Last year, 62 players graced the Iowa Cubs roster. 62! For the parent club, the Chicago Cubs, Iowa served a purpose under Theo Epstein the past two years. It was a place where they stored utility position players, backup bullpen arms, stretched out possible starters, and stored guys the big league club had taken flyers on. In 2014, some of those purposes remain, but a new purpose for Iowa will emerge: a place for prospects to play before they reach the major leagues.
Junior Lake, Chris Rusin, Blake Parker, Donnie Murphy, and Justin Grimm were the only Cubs to come from Iowa during the season, stay on the major league roster, and see significant playing time. This year that number could grow exponentially. The Iowa Cubs in 2014 will give a short glimpse as to what the Cubs of 2015-2016 might look like. By July 1, the roster of the club could change substantially as several players may get their shot in Chicago and Wrigley Field.
For most Cub fans, it begins and ends with Javy Baez. But this year, there are other home grown prospects that could have an impact in Chicago. I, personally, would like to see Javy Baez make the big league roster coming out of spring training. However, he does have some skills to work on like pitch selection. Baez’s bat speed can make up for a lot of mistakes and off speed pitches in the minors but not in the majors. At each level he has progressed in the minors, he struggles for a couple of weeks, figures it out, and then just explodes. His 37 home runs, 111 runs batted in, and .282 batting average are a testament to his skill. I expect him to get 200-300 more at bats in Iowa before he gets called up.
Playing next to Baez this season at Iowa are two other prospects who could see some time at Wrigley. 3B Christian Villanueva and 2B Arismendy Alcantara both are capable of making it to Wrigley this year but probably not until September callups. Arismendy had a torrid first half last year but cooled off at the plate when Baez took his SS position at Tennessee requiring Arismendy to shift positions. Villanueva, whose glove and arm are major league ready now, still has more seasoning to go. He had a solid year at Tennessee hitting .261 with 19 home runs and 72 runs batted in.
The Outfield has two prospects with different games. Matt Szczur is a great athlete with speed, some pop, and a lot of grit. He could challenge for the 5th outfielder spot on the majors but he will more than likely head to Iowa in order to play everyday. Jae-Hoon Ha is another prospect who is defensively ready to play in the majors but lacks the bat – the opposite of Szczur.
Most surprising to Cubs fans the past two years has been the amount of pitching acquired in the trades of Matt Garza, Ryan Depmspter, and Paul Maholm. That pitching will mostly be on display this summer at Iowa. Neil Ramirez and Kyle Hendricks could push for the 5th starter spot on the big league club, but like many prospects, they are headed for Iowa. Hendricks was the Cubs organizational pitcher of the year last year with a 13-4 won-loss record and an even more impressive 2.00 earned run average in 27 starts. However, only 6 of those starts were at Iowa while 21 were at AA Tennessee. Hendricks is likely going to be one of the first callups this summer. His former Rangers farmhand mate, and now Cubs teammate, Neil Ramirez is not far behind. He went 9-3 with a 3.68 ERA at AA for Texas and the Cubs.
In addition, Iowa will likely be the landing spot for lefty Zach Rosscup. Acquired in the original Matt Garza trade from Tampa, Rosscup has slowly worked his way to AAA. He may even see some time in Wrigley as a lefty. Similar to Chicago Cub starter Chris Rusin, Rosscup is tough on lefty but lacks an overpowering fastball and relies mainly on control. Teammates Erik Jokisch, Brooks Raley, and Austin Kirk are in the same boat.
Another pitcher who could help the Chicago Cubs is fast riser Dallas Beeler. After fighting off injuries the past two years, he seems to have righted the ship and is now on a collision course with Wrigley after an outstanding fall in the Arizona Fall League (AFL). In only 9 starts at Tennessee, Beeler went 4-2 with a 3.13 era. In the AFL, he went 4-1 in 6 starts with a sparkling 2.49 era. Depending on who else does not make the roster, you could see Justin Grimm back at Iowa along with Arodys Vizcaino. The place could be filled with pitching.
When looking at these pitchers as a whole, they are mostly number 3-5 type starters. They can help the big league club but not one has overwhelming dominating stuff. While Beeler, Hendricks, and Ramirez have definitely shown they can pitch, they still lack the dominating stuff the Cubs desire in a #1 or #2 type starter. Arodys Vizcaino has that #1 or #2 type of stuff, but after two years missed with injuries, he is projected to only be a reliever in 2014 to rebuild his arm strength.
The AAAA Guys
AAAA Guys are players who have mastered AAA but have not carried that success over to the majors. Two AAAA guys at Iowa this year are outfielders Casper Wells and Ryan Kalish. One of them will more than likely make the big club with Kalish having the inside track because of his left handed bat. Wells has more experience in the majors but hits from the right side. In addition, 1B Greg Rohan fits this category along with Josh Vitters and Brett Jackson – who both could be cut at the end of spring training unless they show considerable improvement. I do not see the Cubs spending much more time on these two. They could be the first casualties of not adapting to the new “Cubs Way.” Jackson, more so than Vitters, likely has played his last minor league game for the Cubs.
The Utility Guys
Currently, there are about ten players who will be on the Iowa roster who could go up to Chicago and fill a spot on the bench. Catchers John Baker, who will only help the current crop of Iowa pitchers with his experience, headlines 5 current catchers on the Iowa roster. Eli Whiteside, Rafael Lopez, Luis Flores, and Charlie Cutler will all be given a shot to make the Iowa roster. Not there are headliners for utility guys, but Ryan Roberts and Edgar Gonzalez both have major league experience. Roberts, along with his tattoos, has logged several seasons in the majors, mainly for the Diamondbacks. He has some pop in his bat and can play several positions. I, for one, think he has a great shot of sticking with the big league club.
Overall, the Iowa Cubs are in a great position to help the big league club across the board like never before. And it is only going to do more in the coming years. Whether it be prospects, bench players, bullpen help, or starting pitching, the depth in the organization is now beginning to reach the top of the minor league level. It is likely the Iowa Cubs roster stays pretty stable through the middle of June and maybe into early July, barring any injuries in Chicago. After that, I expect that Javy Baez heads east on I-80 to Chicago.
However, I do not think you will see 62 players go through the locker room of Principal Park like last summer. You might see a few come up from Tennessee and a few head to Chicago throughout the year. Several players/prospects will see some time in September in Wrigley. But the problem for these players and prospects is that the Cubs have now built depth and redundancy at all minor league levels. If a player wants to play, let alone move up, as a Cub, they are going to have to outplay the player at the next level. Competition within a system is something that can only help the Chicago Cubs organization. This summer will see another group of players selected in the draft that will only add to the depth, redundancy, and competition within the system. I can see the future, it is still a ways away but not that far away.