The final entry in our tour of the minor leagues takes us to Des Moines and the Cubs AAA franchise for the past 30 years, the Iowa Cubs. Only the Omaha Royals and the Pawtucket Red Sox have had a longer relationship with their parent club than Iowa has had with the Cubs.
This report is going to be a little bit shorter than the other ones. The main reason for this is that I don't think most of you need and introduction to players like Micah Hoffpauir, Sam Fuld or Bobby Scales. And if any of you need to be filled in on the Iowa Cubs' manager, then I suggest you check out this site. And stay there.
The Iowa Cubs play in the Pacific Coast League. Deal with it. They're in a division with Omaha, Memphis and Nashville, if that makes you feel any better. Last year they finished the season at an even .500: 72-72.
The manager of the I-Cubs this season is Ryne Sandberg. Sandberg is starting his fourth season managing in the Cubs system. He spent two years in Peoria before managing Tennessee last season. No one associated with the Cubs has said so, but it is generally assumed that Ryno will become the next manager of the Chicago Cubs when Sweet Lou decides to retire.
Helping Sandberg out this season is hitting coach Von Joshua and pitching coach Mike Mason. This will be Joshua's fifth season as the I-Cubs hitting coach. He was the hitting coach in Chicago for the second half of last season. Mike Mason is starting his third season as the I-Cubs pitching coach. He served as an interim pitching coach for the Kansas City Royals in 2004.
To sum up the Iowa Cubs in one word, I'd say Ready. With one notable exception, there aren't any top prospects on the I-Cubs this season. But there are a lot of guys who are ready to fill in whenever a hole opens up in Chicago. Some of them are young guys who may not be top ten prospect material, but still have some skill and could end up as major league regulars or important reserves. Others are veterans who have played in the majors and are just looking for another shot. But remember, last season Randy Wells wasn't considered a top prospect either. Every once in a while, one of the guys you expect to just be an injury fill-in actually turns out to be pretty good.
Rosters after the break.
We'll start with the pitching staff for the I-Cubs because the one top prospect on the team is starting pitcher Jay Jackson. Jackson is the fifth-ranked prospect in the Cubs system this year, according to Baseball America. He's got four good pitches, but his best is a 93-94 mph fastball with good movement and command. His slider and curve have the potential to be plus pitches as well. He just needs to learn to throw them for strikes a little more often. Once he does that, he'll be ready for Chicago. A part-time outfielder at Furman, he loves to hit as well as pitch.
Last season's Iowa Cubs pitcher of the year was lefty J.R. Mathes. He was 12-8 with a 3.62 ERA. Mathes is 28 and is starting his fourth season with the Iowa Cubs, so he's mostly just organizational depth.
Mitch Atkins was supposed to be the guy who came up from Iowa last season and stepped in when there was an opening in Chicago. But he was off to a miserable start so Randy Wells got the call instead. You know the rest of the story. Atkins did get in two innings of shutout relief with the Cubs last July, but that was the highlight of his year. He went 8-12 with a 6.58 ERA for Iowa. The big issue was the 26 home runs he surrendered. He was considered a pretty good prospect before last year with the stuff to maybe be a #3 starter in the majors. If he pitches well this season, his 2009 will be forgotten, although he might be ticketed for the bullpen now.
Mike Parisi pitched for the Cardinals in 2008 and the Cubs took him in the Rule 5 draft this off-season. He was returned to the Cardinals, but was allowed to declare free agency, which he did. He then re-signed with the Cubs and reported to Iowa.
Casey Coleman doesn't have the best stuff, but he really makes the most of it. He's the son and grandson of all-star major league pitchers. His dad pitched briefly for the Cubs in 1976 and has been the pitching coach for both the Cardinals and the Angels. As you might expect from the son of a pitching coach, Coleman's a smart pitcher.
Blake Parker returns as the I-Cubs closer. He's another converted catcher who had 25 saves and 58 strikeouts in 51 innings. He needs to cut down on the walks (27 last year) before he gets the call to Chicago. But he could be pretty good if he does. Righty Brian Schlitter moves up after being the closer for Tennessee last year. His best pitch is his slider.
Right-hander Jeff Stevens and lefty John Gaub both came to the Cubs in the Mark DeRosa trade. Stevens pitched OK in Chicago last season, although a couple of ugly outings gave him a nasty ERA. Gaub was very good last year for Iowa, but a bad spring training meant a trip to Des Moines this spring rather than Chicago. He doesn't have a strong platoon split, so his role is more of a setup man rather than a situational lefty.
Jeff Gray pitched effectively down the stretch for Oakland last year. The Cubs got him in the Jake Fox trade. The Cubs claimed Thomas Diamond on waivers from the Rangers last September. Lefty Scott Maine pitched well last season in the Diamondbacks organization. He came over in the Aaron Heilman trade.
You're going to see a lot of familiar faces on the I-Cubs this year. Sam Fuld and Jason Dubois will be in the outfield, Bobby Scales all over the infield and Micah Hoffpauir will be playing first base.
Brad Snyder will join Fuld and Dubois in the outfield. Snyder is a left-handed hitting minor league veteran with good power. James Adduci is also the son of a major leaguer. He's a very similar player to Sam Fuld, but three years younger. I doubt Jessica will accept any substitutes, however.
One interesting player in the infield is third baseman Marquez Smith. Smith was a teammate of Tyler Colvin's at Clemson. Last season, he hit .278 with 15 home runs between Daytona and Tennessee. He can play second base in a pinch. He's already 25 so there's not a lot of upside there, but if he can turn some of the 35 doubles he hit last year into home runs, he could be a valuable player on a major league bench.
Shortstop Darwin Barney isn't flashy, but he gets the job done. He's someone who could hit for a decent average in the majors, although he doesn't have much power or speed. In a lot of organizations, he'd be the top SS prospect, but he's buried behind Castro and Lee in the Cubs' blueprint for the future. A trade would benefit both him and the Cubs, although he's not likely to bring back a lot on his own.
Utility infielder Matt Camp is back for a second season in Iowa. He hit .282 last year for Iowa with 18 stolen bases. He'll provide the I-Cubs daily dose of scrappiness.
Left-handed hitting first baseman Bryan LaHair hit .289 with 26 home runs and a .354 OBP for Tacoma last season. The Cubs signed him over the off-season after Seattle released him. He's starting his fourth straight season in the PCL, but he does have some pop in his bat. He reminds me of Micah Hoffpauir.
Catcher Chris Robinson returns to the I-Cubs after hitting .326 and being named the I-Cubs MVP. Robinson might get the call to Chicago if there's an injury to Soto or Hill. Welington Castillo had been a top prospect in the organization before last year. But he hit a miserable .232 with a .275 OBP for Tennessee. He did have 11 home runs, so that was good. If his hitting bounces back, he'll be back on the prospect radar screens again.