Caught Looking: Another Belli-Bomb, Mervis Keeps Mashing, Cubs Have Closer Problem

Is it still too early to say Cody Bellinger is back? The power-hitting outfielder has thrown around his share of “I told you sos” in the Cubs’ five games against the Dodgers this season. He’s 6-for-17 (.353) with three home runs against his ex-teammates, including a majestic 420-foot bomb Thursday night and an encore in Friday’s romp.

If Bellinger can continue to put the ball to that side of center with authority, he’s going to hit 40 home runs this season. Billy Williams is the only left-handed hitting Cub to reach that plateau, doing so back in 1971.

It’s not just Bellinger’s power that should have you excited, though. When everything is clicking, he is realistically a five-tool player in his age-28 season. His 156 OPS+ so far this season falls right between his 2017 and ’19 seasons. He was the NL Rookie of the Year with 39 home runs and 97 RBI in the former and MVP with 47 homers and 115 RBI in the latter.

Bellinger’s probationary period should be about 50-55 games. I think that’s a fair sample size to determine what’s real and what’s not. We’re about a third of the way to that benchmark and he hasn’t done anything to suggest regression lies ahead. He has a 9.5% walk rate and an excellent 14.3% strikeout rate, nine of his 22 hits have gone for extra bases, and he’s got three stolen bases. His barrel rate is a little low, but he looks a lot like the Bellinger of old, something Evan Altman pointed out weeks ago.

He’s certainly on pace to pass the modest ZiPS projections he was given during the preseason. Bellinger seems to love playing in Chicago and the early results peg him as one of the game’s better free-agent bargains. Feeling rejuvenated would do the same for any player, but there is a sense of liberation as well. Cubs fans don’t have the expectations for Bellinger that Dodgers fans have had since 2019 when he won that MVP award.

Bellinger is also playing for a life-changing multi-year contract because he could be the best available free agent not named Shohei Ohtani if both hit the market after this season. The Cubs have Pete Crow-Armstrong waiting in the wings and he could be ready next season, but wouldn’t it be great if the Cubs found a way to keep Bellinger too?

Midwest Farm Report

Bellinger isn’t the only one who mashed a 400-foot home run Thursday night. Matt Mervis is doing everything possible to earn a promotion, but that might not come for some time. Jed Hoyer showed his stubborn side when discussing a potential promotion.

“At some point, Matt’s going to impact the Cubs,” Hoyer admitted. “There’s no question. When that is, I don’t know. But we’re aware that certainly, he can have an impact here.”

Mervis is doing his part to turn heads in the front office.

The young man batted .309 with 36 home runs and 119 RBIs at three minor-league affiliates last season and then posted a .914 OPS in the Arizona Fall League. Mervis is slashing .255/.403/.527 at Iowa with four home runs and 16 RBI. He’s also shown incredible plate discipline so far this season. He doesn’t have much left to prove at 25, particularly after he led the minors in extra-base hits and total bases last year.

I’d love to see the Cubs promote Mervis and Christopher Morel and demote Luis Torrens and Edwin Ríos. If anything, Morel offers proof that the indignity of failing is a great motivator. How many times did Morel fail last season just before coming up big in critical situations?

If the Cubs are worried about bruising the ego of Eric Hosmer, they shouldn’t be. Hosmer knows his role and he understands why he was brought here. He’s not a placeholder and he will be counted on to mentor Mervis at some point this season. Let’s hope that happens sooner than later.

Big League Chew

Chicago’s biggest issue is that they do not have an elite competent closer at this time. Michael Fulmer isn’t getting the job done, and it’s fair to wonder just how long his leash is. The Cubs dispatched Javier Assad to the minors and promoted Jeremiah Estrada, giving them another potential late-inning reliever.

Many people believe Estrada is the closer of the future, and most of them would like the future to start today. Social media hasn’t been kind to Fulmer as you can see here, here, and here. The embattled veteran believes he’s identified the problem, but still doesn’t know the root cause.

“The ball’s just not spinning the way it should right now,” Fulmer said. “I don’t know what’s going on, but I better figure it out pretty damn quick.”

Perhaps the best solution is to handle Fulmer the same way the Cardinals are dealing with Jordan Hicks. The fireballing St. Louis reliever has been working in low-leverage situations to iron out the flaws in his mechanics. Fulmer might benefit from a similar type of assignment.

You shouldn’t blame David Ross for sticking with Fulmer. That’s the managerial thing to do, but it might be best to let Estrada, Brad Boxberger, or Brandon Hughes work in save situations for now. I’m not one for easing a player into a role, so I say let Estrada run with it. There’ll be some growing pains, no doubt, but this roster has been specifically built to make winning habitual again. Working through struggles is many times the game’s greatest teacher. The Cubs are in a perfect position to let players like Estrada and Mervis ply their trades as part of a greater learning experience.

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