Today is the second and last of our two part series looking at the opening day rosters of the four Cubs full-season minor league teams. The theme for today is "Welcome Back."
Before anyone asks, Junior Lake is out with a rib injury. He's ticketed for Iowa when he returns.
Under the Hendry regime, the Iowa Cubs served as mostly a holding tank or taxi squad for veteran players who could fill holes immediately in case of an injury. Most real prospects stayed in Double-A getting regular playing time while the veterans spent most of the season traveling I-80. (OK, they actually took airplanes.) There is still some of that going on under Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, but there are more real prospects heading to Des Moines this summer.
You're likely very familiar with most of the players on the Iowa roster as 18 of them already have major-league experience, most of them with the Cubs. Only four are making their Triple-A debuts. The biggest names this year were two of the biggest names from last season, Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters. You know that Jackson has to work on making more contact before he gets another shot at Chicago. Vitters just fell apart in the majors last year after a fairly solid season in Iowa. He needs to work on consistency and focus probably more than anything else. Pitch selection is always an issue with Vitters.
Joining Jackson in the outfield are Darnell McDonald, Brian Bogusevic and Cubs minor league veteran Ty Wright. It was announced late yesterday that the Cubs have signed Iowa native Ryan Sweeney to a contract and he'll report to the I-Cubs as well.
Joining Vitters in the infield is one player from the Smokies last year who is actually a real live prospect: second baseman Logan Watkins. Watkins was the Cubs Minor League Player of the Year last year after hitting .281/.383/.422 with 28 steals. Watkins is a good athlete with a good glove and he really improved his OBP skills last year. His job this season is to build on those gains and hit left-handers better. He'll likely be in the majors sometime this season, either as a utility guy or a regular after an injury or trade. How well he hits lefties will probably determine his major league role.
The rest of the infield is mostly veterans with Brad Nelson, Edwin Maysonet and Tim Torres. Wes Darvill is only 21 and is the final infielder, but he struggled last season in Peoria. His promotion to Triple-A is likely just a roster move to fill a hole. The catchers are Luis Flores and J.C. Boscan. I think the Cubs were expecting that Steve Clevenger would be here, but it's a good problem for Iowa to have right now.
The pitching staff is more interesting although again, you're familiar with most of them. The rotation is headed by Chris Rusin who will be trying to build off his excellent spring training and his fellow left-hander Brooks Raley, who will try to forget his.
Right-handed starter Nick Struck was the Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year last year after going 14-10 with a 3.18 ERA over 155 innings with Tennessee. He could have a major league career, but the fact that he was left unprotected in the Rule 5 draft and no one took him should tell you something. Barret Loux comes over from the Rangers system (as a delayed result of the Geovany Soto trade) and profiles as a back-of-the-rotation starter or middle reliever. Drew Carpenter is the fifth starter, and he has pitched in the majors for part of every season since 2008.
Rafael Dolis, Casey Coleman, Jaye Chapman and Blake Parker are guys you are likely already know about and they'll anchor the bullpen. Jensen Lewis spent four years in the Indians bullpen before spending the last two years back in the minors.
The Iowa Cubs are managed by Marty Pevey, who has been the Cubs' minor league catching coordinator the past three seasons. He managed Peoria in 2007. Mike Mason returns for his sixth season as Iowa's pitching coach and Brian Harper is the new hitting coach after managing Daytona in 2012 and the Smokies in 2011.
Because there weren't many openings in Triple-A, the majority of the 2013 Smokies are veterans of the 2012 Smokies. The top two newcomers are also the top two prospects on the Smokies: third baseman Christian Villanueva and shortstop Arismendy Alcantara. Villanueva was the prize from the Rangers in the Ryan Dempster deal. He's a great glove third baseman with a solid hit tool. The big issue with Villanueva is whether he'll develop any power, or at least the type of power needed to be a regular third baseman. The Cubs love his makeup as did the Rangers. Reportedly the Rangers were reluctant to trade him, even though they were overloaded with third basemen, simply because they loved the example he set for his teammates.
Alcantara is a different story. He's got all the tools to be a major league shortstop and Baseball America reports that some scouts have compared him to Jimmy Rollins. But for some reason, he doesn't add up to the sum of his tools. He needs to develop focus, consistency and needs to stay healthy. Despite his tools, he made thirty-five errors in only eighty games last year. My personal opinion is that he seems to lack baseball instincts, which is a hard thing to define but you kind of know it when you see it. But that does seem like something he could develop.
Joining those two in the infield are first baseman "Big Bad" Justin Bour, who had 110 RBI for the Smokies last year, along Anthony Giansanti, who is making his Double-A debut despite only playing 36 games last year because of injuries. Elliot Soto struggled last season as the backup shortstop in Tennessee. He'll back up Alcantara this year. Jonathan Mota has been in the Cubs system since signing out of Venezuela in 2003. I assume he's a great teammate because you don't keep a guy around that long in the minors if he's not.
The Smokies outfield is all returning players from last year: Jae-Hoon Ha, Matt Szczur and Rubi Silva. Szczur's star dimmed a bit with the Smokies last season; he'll need to take a step forward this season. He still profiles as a leadoff hitter if he can put it all together. Ha is one of my favorite minor leaguers and the "HOON! HA!" chant follows him wherever he goes. If he has a major league future, it's likely as a defensive specialist fourth outfielder who rakes against lefties. In other words, he's the Korean Reed Johnson.
They'll be joined by Johermyn Chavez, who played in the Mariners system last year for the Smokies' hated rival, the Jackson Generals.
The pitchers in the bullpen are more interesting than the starters, led by Alberto Cabrera and Trey McNutt. A.J. Morris is making his Double-A debut after a very successful year in the Daytona bullpen. The Cubs got him from Washington for Tom Gorzelanny. Kevin Rhoderick, Frank Batista and Tony Zych are also relievers to watch and in case you were wondering what happened to Brian Schlitter, he's here in the Smokies bullpen.
Eric Jokisch is a crafty left-hander (are right-handers ever called "crafty"?) who was pretty successful in Tennessee last year with a 7-2 record and a 2.91 ERA over 17 starts.
Buddy Bailey returns as the Smokies manager this year; it's his third season overall as the Tennessee manager. His pitching coach is former Cub Jeff Fassero, who was Peoria's pitching coach last year, and Desi Wilson is the hitting coach. Wilson held the same job for Daytona last season.