Chris Rusin will be in the Iowa Cubs rotation this season. He looked good in this spring training game against the Angels. Credit: Rick Scuteri-US PRESSWIRE
Finishing up with our previews of the Cubs minor league teams, at least until Boise starts up in June, is a look at the Iowa Cubs. This preview is going to be a lot less detailed than the other three because I don't think most of you need to be told who Randy Wells, Casey Coleman, Tony Campana and Travis Wood are. Even telling you about Brett Jackson, Anthony Rizzo and Welington Castillo is a bit of a waste of time.
A reminder: The numbers after the players refers to where I rank them in my top 20. A number of (20+) means I have him ranked somewhere between 21 and 30.
The Iowa Cubs are the Cubs Triple-A franchise, and they have been since before a good chunk of you were born. The Cubs moved their Triple-A affiliation to Iowa for the 1981 season. Only the Pawtucket Red Sox and the Omaha Royals/Stormchasers have been affiliated with one team longer. You can listen to the Iowa Cubs games on KPSZ 940 with Deene Ehlis and Randy Wehofer or, of course, at iowacubs.com.
The Iowa Cubs have been known as the I-Cubs long before Steve Jobs decided it was cool to put the letter "I" before nouns.
The Iowa Cubs are managed by Dave Bialas, who never had a fan club dedicated to him. Bialas has been in the Cub organization since 1995, although he has not managed since leading the West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx in 2001. He was the Cubs third base coach for the second half of the 2002 season and was the bullpen coach in the late 90s. He had been the Minor League Field Coordinator since 2002.
The pitching coach is former Cub Mike Mason, who is now in his fifth season in the Cub organization. Hitting coach Dave Keller is new to Iowa, although he's been with the Cubs for nine years, serving as a special assistant to the major league club last season.
The Iowa Cubs look to have a pretty strong offense this year, at least before Rizzo and Jackson head to Chicago, and a veteran pitching staff that's a little stronger than the minor league veterans that they have employed the past few seasons. This has some of them talking trash about the big league club, with Tony Campana saying if the I-Cubs faced off against the C-Cubs "I think we'd give them a game. We'd be competitive." That's an overstatement, but this team could be pretty good to start the season, at least.
The Iowa rotation looks to be made up of Randy Wells, Casey Coleman, Chris Rusin, Travis Wood and Jay Jackson. Rusin is a pitcher whom I don't have in my top 30 prospects but is an interesting arm nonetheless. Rusin is a left-handed curve ball specialist who models himself after Jamie Moyer. Rusin has very good control, is an extreme ground ball pitcher and he's left-handed, so you'd think that some team would find a use for him, even if he doesn't throw very hard. Up until he got to Iowa last season, he had kept the ball in the ballpark throughout his career. He won't be able to survive if he allows even a normal rate of home runs. You never fear guys like Rusin, but it seems every year the Cubs face a pitcher with his skills and they get embarrassed. So don't count Rusin out. He certainly looked good in spring training.
Jay Jackson was a top prospect for the Cubs two seasons ago, but little has gone right for him since then. He had some minor injuries and the Cubs kept moving him into the bullpen when they thought they were going to need a bullpen arm, only to jerk him back into the rotation when the crisis passed or they decided to call up someone else. He lost some movement on his fastball and his slider got sloppy and stayed up in the zone too much. But he looked a lot better in spring training this summer and maybe this is the season he gets back to what he once was. He still has the potential to be a #4 starter.
The bullpen should be pretty familiar too, as Scott Maine, Esmailin Caridad, and Rodrigo Lopez have pitched in Chicago (and I heard that Lopez may be there by this morning) and most of you have seen Manuel Corpas, Ryan Rowland-Smith and Nate Robertson pitch for other major league clubs. If you haven't, you shouldn't have much trouble finding video of them on your own.
Lefty Jeff Beliveau (20+) was the Cubs Minor League Pitcher of Year last season when he went 6-2 with a 1.57 ERA in 74 innings between Daytona and Tennessee. Beliveau struck out 89 and walked only 19 last season. Beliveau doesn't throw hard, but he's got a deceptive delivery that, combined with a very good changeup, makes it appear faster than it is. Control had always been his problem, but he seems to have solved that last season. If he can build on that improved control, he could be a very useful setup man for the Cubs, filling the role that Sean Marshall filled last season.
