Fifty. That’s how many different players I came up with who could possibly start the season at AAA Iowa. 50!!!!! My mind is shifting trying to figure out who the 25 are going to be for opening day. In the Theo Epstein era, AAA was not a place where the top prospects in the organization played on a daily basis in their development. It was predominantly a place to stash depth for the major league club. It was filled with players who had some experience at the MLB level.
Last year changed all that. In 2014, prospects came up, went down, got called up, and returned from Chicago to work on some things. With Baez, Alcantara, Olt, Lake, Szczur, and Soler making pit stops at AAA in 2014, the purpose of Iowa changed greatly. Baez, unless he has an amazing spring training, will be back to start the year at Iowa to work on his pitch recognition and selection. The thing Epstein and Hoyer have done is to admit there is no shame in having to go back down to Iowa, or Triple A, with Rizzo being the ultimate example. If Baez has to do so, he will not be alone, and he will not be the last to go work on some things.
This year, some of the top prospects in the organization will be in Des Moines, at least for a little while. Some will be hoping for a chance at the majors. Others will be on their last chance in the organization, while other players at Iowa will be stashed as depth for the major league team, or just plain guys filling out a roster – aka – AAAA players.
Previous team previews this year focused on the position starters, the rotation, and the bullpen. For the Iowa Cubs, I am going to do something a little different. Since Iowa can be seen as a pit stop before hitting the big time, I am going with Green, Yellow, and Red signals for the prospects that could be at Iowa.
Green means that the prospect is well on the road to Wrigley and the pit stop is just a temporary one, if even for a year. Yellow means caution as there are some concerns about the prospect or player. Red means stop. In other words, this could be the end of the line and the big leagues will escape them unless there is a drastic change.
The 25 Man Roster Effect
When spring training begins, the Cubs big league camp will have a lot of new faces in John Lester, Miguel Montero, Chris Denorfia, Dexter Fowler, and others. But when it comes to the 25 man roster, only second and third base will be up for grabs along with some bench positions, the fifth starting pitcher, and a spot or two in the bullpen. Some top prospects will be sent to Iowa to work on things or to play every day. A lot of the minor league signings from this winter will bide their time waiting for a bench position to open. If one does not open, they could ask for their release. But with 50 possible players fighting for those five to seven big league spots, there will be plenty of spots available in Iowa and Tennessee when it’s over.
By labeling these prospects green, I think they are ready to go to Chicago. Let’s be honest, Kris Bryant is ready and the only reason he will spend three weeks in Des Moines this spring is so that he can spend an extra year in his prime in Wrigley. For the fan, it is a good call. The only weakness Bryant still has is a hole in his swing in on his waist on the inside. He knows, the coaches know, he is working on it. It will be OK.
For Armando Rivero, at 27, the Cuban reliever is ready for the show. The problem is there no spot for him yet. Someone will get injured and Rivero should be call #1. His upper 90s heat will play well in Wrigley along with the other gunners.
For Addison Russell, his season should be a series of targets to accomplish. In addition to his great defense and bat, staying healthy should be a premium goal for Russell. By now, Russell is acclimated to the Cubs system and what is expected of him. I think if Chicago is in the playoff hunt this summer, Russell could see the big leagues this year. He would be just as big an acquisition as any major leaguer at a deadline deal. Out of all the hitters who could be on this roster for more than a month, he is the one I look forward to seeing what he can do in a whole year. I really think he is something special.
Dallas Beeler just needs a spot. In two starts last year at Chicago, Beeler did fine. He will never be more than a #4 or a #5 type starter. I think he will be given a shot to win the 5th starter position in spring training, but his odds are slim. His strength is he does have a sinker that is built to play at Wrigley in any weather. If that pitch is not working, his low 90s fastball gets hit hard. If he comes back to Iowa, he will be at the top of the speed dial for the Cubs.
Just because I labeled a prospect a yellow doesn’t mean I don’t like the prospect, I do. In fact some of the yellow prospects are my favorites. It just means that the prospect has something that is a concern and needs to work it out in Des Moines this summer. For some it is about putting in the innings or working on location or just getting the experience.
