On the morning of Nov. 3, 2016, Dakota Mekkes reported for duty in Arizona.
This was only a few hours after the Cubs finally ended a 108-year championship drought, yet it was business as usual for Mekkes.
There was work to be done for the big right-hander. And hey, maybe that work would put him in position to be the one closing out the next World Series for the iconic franchise.
The Cubs chose Mekkes in the 10th round of the MLB Draft out of Michigan State a few months before they hoisted that elusive championship trophy and the 6-foot-7 pitcher was at a camp at the team's complex in Arizona for the World Series. He could feel the buzz around the backfields in Mesa, but that's the only aspect of the 2016 run that trickled down to Mekkes. He was still so far away at that point.
Mekkes pitched 20 innings for the Cubs' Rookie League in Arizona and short-season Eugene in 2016, but he's been on the fast track toward Chicago since then.
He went from Arizona to South Bend, Ind. (Class-A) to Myrtle Beach (Advanced Class-A) in 2017, going 8-2 with a ridiculous 0.98 ERA, 0.99 WHIP and 92 strikeouts in 73.1 innings.
Mekkes continued his ascension in 2018, beginning the year with Double-A Tennessee before finishing in Triple-A Iowa. In total, he went 4-0 with a 1.17 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 71 strikouets in 53.2 innings in the Cubs system last year.
"It was definitely a big jump going to Triple-A," Mekkes said. "The hitters were a lot better. There were a lot more guys with major-league time, so you kinda realize these are actually professional hitters and not just prospects anymore. I think for me, that was the biggest adjustment — going to Triple-A and learning how to get those guys and learn they don’t really chase as much as the other guys do. They have a lot better approaches."
Mekkes realized he had to be more fine with his pitches in Triple-A, understanding that professional hitters won't automatically chase everything and also learning that mistakes in the heart of the zone will get hammered more often than not.
"You learn quick how to grow up and face the hitters that are at each level," he said. "You better yourself by facing better competition. It’s kinda weird, living in different places all throughout the year — Arizona to South Bend to Myrtle Beach all in one year. The living part of it is definitely difficult. But it’s still baseball. It’s the same everywhere — you’re still just playing a game. It’s still fun."
Mekkes doesn't figure to make the big-league bullpen out of camp, but he's definitely an arm to keep an eye on if the Cubs were to need some reinforcements from the minor leagues throughout the season:
I like Dakota Mekkes as the reliever who has the best chance to help the @Cubs this year. He's so deceptive but will need to throw more strikes. Dillon Maples has wow stuff but I'm not sure he can find the zone. James Norwood could help. Bailey Clark, maybe. #Top30Prospects https://t.co/NiuuzbSHVs— Jim Callis (@jimcallisMLB) March 5, 2019
Mekkes doesn't have eye-popping stuff, but he has a deceptive motion, with three-quarters arm slot that hides the ball behind his 6-foot-7, 250-pound frame. He also gets good extension with his long arms, so even though he's not throwing in the upper-90s, the hitter perceives the velocity as quicker than it actually is.
The 24-year-old has made the most of his time in big-league camp (1.80 ERA, 1.00 WHIP in 5 innings this spring), but he understands this is a club that has high expectations and a lot of veteran arms vying for bullpen spots.
"I try not to think about it," Mekkes said. "I figure for me, it’s just my performance will speak for itself. When the time comes, the time comes. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I can’t really control it too much other than what I do on the field. That’s just kinda how I treat it. I try not to think about it and just play baseball."