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Why the Chicago Cubs optioned prospect Matt Mervis to Triple-A Iowa with the return of Cody Bellinger

Cody Bellinger hadn’t played a major-league game at first base since 2021, and even then it consisted of only two starts.

The lack of regular playing time at the position Bellinger spent the majority of his time during his first two big-league seasons (2017-18) with the Los Angeles Dodgers hasn’t diminished his confidence playing there. Bellinger came off the injured list Thursday and was back in the lineup, getting the start at first against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Wrigley Field. The Cubs optioned struggling first baseman Matt Mervis to Triple-A Iowa as the corresponding move.

Bellinger went on the IL on May 16 with a bruised left knee, causing him to miss 26 games. Both of Bellinger’s rehab starts at Triple A came at first base, at which he played only 20 innings in 2021 and 143 innings over 16 starts in 2020.

“His energy walking in today was pretty special,” manager David Ross said. “He’s a guy that loves to play baseball and is happy to be back. He talking about how slick his glove was at first (in Iowa). It had been a while and how smooth and then he walked through the double play turned and all the plays he made.

“He’s got one of those infectious personalities that rub off really fast on guys around him.”

A 7-2 win Thursday night completed a series sweep of the division-leading Pirates and moved the Cubs (31-37) within 3½ games of first place. For the second consecutive game, the Cubs used a big inning to fuel their comeback, this time behind a five-run fifth.

Marcus Stroman tossed his MLB-leading 13th quality start by limiting the Pirates to two runs in six innings. His 2.45 ERA leads the National League and is sixth in the majors while his 91⅔ innings are third most in the big leagues.

The Cubs don’t plan to use Bellinger at first base the rest of the season. He needs to continue to get more reps in center field and build up his conditioning in the outfield. First base provides a quicker avenue for his return while addressing two key deficiencies: the Cubs’ production at the position this season and their struggles against right-handers.

The Cubs entered Thursday with a .701 OPS (22nd in majors), .305 on-base percentage (23rd) and minus-1.0 offensive WAR (30th) from their first basemen.

The offensive production has been lacking against right-handers, making the lefty-hitting Bellinger a welcome power addition to the middle of the order. The Cubs rank in the bottom third in average (.241) and slugging (.378) versus righties while posting a .325 OBP (12th) and .703 OPS (19th). Their 95 wRC+ also puts them below average.

The league-average line against right-handers this year: .245/.318/.405 and .732 OPS.

“I was ready, I feel good and just want to help the team win,” Bellinger said Thursday. “They’re playing good baseball, so I wanted to come back and help them win, that’s my only goal. … These last few series have been fun to watch, and I knew I was getting close.”

Mervis, 25, struggled to take his sizzling production through the first month at Triple-A Iowa with him to Chicago. His introduction to the big leagues featured tough lefties during his first week, though he collected four hits and two RBIs in his first three games.

Mervis couldn’t consistently take advantage of fastballs and pitchers exposed him on breaking pitches. He hit .167 in 27 games while posting a .242 OBP, .531 OPS and 44 OPS+. Mervis recorded eight walks and 32 strikeouts in 99 plate appearances.

Ross and president of baseball operation Jed Hoyer met with Mervis after Wednesday’s win to inform him of the move. The conversation focused on the future the organization envisions for Mervis and, in turn, what he learned on and off the field as a big-leaguer.

“He’s an intense young man, better at first base than I thought, still has a lot to learn,” Ross said of what he learned about Mervis. “Mentally things were hard on him at times, which if I look back on some of the young guys we had it’s rare that guys don’t come up and struggle mentally, just trusting how good you are. The thing that keeps getting reiterated to me is the big leagues are harder than Triple A. It’s the best in the world up here.

“Very good impression, just didn’t have the offensive performance he was thinking of and then some things sped up on him at times when you’re dealing with that mentally. But I’m happy about his future here and excited about him eventually coming back up here and helping us win a lot of ballgames.”

The Cubs aren’t in a position to let Mervis work through things at the big-league level. The hole they dug creates added urgency as the front office weighs what direction to take in the next 6½ weeks leading up to the trade deadline. Mervis needs regular playing time that suddenly isn’t available with Mike Tauchman’s performance earning him regular starts in center field and Bellinger getting starts at first base. And with Christopher Morel’s defensive options limited at the moment, especially with their reluctance to play him at third base because of his inconsistent arm path and throws, it leaves him taking most of the starts as the designated hitter.

The Cubs want to give Mervis a reset at Iowa, mentally and with his approach, where he can regain confidence in a lower-stress environment.

“He’s obviously really talented, but this is the highest level and it’s hard to adjust here and he’s working hard to make those adjustments,” Hoyer said Wednesday. “He’s going to be a really talented player at this level. But it comes with adjustments that comes with ups and downs, it always does or almost always does and sometimes it doesn’t come with those adjustments.

“He’s very smart. He struggled a little bit in the minors and made those adjustments, and I have no doubt will make them up here.”

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