The fourth and final installment of our tour of the Cubs four full-season minor league affiliates takes us to the Iowa Cubs, the Cubs long-time Triple-A affiliate in the Pacific Coast League. The I-Cubs have been the Cubs highest farm team since 1981, which is one of the longest continuous affiliations in the minor leagues. Among Triple-A teams, only the Royals’ Omaha affiliate and the Red Sox Pawtucket affiliations have gone on longer. (The Phillies Double-A affiliate in Reading holds the record, having a continuous relationship since 1967.)
I’ve already written a piece on why you should go see a Cubs minor league game and how to do it.
Iowa’s season starts later this afternoon with a doubleheader at 3:08 p.m. CT, as the I-Cubs have already postponed Sunday’s game because of a bad weather forecast and they’ll play the doubleheader today instead.
Who’s in charge?: Once again, there wasn’t a lot of shakeup in the Cubs coaching system this year and manager Marty Pevey returns for his sixth-straight season leading the I-Cubs. He’s two wins shy of the all-time Iowa Cubs franchise record of 356 for wins by a manager and also two wins shy of 1000 for his managerial career total. He’s been a coach or a manager for the past 22 seasons and played 13 games as a catcher for the Expos in 1989.
Rod Nichols returns as the pitching coach for the third straight year and his 19th year as a minor league pitching coach. As a pitcher, he’s best known for his stint as a swingman for the Indians from 1988 to 1992. He also pitched on the major-league level for the Dodgers and Braves.
Desi Wilson returns for his second season as the I-Cubs hitting coach. It’s Wilson’s 11th season coaching in the Cubs system. He played 41 games for the Giants back in 1996.
Finally, everyone here should recognize the I-Cubs new assistant hitting coach, Chris Valaika. Valaika played for the I-Cubs in 2014 and 2015 and played 44 games for the Chicago Cubs in 2014. He also played for the Reds and Marlins in his ten-year professional career.
Pitching: Let’s start out with who isn’t here. Cubs top prospect Adbert Alzolay (according to me, anyway. Baseball America has him ranked second.) is starting the season in Extended Spring Training. He got a late start to Spring Training because of a lower leg issue and the Cubs do not feel he has built up the arm strength yet to pitch a full game. The Cubs do insist his health is currently fine (and Alzolay himself confirmed this on Twitter) and while the Cubs have not decided where he is going to start the season, Iowa is a pretty good guess. The I-Cubs are certainly hoping he’ll be in Des Moines in two weeks and even if he isn’t, they feel he will be there shortly thereafter. If anything, this will keep him out of the cold and snow.
The best pitcher who is here is right-hander Jen-Ho Tseng, whom Baseball America ranked as the No. 11 prospect in the Cubs system and I had as No. 10. You probably saw Tseng pitch for the Cubs last September and if you did, you know he’s a changeup specialist who likes to work around the zone and can get into trouble if his command is off. But when his command is on, he can keep hitters off-balance and induce weak contact. If the Cubs need to bring up a starter from Iowa, he’s likely to be the first one on their call sheet.
Joining Tseng in the I-Cubs rotation will be right-hander Alec Mills, who was supposed to be a key contributor last season but he missed most of 2017 with bone spurs and an ankle injury. When Mills is healthy, he relies on a low-90s sinking fastball and a low-80s change. BA ranked him as the Cubs’ No. 28 prospect and I had him all the way up at No. 14, based on perhaps an optimistic belief that his injury issues are behind him. Again, he’s a guy who could fill in with the Chicago Cubs if a starting pitcher hits the disabled list.
Duane Underwood Jr. has been on the prospect radar so long that it’s easy to overlook him. But the right-hander is getting his first crack at Triple-A this spring after going 13-7 with a 4.43 ERA over 138 innings and 24 starts in Tennessee last year. The most encouraging part of his 2017 campaign was that he managed to stay healthy and he handled a heavy workload. Baseball America has Underwood as their No. 19 Cubs prospect.
Right-hander Luke Farrell is likely to also be in the I-Cubs starting rotation. For a scouting report on Farrell, Al went and asked the man who has known him the longest and best, former Red Sox manager John Farrell, who also happens to be his dad.
Q. John, can you give your personal scouting report on your son Luke who is now in the Cubs organization?
JOHN FARRELL: You know what, a guy that I think has handled so much change. Four different organizations last year. He was in the transaction turnstyle from getting claimed so many times.
But I think someone who has an idea of himself as a pitcher, an improving breaking ball, average velocity. But the versatility to be a swing guy, pitch out of the bullpen or in a starting role and hopefully that opportunity knocks.
But I think a guy that’s starting to come into his own, and more than anything knows what his limitations are as a pitcher.
The other pitcher that most fans are going to have their eye on is right-handed reliever Dillon Maples, who got a cup of coffee in Chicago last season and is BA’s No. 15 Cubs prospect and my 13th-best prospect. If you saw him pitch last September, you know he has electric stuff and problems controlling it. If he can improve his control even a little bit, he could be a valuable asset in the Cubs bullpen in the years going forward.
Left-handed reliever Rob Zastryzny returns to Iowa after a shaky 2017 season. He’ll look to return to his 2016 form that got him on the National League Championship Series roster. (He got to warm up in the Dodger Stadium bullpen a lot.)
