The final stop in our preview tour of the Cubs minor league system is the long-time Cubs Triple-A affiliate, the Iowa Cubs. The Iowa Cubs have been the Cubs top affiliate since 1981. As a point of reference, the Wrigleys still owned the team then. Pat Tabler was probably the best player on that team. That isn’t the longest affiliation in the minors — The Kansas City Royals have had their Triple-A team in Omaha since they entered the league in 1969, for example — but it’s in the top five.
The Iowa Cubs have been known as the I-Cubs since long before Apple decided that putting the letter “I” in front of something made it cool. So the I-Cubs were cool before their time.
Iowa starts their season tonight in Oklahoma City against the Dodgers. After a five game series there, they open their home schedule on Tuesday against the New Orleans Baby Cakes. (Really. That’s their name now.)
Des Moines is the Paris of Central Iowa and don’t let anyone tell you differently.
Who? The I-Cubs are managed for the fifth-straight season by Marty Pevey, another minor league baseball lifer who has been in the professional game continuously since he was drafted by the Twins in 1982. He got to play 13 games in the majors with the Expos in 1989. If Iowa wins 69 games this season, he’ll be the winningest-manager in Iowa history.
Pitching coach Rod Nichols returns for his second straight year with the I-Cubs. Previous to that, he served as the Phillies bullpen coach. He primarily pitched for the Indians in his major league career from 1988 to 1995.
Desi Wilson and Mariano Duncan are the co-hitting coaches. Wilson returns to Iowa after having held the same job in Tennessee the past four seasons. He’s been coaching in the Cubs system for ten years now and was previously the hitting coach in Iowa for part of the 2009 season. He played 41 games with the Giants in 1996.
Duncan has been the hitting coach in High-A for the Pelicans and the Daytona Cubs for the past four seasons, and he’s been coaching in the Cubs system for the past ten seasons. You probably remember Duncan from his 13-year major league career between 1985 to 1997 that included one All-Star Game appearance.
Randy Wehofer and Deene Ehlis are the radio broadcast team.
The Pitchers: Most of you will be a lot more familiar with the Iowa Cubs pitching staff as many of them have pitched in Chicago or with other teams in the majors. Left-hander Rob Zastryzny is the 14th ranked prospect in the Cubs system according to Baseball America. Zastryzny looked sharp in his eight major league appearances last August and September and that got him a spot on the playoff roster for the National League Championship Series. He didn’t get into any games, but boy, did Joe Maddon have him warm up in the bullpen a lot. It doesn’t matter. He still gets a World Series ring.
Another I-Cubs pitcher getting a ring is right-hander Felix Peña, who pitched 11 games in the majors last August and September. The Cubs turned him into a full-time reliever last year and he has thrived in that role.
Another left-hander that you are likely familiar with is Zac Rosscup, who pitched for the Cubs from 2013 to 2015 but missed all of last season with a shoulder injury.
Jake Buchanan returns to Iowa after having spent most of the season there last year, but of course, he made one start for the Cubs against the Reds last September and got the win with five scoreless innings. Enjoy your World Series ring, Jake. You earned it.
Right-hander Ryan Williams was the Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2015 and looked to be on the fast track to the majors with his pinpoint control, but a shoulder injury ended his season last May. He’ll try to rebound this season.
Right-hander Pierce Johnson is another pitcher who is trying to bounce back from an injury-plagued 2016. However, the Cubs finally made the decision last year to turn him into a reliever, and it paid off as he was 3-0 with a 3.22 ERA with 35 strikeouts in 22 innings as a reliever in Iowa last year. (His stats as a starter were significantly less good than that.) The Cubs 19th-ranked prospect according to Baseball America, he returns to Iowa looking to build on those gains and make the major leagues for the first time in 2017.
The Cubs got Aaron Brooks from Oakland before last year in a trade for Chris Coghlan, but he managed to only pitch in five games for Iowa as he battled hip injuries all last year.
Lefty Jack Leathersich returns for a second season in Iowa. Baseball America ranks Leathersich as the 27th-best prospect in the Cubs system. He pitched in 17 games with the Mets in 2015.
I wrote about right-hander Alec Mills after the Cubs got him in trade for Donnie Dewees in February. Since then, Baseball America ranked Mills as the 22nd-best prospect in the Royals system. (Darn publishing schedules!)
Former Rockie Eddie Butler is someone I think has a real future with the major league team. Reliever Jose Rosario has a blazing 95-98 mph fastball and was ranked as the Cubs 19th best prospect by MLB Pipeline. He went 14 for 14 in save opportunities in the minors last season, including five saves in Iowa.
Former Mariners lefty David Rollins finally ends up in Iowa after the maddening game of roster jenga that he was subjected to over the winter. He was designated for assignment and claimed five times, including twice by the Cubs.
