Dakota Mekkes: A Backend Option for 2019?

Down the stretch for the 2018 Chicago Cubs, there was one glaring problem with the team: their silent bats. Fans, the front office, the manager, reporters, and every single person watching the team focused on that problem, and with good reason. With the Milwaukee Brewers slowly gaining ground and bludgeoning most teams the lack of offense from the Cubs became more and more of a concern. When the last out of the 2018 National League Wild Card game had been recorded the lack of offense took the lion’s share of the blame. This was justified, but it also allowed an overtaxed and injured bullpen to avoid much scrutiny. A bullpen that could have used a boost from within the organization, if only Joe Maddon had been willing to look in the right place.

Alec Mills performed admirably, and Dillon Maples was Dillon Maples with his wipeout slider and not much else. But, neither of those men was capable of providing help at the end of the game when it was most needed. One man would have been worth such an opportunity, but his name was never uttered once by anyone within the Cubs organization when it came to being called up to the big league club down the stretch. So, this stellar reliever who seemed to be getting better every day remained with the Iowa Cubs until their dismal 2018 campaign came to an end and then sat on the sidelines and watched the major league Cubs search for a closer while Pedro Strop was on the disabled list.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, the man I’m pimping hard is Dakota Mekkes, the current closer of the Triple-A Iowa Cubs. Mekkes is an interesting pitcher in the Cubs organization for a number of reasons, and every year he becomes more interesting while the majority of fans remain unaware of his existence. Were this five years ago when high performing or highly touted prospects were the only good news within the organization, at least compared to the woeful big league team, Mekkes would be someone every Cubs fan had on their radar. But, it’s not 2014, and as such, the focus is where it belongs, on the big boys as they get ready for yet another season of winning baseball.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the time to get acquainted with Mekkes, because you most certainly should. It’s my firmly held belief that if not right out of Spring Training, he will find his way to the Chicago Cubs roster at some point in 2019. He has been on a beeline to the 25-man Chicago roster every day since he first threw a ball for the Eugene Emeralds, the Cubs low A affiliate, in 2016. In his stops along the Cubs minor league circuit, Mekkes has done nothing but improve upon his raw abilities, at a frightening rate. There’s no reason he shouldn’t keep improving until he is wearing a Chicago Cubs jersey and showing that this organization’s farm system can produce high-quality arms out of their draft picks.

Mekkes came to the Cubs via Michigan State University in the 10th round of the 2016 amateur draft. He wasn’t a highly touted prospect, but he was a tall, 6’7, right-hander who showed room for drastic improvement. He was worth a draft pick because with his tall frame and his raw speed there was little reason to think he wouldn’t become even better under the right tutelage. Coming out of college Mekkes sat around 89-90mph, and had secondary pitches that needed work. Again, though, with Mekkes it was all about the Cubs coaches getting that 6’7 frame to work for him. Something they have been able to do in spades, no matter the level he’s pitching in or opposition he’s playing against.

The first trick was getting Mekkes to realize he’s 6’7, and how incredibly useful that can be for his delivery. His height was used to make his stride towards home longer, to allow him to extend more, release the ball at a later point, hide the ball better, and to slowly over time gain more velocity. All of the above was accomplished quickly, save for adding velocity. That took more time because while sitting 92mph is better than sitting at 90mph, it’s not exactly an improvement to write about. Still, everything else with Mekkes was improving, and all the while he was blowing away the competition.

In limited time, 17 innings worth, with the Emeralds he posted video game numbers. A WHIP of 0.88, an ERA of 2.12, a K/9 of 11.1, and a BB/9 of 2.1. He was dominant enough that he started the 2017 season with the A-ball South Bend Cubs. The righty giant was just as dominant in South Bend. His time there came to a close with a WHIP of 0.90, an ERA of 0.58, a K/9 of 13.6, and a BB/9 of 4.1. After just 31 innings he moved up the ladder to the high A Myrtle Beach Pelicans with the only concern being his increased walk rate. With the Pelicans, he faced better hitting, but his numbers stayed relatively the same. He pitched 42.3 innings and finished with a WHIP of 1.06, an ERA of 1.28, a K/9 of 9.6, and a BB/9 of 4.3.

Mekkes would begin the 2018 season at the Double-A level with the Tennessee Smokies. The hope was that his secondary pitches would continue to improve and that his fastball would show more life. At this point the only real concern I, and it seems most others following him, had was how he’d fare against better hitters and if he’d be able to show better command of his pitches. The former Spartan only saw 22.3 innings with the Smokies. The reason? He displayed a WHIP of 0.99, an ERA of 0.81, a K/9 of 12.1, a BB/9 of 5.2, a DRA of 2.79, and a DRA- of 59.2. He regularly made hitters in the Southern League look foolish. The only growing concern was his still increasing walk rate, but that wasn’t enough to stop him from being moved up to the AAA level Iowa Cubs.

This is where Mekkes made the case that he wasn’t just a big guy dominating lesser hitters, but a true prospect who could excel no matter the level of competition. Every time I watched him pitch for Iowa he looked dominant, and in the few outings that could be considered rough patches, he was visibly growing as a pitcher. He had become the epitome of a pitcher, as opposed to a thrower, and would work his way out of jams using his secondary pitches. When the Iowa season concluded he had appeared in 31.3 innings and put up more ridiculous numbers; a WHIP of 1.37, an ERA of 1.44, a K/9 of 11.8, a BB/9 of 4.6, a DRA of 3.09, and a DRA- of 66.4.

The man with the killer first name leveled out somewhat against the better hitting found in the Pacific Coast League. That’s not to say that he regressed in any way because he actually got better. The work to use his height finally paid off big time as he added a good 2-3 mph to his four-seam fastball. That pitch sat regularly at 91-92 mph in 2018. But, he was able to consistently get it to 94-95 mph when the situation called for it, which as he stepped into a closer role happened more often. He continued to hide the ball well, and he found a consistency in his stride and plant. He was hit a tad more, but a WHIP of 1.37 in a league known for its hitting is not a mark that I find concerning. Mekkes’ secondary pitches continued to grow exponentially.

Okay, only one of his secondary pitches grew exponentially, but he really only needs two pitches out of the pen. His two-seam fastball isn’t a plus pitch, and accordingly, Mekkes has thrown it less and less as his career has progressed. Where Mekkes showed a lot of improvement in 2018 was in his usage of his changeup. It’s still a pitch he can improve upon, quite a bit. In 2018 he threw it more, and he located it far better than he ever had in his career. He was able to spot it around 82 mph usually, and he generated a lot of swing-and-misses with it when compared to years past. The continued improvement on both his changeup and his four-seam will come, but I’d rate them both as major league-ready at this time.

Regardless of where Mekkes pitches in 2019, I fully expect him to continue to improve. I’m hoping he breaks camp with the Cubs, but if he doesn’t he’ll undoubtedly use his time in Iowa to make his four-seam and his changeup even better. Most fans may not realize it, but in Dakota Mekkes the Cubs have a game-changing reliever just waiting in the wings. The key is to get Maddon to realize that sooner, rather than later. When he does realize that and Mekkes gets the call, look for him to dominate with his length, deception, and four-seam fastball, just like he has his entire professional baseball career.

Lead Photo of Dakota Mekkes by John Arguello/Cubs Den

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