Profiling the Cubs’ undrafted free agent signings
The reduction in rounds from 40 to 5 of the 2020 MLB First-Year Player Draft will have ramifications for years to come.
One small wrinkle is the expanded signing of undrafted free agents. All players undrafted in 2020 are allowed to sign with a major league organization for $20,000. Compared to past years, this pool of players is much larger. But the players actually willing to sign for that amount are predominantly seniors in college who would have been selected past the 10th round of a standard 40-round draft.
While some news regarding additional undrafted free agent signings are still trickling in, most of the sought-after talent expected to sign have inked contracts with major league organizations. These top-tier undrafted free agents likely had multiple teams pursuing them. With a set amount of $20,000 that each team could offer, a team’s financial flexibility became a non-factor. The players themselves had almost all of the leverage to choose which organization to pursue their career with.
As of June 26, the Cubs have signed 10 undrafted free agents. Below are three of the most notable signings.
Bradlee Beesley, OF, Cal Poly University
Bradlee Beesely had one characteristic that pushed him into the Top 10 on one of the most prominent rankings of undrafted seniors: track record. He started for four seasons at Cal Poly University, playing over 150 games. His career .288 batting average and .350 on-base percentage maintained at an incredibly consistent pace throughout his career, with his only fall back to earth coming this season across a small sample of just 16 games.
One of Beesley’s most notable accomplishments to put him on scouts’ radars occurred during the summer of 2018 with the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox of the Cape Cod League (often referred to just as “the Cape”). He hit .368 with seven extra-base hits in 22 games, helping his club make it to the league’s playoffs.
Not only is the Cape the premiere summer league for the top collegiate prospects, but the wood bats used — compared to metal in college — help evaluators better understand a player’s ability to perform with equipment consistent to the major and minor league levels. For this reason, concern can manifest when a power-first bat heads to the Cape and fails to display his carrying tool.
But Beesley’s contact-speed profile flourished against high-level opponents. His profile resembles that of Cubs prospect Cole Roederer, who stole 16 bases and played a superb center field for Class A South Bend in 2019. Many of these undrafted seniors may be able to move through the organization quickly if they have big-league futures, Beesley included.
Scott McKeon, IF, Coastal Carolina University
Scott McKeon started his collegiate career at Brunswick Community College in North Carolina. During his freshman year, he hit .434 with a .556 on-base percentage. The following season, he produced a similar line with more power and a newfound ability to drive in runs over two times the amount of games.
McKeon then transferred to Coastal Carolina University for the 2019 season, and his offensive production didn’t slow down against better competition. He slashed .340/.399/.484 in 63 games hitting 3 home runs and 18 doubles. In the 16 games this season before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down college baseball, McKeon topped his 2019 home run total with 4 and substantially evened out his strikeout-to-walk ratio.
McKeon profiles as a middle infielder, playing shortstop and second base on a regular basis and showing good enough actions at either position to display promise he’ll stick up the middle of the field. If he sticks at shortstop specifically, he becomes immensely more valuable, and the offensive standard of performance required to be a big leaguer lowers. Some analysts believe McKeon would have been a 6th- to 10th-round pick if the 2020 draft had more than 5 rounds, a nod to his consistent ability to make contact and produce at least doubles power in nearly all of his competitive play.
In the Cubs farm system at present, there are not many great comparisons for McKeon, which makes him a good fit. A player like shortstop Zack Short who played for Triple-A Iowa last season comes close. Both players can play shortstop well defensively and project to have average offensive tools. The main distinction is that Short’s offense is tied heavily to his ability to draw walks. McKeon derives most of his value from an exceptional amount of contact.
Short is close to the major leagues, while McKeon awaits assignment as the league prepares for the expected, but not confirmed, expansion of fall instructional leagues.
Matt Mervis, 1B/RHP, Duke University
Seven of the 10 undrafted free agents to sign with the Cubs have been pitchers, including the two-way athlete Matt Mervis. The Washington Nationals drafted Mervis in the 39th round of the 2016 Draft out of high school, but he decided to attend Duke University, where he played for four seasons.
During his freshman and sophomore year, Mervis primarily pitched. He threw 48.2 innings but found minimal success. His first substantial batch of plate appearances as a left-handed hitter came in the Northwoods League after his sophomore year (Mervis throws right-handed on the mound and hits left-handed). In 44 games, he slashed .316/.395/.450 with 4 home runs, proving he had some tantalizing potential at the plate.
In 2019, Mervis threw only 8.2 innings for Duke and had over 200 plate appearances, signaling a shift towards his bat’s development over his arm. He slashed .274/.357/.421 with a tendency to strike out more than twice as often as he walked.
During the summer of 2019, however, Mervis played in the Cape Cod League as both a pitcher and a hitter in substantial portions. He shined with 4 home runs in 30 games, but most notably cut his strikeout rate down to just about even with his walk rate. On the mound, Mervis showed renewed potential, posting a 3.24 ERA in 16.2 innings with the Cotuit Kettleers. In his COVID-shortened senior season after his teammates voted him captain, Mervis continued his dual-threat Cape League performance. His strikeouts stayed in check and he threw 2 productive innings on the mound as a reliever.
How the Cubs decide to develop Mervis remains to be seen. He could be a first baseman with game power many hope could become “plus,” or equal to around 23-27 home runs at the major league level if everything clicks. Or the Cubs could fast-track Mervis as a relief pitcher who features a low-90s fastball and low-80s slider. Still in the realm of possibility is the chance the Cubs treat him like the Kettleers and play Mervis both ways (similar to the Rays with Brendan McKay or Angels with Shohei Ohtani).
The two-way possibility is probably the least likely, as many other two-way minor leaguers have fizzled out in other organizations. The athleticism Mervis has shown should provide confidence that he’ll excel with whichever path he and the organization choose.