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‘This is always where I’ve expected myself’: Matt Mervis’ journey to Wrigley Field highlights Cubs’ renewed depth

CHICAGO — Jeff and Ellen Mervis had just arrived at Baltimore-Washington International Airport on Thursday afternoon when the call came through.

Matt Mervis’ parents were heading to Columbus, Ohio, where Triple-A Iowa was scheduled to play four games over the weekend when the Chicago Cubs promoted the 25-year-old first baseman.

“Change your flight, you’ve got a new destination,” Mervis told them. “I don’t think she believed me for a second.”

Around 1 p.m. Thursday, Mervis heard from vice president of player development Jared Banner: ”Are you ready to play in Chicago? Pack your stuff and get to the stadium, congratulations.”

As the news washed over him, Mervis felt as if he had blacked out for a minute. He tried to think of the first people he wanted to share the news with, prompting the call to his mom.

“It was hard for me to hold back emotions,” Mervis said. “My family has been really, really supportive throughout the whole process. There have been some lows — college was not easy for me the first couple of years, 2021 my first year was not easy. So their support has never wavered.

“(My mom’s) been my go-to when things aren’t going great, so she definitely deserved the first call and it was hard to hear her get emotional.”

Mervis started at first base and batted seventh Friday against the Miami Marlins in his major-league debut. He received an ovation from Cubs fans on a picture-perfect day at Wrigley Field before striking out in his first at-bat.

He finished 1 for 4, earning his first hit and first RBI with a single to center in the eighth inning that scored Cody Bellinger in the Cubs’ 4-1 victory in the opener of a six-game homestand.

It’s a remarkable journey for Mervis, who one year ago was playing at High-A South Bend, coming off a disappointing first professional season in which he hit .204 in 69 games at Low-A Myrtle Beach.

Even Mervis struggled to explain his meteoric rise through the Cubs’ system.

“It’s pretty crazy,” Mervis said. “This is always where I’ve expected myself.”

Cubs President Jed Hoyer and the rest of the front office felt the timing was right for the team and Mervis. The offense’s recent skid aligned with Mervis putting together big-league at-bats with Iowa, demonstrating a good eye and smart swing decisions. His increased walk rate provided a good indicator.

“Ultimately there’s no perfect answers to when a guy is ready,” Hoyer said Friday. “Certainly you want a guy to control the strike zone. That was something we talked to him about in spring training, looking for pitches, doing damage on those pitches, and obviously that was certainly impressive.

“I also don’t want to put too much pressure on him. Certainly it’s a lever to pull to bring him up to play a lot. But at the same time we’re not expecting to carry the lineup or do anything other than what he can do.”

Manager David Ross confirmed Mervis will be in the lineup regularly. The Cubs optioned Edwin Ríos to Iowa as the corresponding move. Mervis’ arrival also forces veteran Eric Hosmer into a bench role. Ross had good conversations about the situation with Hosmer even before the last two days.

“He’s here to win,” Ross said. “He’s here to support. He’s here to help. He’s a professional through and through.”

The ability to have a talent like Mervis available to call up and potentially affect the lineup speaks to the Cubs’ improved depth. This wasn’t the type of move they could make the last three years. It changes how the Cubs can operate, especially early in the season, when a young player can provide some juice for a struggling offense. It’s a great sign organizationally and an improvement from where the upper-level depth and prospects have stagnated the last few years.

“I love these moments, but my hope is that not soon after the next one, then people are clamoring for the next guy and I think that’s when I know we’re good as an organization when there’s always a next guy,” Hoyer said. “There has to be another guy in the minor leagues that’s dominating, another guy that’s ready in some ways. And if people always have another guy they’re clamoring for, that means we’re doing our job from a scouting and player development standpoint.”

That next guy is Christopher Morel, who owns the best offensive numbers in minor league baseball. However, Hoyer and Ross preached the importance of Morel starting every day. Since the organization doesn’t see that happening in the majors as the roster is currently constructed, the Cubs want Morel staying ready and locked in at Triple-A.

Just as Mervis continued to put in the work as he waited for his big league chance to arrive, Morel will get a shot at some point too.

“He’s going to have a huge impact on his team,” Hoyer said. “I do think he’s benefiting from playing every day. And when there’s a path to playing a lot, there’s no question I’m hoping he’d be up here.”