The top prospect in the Cubs system is center fielder Brett Jackson (#1). When the Cubs traded for Anthony Rizzo, I considered making him the top prospect, but considering the positional scarcity of a center fielder, I decided to keep Jackson at number one.
Jackson is likely to be in Chicago soon, although I don't expect him to light Chicago on fire this season. There will be some growing pains as he has struggled to make contact at every level. But he does draw a walk, run fairly well and he has decent power. I noticed that Baseball Prospectus hung a Curtis Granderson comparison on Jackson in their annual this season, and I think we'd all be pretty glad if Jackson turned out anything like Granderson. But Granderson was not without his growing pains.
The other three outfielders in Iowa are Tony Campana, Ty Wright and Dave Sappelt. Sappelt is the third player the Cubs got from Cincinnati in the Sean Marshall trade. Sappelt is a 5' 9" outfielder with decent speed and a good hit tool, as he hit .313 last season in Louisville, although he struggled in 38 games with the Reds, hitting only .243 with no home runs. (He is just 12 plate appearances shy of losing his rookie status.) Sappelt doesn't have much power, doesn't walk much and his speed is just a little above average. He's also considered a below average fielder with a weak arm, so he's really going to have a batting average well above .300 if he's going to be anything more than a replacement-level player. That's possible, but he doesn't have a lot of room for error. He could be up in Chicago at any time an injury creates an opening, as there would be fewer concerns about his service time than with someone like Jackson.
Ty Wright is a long-time organizational soldier entering his sixth season in the organization and his third season with Iowa. He can hit for average, but he's a slow left-fielder with below-average power.
Anthony Rizzo (#2) was the Cubs big acquisition this past off-season as the slugging first baseman was the Padres top prospect, albeit one they no longer had room for after acquiring Yonder Alonso. He needs to work on handling high, inside fastballs that ate him up last year in San Diego and learn to go to the opposite way more. He's got more than enough power to reach the baskets in left-center at Wrigley should he have to.
I, for one, have not given up on third baseman Josh Vitters, (#8) We might have to lower our expections and accept that he'll never be a superstar, but he could still be a good major league player. Last season the Cubs finally just left him at one level and he did make some progress in Tennessee, hitting .283 with 14 home runs in 449 at bats. For the first time, scouts were saying that his defense had improved and talk of moving him to first base seems to have ended for now. He still doesn't walk much, although he did have a career high 22 last season. But the issue isn't so much not walking as it is swinging at pitches that he can't make good contact. That leads to a lot of easy outs. He's still only 22 years old and he still might be the Cubs third baseman of the future.
Infielder Edgar Gonzalez is a cruel joke upon someone like me who dreamed of seeing his little brother in Cubbie blue. Still, the Cubs could do worse than Edgar if they need to fill in for an injury to an infielder in the majors. Matt Tolbert, Alfredo Amezaga and Adrian Cardenas fill out the infield. Cardenas hit .314 with a .374 OBP and 13 steals for Sacramento last season. He's only 24 and was a top 100 prospect according to Baseball America as recently as 2009. He was a good gamble by Theo and Jed this off-season.
I've never been a big fan of catcher Welington Castillo (#16) because I've always heard poor things about his defense and his ability to handle a pitching staff. Similar reports came out of Chicago last season when he was up with the team. But that does seem like something someone could learn if they were dedicated enough, and Castillo's arm is solid so he has the tools to do it. He'll probably never hit for a high average and he'll probably never beat out an infield hit, but he can draw a walk and the power is undeniable. In short, he could be a productive starting catcher if he dedicates himself to doing it.
Earlier I had said I thought that Larry Suarez was the only minor leaguer left from when I first started doing these reports. Castillo was actually around back then, although in my defense he had barely played when I started. I did, however, forget about Iowa's other catcher, Blake Lalli. After four years in Tennessee, he's finally in Iowa. He'll be a good backup for Castillo and a good pinch-hitter off the bench. It would be nice to get another catcher for Iowa so Lalli could DH a bit.