Journeyman left-hander Michael Roth has had brief stints in the majors with both the Angels and Rangers. He will likely round out the Iowa rotation until Alzolay shows up. Right-hander Shea Simmons pitched in the majors for the Braves in 2014 and 2016 and with the Mariners last season. Right-hander Anthony Bass signed with the Cubs as a free agent this winter. He’s pitched for the Rangers last season and has also had bullpen stints with the Astros and Padres.
Right-hander Brad Markey has worked his way up the Cubs system one step at a time since being drafted in the 19th round in 2014. He got 17.2 innings with Iowa last year and struck out 14 and walked just one, posting a 2.04 ERA after his promotion from Double-A. He did get tagged for three home runs though.
Right-hander Justin Hancock returns after coming over from the Padres system in exchange for Matt Szczur. Left-hander Randy Rosario got a cup of coffee with the Twins last year, although it didn’t go well. Fellow lefty Alberto Baldonado signed with the Cubs as a minor-league free agent after seven years in the Mets system.
Catchers: You should be familiar with two of the three catchers for Iowa at the start of the season. Chris Gimenez reported to Iowa after losing out on the backup catcher spot to Victor Caratini. If Caratini doesn’t get enough playing time in Chicago, they could reverse roles.
Taylor Davis made his major-league debut last September after seven years in the Cubs system. He’s a real fan favorite and not just for his viral “staring” video that got him on SportsCenter and other national attention. Although that staring video certainly helped establish his fame.
The third catcher is Ali Solis, who returns to Iowa after hitting .253/.298/.392 last season.
Infielders: Second baseman David Bote is the position player on the I-Cubs most likely to attract the most attention. He’s transformed himself from an organization player to real prospect over the past two seasons and turned a lot of heads during Spring Training. Bote was ranked by BA as the Cubs’ No. 12 prospect and I had him at No. 19. The right-handed hitting Bote makes his Triple-A debut after hitting .270/.351/.436. He’s a good defensive second baseman, but with the Cubs, at least, he’s most likely to be a utility player who can fill in everywhere. In his minor league career, he’s played every position but catcher. (Yes, he’s pitched five games.)
Infielders Chesny Young and Stephen Bruno are both former favorites of mine that have stalled out in Triple-A, which is a danger for players with their skill set that relies on making a lot of contact and not a lot of power. Both will look to turn their careers around and become potential major league utility players again.
You probably remember third baseman Ryan Court from Spring Training. He signed as a free agent this winter after a minor league career with the Diamondbacks and Red Sox. You probably also remember shortstop Mike Freeman from his stint in Chicago last September and Spring Training. First baseman Efren Navarro comes to the Cubs from the Tigers organization. He has a major league career line of .243/.306/.377 with three home runs in 153 games with the Angels and Tigers from 2013 to 2017.
Outfielders: Welcome back Jacob Hannemann! The Cubs third-round pick in 2013 had consistently been a top-30 prospect in the Cubs system until he became caught up in the roster merry-go-round last season and was placed on waivers and claimed by the Mariners. He had three hits, including one home run, in 20 at-bats with the Mariners last September in his major-league debut. After the season, Seattle put Hannemann back on waivers and the Cubs claimed him back. Hannemann hit .265/.324/.404 with five home runs and 23 steals for the I-Cubs last year.
The top prospect among Iowa outfielders remains left fielder Mark Zagunis, whom I’ve nicknamed “The Greek Demigod of Walks.” Zagunis has some incredible strike zone judgement and at least average power. But he doesn’t run well anymore and his arm and range limit him to left field. BA has Zagunis as the Cubs’ No. 20 prospect and I ranked him as number 15.
Zagunis made his major league debut last summer and it didn’t go well, going 0 for 14, although he did draw four walks and steal four bases. His season ended early after a broken hand in August. He hit .267/.404/.455 with 13 home runs in 97 games in Iowa before the injury. Zagunis can help a major league team with his on-base percentage, but those numbers are not going to allow him to break into the Cubs crowded outfield. He’s looking to have a breakout season and get traded to a second-division team that can afford him more patience on the major league level. He’s likely to reward some team’s patience with even more patience.
Right fielder Bijan Rademacher is entering his seventh season in the Cubs system. Last year in Iowa, he hit .294/.375/.436 with seven home runs in 289 at-bats. That’s not bad, but again, that’s not going to force his way into the Cubs outfield. Center fielder Wynton Bernard rounds out the Iowa outfield. He joins the Cubs system after a minor league career with the Padres and Giants.
When?: As noted above, the I-Cubs season starts this afternoon at 3:08 CT with a doubleheader. All games, home and away, are available on milb.tv. The road games are of varying video quality, but the I-Cubs video team are among the best in the minor leagues. If you sign up for milb.tv, you’ll get a very watchable game for every I-Cubs home game.
The big change is that longtime I-Cubs broadcaster Randy Wehofer has decided to leave the booth for a front office job with Iowa that requires far less travel. The new voice of the I-Cubs is Alex Cohen, who comes over from the Bowling Green Hot Rods. You can listen to his radio call for free at iowacubs.com.
Finally, remember that when you are watching the Iowa Cubs, catcher Taylor Davis is also watching you.