Chicago Sun-Times

Cubs: They are the world

Stroman, Mervis, Assad are 3 of 10 players in big-league camp who’ll participat­e in WBC

- BY MADDIE LEE | | @maddie_m_lee

MESA, Ariz. — Cubs first-base prospect Matt Mervis’ grandmothe­r grew up in Israel before moving to the United States as a young adult. He remembers going to her house all the time as a kid. It was only about a 25- to 30-minute drive.

“She loved to cook and feed [us] and make sure that we were all happy,” he said. “She was awesome.”

She died before the 2022 season.

“She’s the reason why I’m playing and why I want to represent Israel,” Mervis said of his participat­ion in the World Baseball Classic. “So I’m really excited and honored to represent her and her country.”

Mervis leaves Arizona on Monday to join Team Israel in Jupiter, Florida.

Even after right fielder Seiya Suzuki withdrew from the WBC because of a strained left oblique, the Cubs had 10 participan­ts in big-league camp: pitchers Marcus Stroman (Puerto Rico), Javier Assad (Mexico), Roenis Elias (Cuba), Danis Correa (Colombia) and Vinnie Nittoli (Italy), outfielder­s Nelson Velazquez (Puerto Rico) and Ben DeLuzio (Italy) and infielders Miles Mastrobuon­i (Italy) and Jared Young (Canada).

At least half of them had left by Friday afternoon, off to join their respective national teams. Those playing for Italy and Cuba in Pool A had the longest travel, to Taiwan. Stroman was scheduled to leave for Florida on Friday after starting on Thursday. The others are set to join their national teams in the next week.

“The challenges would be, I just like to see guys and where they’re at,” manager David Ross said this week. “I’m only going to get to see Matt Mervis for a couple more days and then he’s going to be off and running. And the same with Ben DeLuzio, Stro, Javy, all the guys that are going. It’s nice to get a look at them, but I won’t get to see some of their performanc­es, and you like to watch things. You like to monitor those things.”

Stroman has a spot in the rotation waiting for him when he gets back. But some of the other outgoing players are in position battles in camp. Assad is competing for the fifth rotation spot. Mastrobuon­i is a utility player in the mix for a bench spot. With Suzuki doubtful for Opening Day, there’s more of an opportunit­y for outfielder­s such as DeLuzio, a non-roster invitee, and Velazquez.

“I also flip to the players’ perspectiv­e,” Ross said, “and how great it would be to represent my country and play in front of the crowds that they’re gonna get and some of the experience­s they’re gonna get.”

Said Velazquez: “It means the world. To have the name ‘Puerto Rico’ on my chest, that means everything . . . . Having that name, having that flag, having that hat on is a dream come true.”

Alongside the draw of the valuable experience, there are injury-prevention measures such as pitch limits in place.

“At this point in my career,” Stroman said, “I take care of my body, and I know my body very, very well. So I would never compromise myself or put myself out there in a position where I wouldn’t be able to come and pitch for the Cubs. So I’ll be in constant communicat­ion with our guys here. They’ll be very in tune with my pitch counts and everything that I’m doing over there. I would never be one to push myself if I feel like I shouldn’t be pushed.”

Stroman knows the push and pull of wanting to compete on the internatio­nal stage while keeping the major-league season in mind. While playing for Team USA in 2017, he threw six hitless innings in the WBC championsh­ip and was pulled one batter into the seventh.

Now he joins Puerto Rico, the team he beat in that championsh­ip, in a high-powered Pool D. Also in that pool is underdog Israel.

Mervis said he’s looking forward to learning from Israel’s “really, really good coaching staff,” a group led by Ian Kinsler, a four-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glover. Mervis wants to soak up what he can from the veterans on the team, especially former short-term Cub and fellow lefty slugger Joc Pederson.

“Learn from him, study him and see how he goes about his work,” Mervis said, “and try to pick his brain a little bit about how he hits a pitch and the adjustment­s he’s made.”

What would his grandmothe­r’s reaction have been to him representi­ng Israel?

“She didn’t know anything about baseball but always checked on me and asked how it was going,” Mervis said. “I think she’d just be proud.” ✶

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Matt Mervis
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Javier Assad

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