Grade A Yellow – Pierce Johnson, CJ Edwards, Eric Jokisch, Zac Rosscup, Corey Black, Brian Schlitter, Blake Parker, Blake Cooper, and Frank Batista
Notice the pitching? Yeah, I did not at first. Pierce Johnson might be the starter closest in my opinion because of the lack of concerns. He has the right mentality, the right pitches, and the only thing he needs to work on is avoiding minor injuries to other parts of his body beside his arm. He has yet to throw over 120 innings in the minors. I don’t see him making it to Chicago this year because of the lack of innings. I don’t even foresee him making it in a bullpen role because of his profile as a starter. Set him up, let him pitch, and build that experience. Ideally 150 innings would be a great goal. Then next year, I see him coming into camp to compete for a spot on the roster.
As for CJ Edwards, he has the stuff – that devastating curveball and mid 90s heat. His problem is similar to Johnson’s. He has hasn’t pitched more than 120 innings despite playing last year in the Arizona Fall League. He has better stuff than Johnson but will he profile as a reliever at the major league level or as a starter? After listening to him at the Cubs Convention, his confidence in his stuff is reassuring and noteworthy; he really wants to make it as a starter. I don’t know if he will until he does. Like Johnson, CJ needs to push that 150 inning limit in 2015. After he does that, I would move him well above Johnson.
Eric Jokisch will have a chance at the number 5 starter this spring as well as a spot as a reliever. If he does not make the 25 man roster, Iowa will await. The same holds true for Zac Rosscup but only for the bullpen.
For Corey Black, much has been written about how he profiles better as a reliever because of his size. However, for argument’s sake, Black has not had an injury worthy of missing large amounts of time. He had control issues last spring but wound up working over 120 innings and being the most reliable starter in Tennessee with K/9 ration of 8.68. I see the concern and I understand it, but he has no history injury. The major concern I have for him is leaving the ball up in the zone.
For Brian Schlitter, Blake Parker, Blake Cooper, and Frank Batista, their chance of making the bullpen out of spring training is slim, but not unwarranted. Schlitter has shown he can do it at the MLB level if he isn’t overworked like Renteria tended to do with him. Parker had an up and down year in 2014 and I expect the same in 2015. For Cooper and Batsista, both had sub 2 ERAs as relievers at Tennessee last year and they should continue in that role this year at Iowa. They are a year away in their development.
When I look at this collection, it kind of warms my heart knowing there is some depth. The bullpen, which got off to terrible starts the last two years with Marmol and Veras, is much more secure. And with the arms at Iowa, it is quickly becoming a strength within the organization.
Grade B Yellow – Javier Baez, Mike Olt, Stephen Bruno, Ivan Pineyro
These guys are close to being Grade A but their development is not quite done. Javy Baez’s struggles are well known and documented. Unless Joe Maddon magically fixes his pitch recognition and pitch selection skills in six weeks of spring training, I expect Baez to begin the year at Iowa playing second base.
As for Mike Olt, I think he might sneak onto the 25 man roster with his wider stance. With Bryant not coming up initially, Olt has a shot starting the season at third base. He can play first and third and some outfield. But let’s be real, he needs to play every day. And when Bryant comes up, Olt might be the one going down unless he is too productive at the MLB level. In rearranging his stance, he might get over the problems he had last year at Chicago.
Stephen Bruno will be at Iowa for the entire year. Last year was great for him after coming off of TJS in 2013. After a .291 avg. in the first half, Bruno hit only .256 the second half. The problem will be where to play him. Naturally a second baseman, I think he can adapt quickly to playing all over the field. Like Alcantara, Bruno has the bat to play any position. He just needs the experience in the field.
Last year was Ivan Pineyro’s first full year in the Cubs system. It was not a good one as he spent the year fighting off injuries. He did have a nice run in the Arizona Fall League and that gives hope to a good year in 2015. In seven games in Arizona, Pineyro started 4 and had a 1.98 ERA. He might not start the season at Iowa because of the depth of pitching. So, he could find his was to Tennessee to begin the year. Developmentally, Tennessee might be the smarter thing to do with all the arms that could be at Iowa.