Right-hander Dylan Floro made his major league debut with the Rays last season. Right-hander Seth Frankoff was in the Dodgers system last year. Miguel Mejia returns to Iowa after having split time between there and Tennessee last year. He also pitched for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic.
The Outfielders: Mark Zagunis returns to Iowa after hitting .274/.360/.486 in half a season after being promoted from Tennessee. Zagunis has the best plate discipline in the system and he’s starting to show a little power as well, hitting 10 home runs in 101 games between the Smokies and Iowa. Zagunis is the Cubs sixth-best prospect according to Baseball America and fifth-best according to me.
John Andreoli burst onto the international stage last month as he hit three home runs in four games for Team Italy in the WBC. This is Andreoli’s third straight year in Iowa. Last year he hit .256/.374/.396 with 12 home runs and 43 steals last year. He certainly looks like he could help a team as a fourth or fifth outfielder. Maybe that team will be the Cubs.
Left-hander Bijan Rademacher is back for his second season in Iowa. He bats left-handed and hit .307 with ten home runs and a .385 OBP between Tennessee and Iowa. He’s another victim of the crowded Cubs outfield.
Todd Glaesmann signed with the Cubs as a minor-league free agent this past winter after playing in Double-A Mobile and Triple-A Reno in the Diamondbacks system last year. He can play all three outfield positions.
The Infielders: The top prospect on the Iowa Cubs this year is second baseman Ian Happ, who Baseball America ranked as the 63rd-best prospect in all of baseball this past offseason. Happ will likely play a lot of left field as well, and he’ll be ready to make his major league debut wherever if the Cubs have a vacancy. As most of you saw in Spring Training, Happ could be a really special hitter in the majors one day.
Second baseman Chesny Young has hit over .300 at every level he’s played. Last year in Tennessee, he hit .303/.376/.387 and was denied the Southern League batting title on a technicality. Young is another guy who is learning to play all over the diamond because he wants to play for the Cubs in the major leagues and he knows that there aren’t a lot of openings. Last season, he played every position but center field, pitcher and catcher. If someone gets injured, Young wants to be ready to step in no matter who it is. But for Iowa, he’s likely going to have to play a lot of shortstop. He is Baseball America’s 16th-best Cubs prospect coming into the season.
We’re all familiar with the story of Jeimer Candelario, whose bat is major-league ready and his glove probably is as well. Baseball America ranked him as the Cubs seventh-best prospect. But he’s a third baseman in a system that has Kris Bryant, so he’ll probably have to be traded to get his shot. Last year the switch-hitting Candelario hit .333/.417/.542 with nine home runs in Iowa. Yet he still couldn’t snare a September callup. At least he did get to play five games in the majors in July, so enjoy your World Series ring, Jeimer. I hope you get to show it off to all your new major league teammates after you get traded in July. But if Kris gets hurt, be ready.
Stephen Bruno returns to Iowa after an injury-plagued 2016 that saw him play just 35 games at three levels. Bruno has more power than Young, but he doesn’t hit for as high an average and he doesn’t have Young’s versatility, although he can play some third base.
The Catchers: I can make one promise: At least one of these guys is going to play in the major leagues this summer. Catchers get hurt and especially with the new 10-day disabled list, the Cubs are not going to hesitate to put Willson Contreras or Miguel Montero on the DL if they are banged up.
The most likely candidate to get the call is Victor Caratini, both because he’s the top prospect here (17th according to BA) and because he’s on the 40-man roster. The switch-hitting Caratini was outstanding at the plate last year in Tennessee, hitting .291/.375/.405 in 115 games. Defensively, he has not progressed as much as the Cubs would have liked, so that’s what he’s going to have to work on in Des Moines.
Taylor Davis returns for his third straight season in Iowa and as you might imagine, someone like Davis who spends that long in one place becomes a real fan favorite. He was impressive in Spring Training as a non-roster invitee this year, so maybe he’ll get a look in the majors this summer.
The Cubs signed veteran catcher Carlos Corporan this past winter to provide depth. He spent four seasons as a backup with the Astros from 2011 to 2014 and in 2015 with the Rangers. Ali Solis provides similar depth. He’s had cups of coffee with the Padres and Rays, although he has yet to record his first major league hit.
Next: The minor league season starts tonight! I’ll be doing the same daily recaps that I’ve been doing for 11 seasons now, so I’d appreciate it if you stopped by and checked it out. This year I’m going to have to be riffing off of team names like the Jumbo Shrimp, the Baby Cakes and the Wood Ducks. Also the Astros. That’s a really strange name.
Also, feel free to use this thread as a game thread if you want to post comments on minor league Opening Night tonight.