because who’s one first in Myrtle Beach and Mesa is going to be a real thing. Versatility might be the key for anyone that plays there. With Mervis looking like a cornerstone for a while, 1B will need to play someplace else as well.