Grade C Yellow – Christian Villanueva, Rafael Lopez, Taylor Davis, and Junior Lake
You really have to pull for Christian Villanueva. His glove is already MLB ready. He should begin the year at Iowa at 1B and return to 3B when Bryant goes up. Let’s hope he returns to 2013 Christian Villanueva when he led the Southern League in doubles. If he can get back on track, he could be a valuable bench player moving forward.
As for Lopez and Davis, they are here in case of injury to David Ross or Miguel Montero. With Schwarber’s ascendency, their hopes of making the big leagues are between slim and none this year. Lake is seeing the window close for himself, too. He could be a bench player if needed this year and that might be all they ever will be. I would not give up on him yet. This off season found him turning into a walk machine in the Dominican. He is only 24. He, like Soler, is a physical specimen with both speed and power. However, Lake has to learn he can’t hit every pitch.
Grade D Yellow – Hunter Cervenka, Francisley Bueno
The two lefties are a commodity the Cubs need. However, there is some work to do, especially for Cervenka. A 3.78 ERA does not endear him to a loogy role, but there is some hope as the Cubs do not have a lot of lefties in the system. For Bueno, he was released by the Royals despite having a drop dead changeup. If he can get his other pitchers over, he could be an asset the big league team lacks.
The red means something did not go right in 2014. For most of these prospects, this could be their final year in the Cubs system. Some players like Adron Chambers might be a free agent after spring training ends if he doesn’t make the major league roster. Many of the players have not shown that they can sustain a season at AAA, AA, or in the majors. I think some of these players should float back to Tennessee like Dustin Geiger and Barret Loux where they can regain some of the form they had earlier in their career and thus can gain some confidence to move back up the organization.
For many of these players, this is it for them. After five to six years, they have hit the wall in their development and there is not much left.
AAAA Players – Adron Chambers, Jonathan Herrera, Chris Valaika, Taylor Teagarden, Jorge DeLeon, Anthony Carter, Donn Roach, Daniel Bard
These guys all provide temporary depth for the big league club. All have some skillset which the Cubs find valuable. Bard would be the exception as he is trying to rebuild his career. What these players do provide is some power in the bullpen. Chanbers is interesting in that he is still young and has speed. He has produced at AAA just not in the big leagues.
End of the Line –John Andreoli, Anthony Giansanti, Pin-Chieh Che, Jae-Hoon Ha, Rubi Silva, Matt Szczur, Jeffry Antigua, P. J. Francescon, Zach Cates, Jeff Lorick, Tony Zych, Yoanner Negrin, Carlos Pimentel, and Trey McNutt
Aside from Trey McNutt who was injured in 2014, all of these players are close to the end. This could be their last year in the system and many may be released coming out of spring training. I think the Cubs will hang on to Szczur, Silva, and Francescon one more year, but the others’ days are doomed unless they can turn it around from their poor 2014s. In the past few days, I have seen pics on Twitter of Anthony Giansanti looking ready for Spring Training. Here’s to hoping some of them stay around a little longer.
Could/Should Go Back Down to AA – Elliot Soto, Dustin Geiger, Andres Santiago, and Barret Loux are four players who should start out at AA. For Geiger, who hit under the Mendoza line in 2014 after two 17 HR seasons, this would be the perfect opportunity, along with Soto, to be leaders on a young team with a lot of potential. For Santiago and Loux, they would get the ball every fifth day, something they need to do to overcome their difficult 2014. For Santiago, he needs to develop some consistency, and for Loux, he needs to stay healthy.
When it comes down to it, this Iowa team’s strength will be in the infield. Once Bryant goes to Chicago, the lineup could look something like this:
C – Lopez
1B – Olt
2B – Baez
SS – Russell
3B – Villanueva
LF – Szczur
CF – Adron Chambers
RF – Junior Lake
U/DH – Bruno
SP – Beeler, Johnson, Edwards, Black, and Jokisch
That’s a pretty solid AAA team. Over the course of the year, Olt, Baez, and Lake have a shot at returning to Chicago along with Beeler and Jokisch. Unlike recent years, the Cubs literally have a chance to pull players for every position for use in Chicago. And what I like most is there are more players right behind them in Tennessee: Redundancy is the name of the game from here on out.