The fourth and final preview of the Cubs full-season minor league teams is the Iowa Cubs, the team's Triple-A franchise in the Pacific Coast League. The Cubs and Des Moines have been together since 1981 and will be together through at least 2018. Only three full-season minor league teams have a longer affiliation with one team. And because there aren't many White Sox fans in Iowa, there's likely a greater percentage of Cubs fans in Des Moines than even in Chicago. This is Cubs country.
I'll also make one last plea to follow me on Twitter at @Cubsminorswrap, where I'll be giving updates on the Cubs games whenever I'm listening, which is most days. Not every game. I do have a family.
The Iowa Cubs play in Principal Park, which was built on the site of the old stadium in 1992. It received major renovations in 2005 and 2006 and a brand new clubhouse in 2013. Despite being located in the second-smallest city in the Pacific Coast League, the Iowa Cubs consistently rank among the top six in PCL attendance.
All of the Iowa Cubs games are available for streaming on milb.tv, although you will have to put up with the road announcers for road games. But for home games, you get the call of Randy Wehofer, who has been calling the I-Cubs games since 2008 and is very good at it. You can always listen to Wehofer for free at iowacubs.com or milb.tv.
I used to say the Iowa Cubs weren't a must-watch team because under Jim Hendry, the team was mostly a taxi squad of major- and minor-league veterans who could be called up to fill in a hole at the major league level and then sent back down without worry. Hendry would often promote top prospects direct from Double-A or give them just a short cup of coffee in Des Moines. But now, Theo Epstein and company like to have the prospects spend at least some time mastering Triple-A before getting called up. (Yes, I know Kris Bryant was an exception, getting only a couple games in Iowa in before getting called up. Kris Bryant is an exception to a lot of things.) There are still some major league veterans here, but there are also some young prospects.
Iowa kicks off the minor league season this afternoon at 3:08, taking on the Round Rock Express. So it's already started. You can read this while you follow the game.
Coaches: The Iowa Cubs will be managed for the fourth-straight season by Marty Pevey. Pevey has been in the Cubs system since 2010 and has managed a total of 14 seasons in the minor leagues and has put in 33 years total in professional baseball. Before joining the Cubs in 2010, Pevey had served on the major league coaching staff of the Blue Jays, including as their third- and first-base coach between 2006 to 2008.
Brian Harper returns as the hitting coach for the fourth-straight season as well. He's previously managed the Daytona Cubs and Tennessee Smokies. If you're old enough, you probably remember Harper as the starting catcher for the 1991 World Champion Minnesota Twins. Joining Harper as his assistant hitting coach for the second-straight season is Leo Perez. Perez was a catcher in the Cubs minor league system from 2003 to 2008.
The only new member of the coaching staff this season is pitching coach Rod Nichols, who was the bullpen coach for the Phillies last season. Before that, Nichols spent 8 seasons as a pitching coach in the Phillies system. Nichols had a seven-year major league career in the late-80s and early-90s, primarily with Cleveland.
Shane Nelson is the trainer and Sean Folan is the strength and conditioning coach.
Pitchers: I'm not going to go into as much depth on the players on the Iowa Cubs as I did with the other teams because, for the most part, you're already familiar with most of them. The Opening Day start goes to Ryan Williams, the reigning Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year. Williams stuff isn't any more than average, but his command and control can be plus-plus at times. He's been a pleasant surprise ever since he started his minor league career and he could end up as a valuable major league starter in the style of Kyle Hendricks.
The game two start goes to Stephen Fife, who signed with the Cubs as a minor league free agent over the winter. Fife made 16 starts for the Dodgers between 2012 and 2014 and has a major league career ERA of 3.66.
The game three start will be handled by left-hander Eric Jokisch, whom you probably remember from his 2014 stint with the major league team. The start in game four goes to Drew Rucinski, another player signed as a minor league free agent after two seasons pitching in Southern California, this time for the Angels. Rucinski pitched for Rockford in the independent Frontier League in 2012 and 2013 before the Angels discovered him.
The game five starter hasn't been announced, but I'm guessing (hoping) it is Pierce Johnson. Johnson had been a top prospect in the Cubs system since they drafted him in the compensation round in 2012. (For losing Aramis Ramirez, actually) For the first time, Johnson took a step backwards last year. He missed the first half of the season with hamstring issues and when he did pitch in the second-half, his velocity was down and his command was poor. His ERA was still good, but much of that was the product of an unnaturally-low batting average on balls in play.
It is possible that if Johnson is still struggling with his hamstring, that he would start the season in the bullpen. In that case, or if they go with a six-man rotation, Felix Pena is likely to be other starter. Pena had a good season in Double-A Tennessee last season, going 7-8 with a 3.75 ERA over 23 starts and two relief appearances. Pena also struck out more than a batter an inning last year.
The ace of the Cubs bullpen will be another top prospect, Carl Edwards Jr. Edwards is still skinny, still throws hard and still has a wicked curve. Barring an injury, I'd be shocked if Edwards doesn't spend some time at Wrigley Field this summer.
Other right-handed pitchers coming out of the pen will be Armando Rivero, Jean Machi, Spencer Patton and Brandon Gomes. Left-handers will be Scott Barnes and C.J. Riefenhauser.
Catcher: All eyes will be on the reigning Southern League batting champion, Willson Contreras. The Cubs number two prospect in most rankings, Contreras is out to prove that his monster 2015 season, when he was named Cubs Minor League Player of the Year, was no fluke. He also just needs to develop some consistency in his skills behind the plate.
Backing up Contreras is Tim Federowicz, who has played 89 games in the majors with the Dodgers.
Infielders: First baseman Dan Vogelbach. Need I say more? Obviously Vogelbach's task this season will be to stay healthy and to live up to his potential as a hitter. Then get traded. (We seriously love Vogelbach, but no one is under any illusion that he's going to take the first base job away from Anthony Rizzo.)
Second baseman Arismendy Alcantara is back after a miserable 2015 season when he hit only .235 with 12 home runs in 120 games. Alcantara has a world of talent. It's up to him to get it back on track this year. He's still only 24 years old.
Infielder Logan Watkins returns to Iowa after missing all of last season with a torn Achilles tendon in spring training. Kristopher Negron joins the I-Cubs after spending parts of the past two seasons with the Reds.
And then there is Munenori Kawasaki, who doesn't like ghosts. If you can't have fun watching Munenori Kawasaki, then you can't have fun.
Outfielders: Other than maybe Contreras, no one at Iowa will get more attention that center fielder Albert Almora. You saw the plays he made in Spring Training: He's a magician in center field. Most guys who are that good in center have blazing speed, but Almora makes the plays by reading the ball almost instantaneously and taking perfect routes to the ball. He's also good at just making the catch. Now he just has to hit.
Matt Murton returns to Principal Park after last playing there in 2008. Of course, he had a very successful career in Japan in the meantime. Ryan Kalish returns to Iowa after missing all of last season with injuries.
John Andreoli had a good season last year in Iowa (.277/.372/.401 with 33 steals) and a good Spring Training. But it's hard to crack the Cubs lineup this year, so Andreoli returns to Iowa. Juan Perez played in parts of the past three seasons with the Giants and even played in six of the seven World Series games in 2014. He signed a minor league deal with the Cubs this winter.
And now: Play Ball!