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Get to know the Iowa Cubs

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The Cubs Triple-A affiliate has a mix of familiar faces and players new to the organization.

Zack Short
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

We finish our previews of the four full-season Cubs affiliates with their Triple-A affiliate, the Iowa Cubs or the “I-Cubs” as they are often called.

I’m just copying and pasting this paragraph from my other previews and then modifying it slightly, but I want to encourage you to see one of the minor league affiliates this summer or, barring that, a different minor league team closer to where you live. Minor League Baseball is a terrific value and most teams find something fun for everyone in the family to do. Admittedly, sometimes the actual game can get a little lost among all the promotions and such, but the players take the game very seriously and you can see some terrific ball there every day of the season. (Maybe some not-so-terrific ball too, but that can be entertaining as well.)

If you want to follow every game, there is milb.tv, the minor league equivalent of mlb.tv. For $50, you can watch every home game of the Cubs top five affiliates and many of the road games as well. (A lot of teams are offering $10 off coupons as well. Here’s one from the Durham Bulls.) More and more of the games are being broadcast in high-definition as well.

Also be sure to check out my previews of the South Bend Cubs, the Myrtle Beach Pelicans and the Tennessee Smokies.

And I apologize for this preview coming out the day after the I-Cubs season started, but the team only announced their Opening Night roster about six hours before they took the field and my schedule and the site’s schedule prevented me from finishing before the season started.

Who? The Iowa Cubs have been the Cubs Triple-A affiliate since 1981. Among Triple-A teams, only the Omaha Storm Chasers (Royals) and Pawtucket Red Sox have had a longer affiliation. It’s the highest level of Minor League Baseball and players in Iowa will frequently be promoted to the majors throughout the season, often for just a few games before returning. This is informally known around here as the “Iowa Shuttle” or the “Des Moines Shuttle,” referring to the commuter flights these players use to get to Chicago.

The Iowa Cubs play at Principal Park in Des Moines.

The Iowa Cubs play in the Pacific Coast League. This name bothers a lot of people, but just deal with it. It’s a long story. The Iowa Cubs play in the PCL American Conference Northern Division with Omaha, the Memphis Redbirds (Cardinals) and the Nashville Sounds (Rangers). This is a change from last year as Oklahoma City and San Antonio (formerly Colorado Springs) join the Southern Division and Memphis and Nashville join the Northern Division.

Finally, if there’s a player who I haven’t mentioned in the four previews and you’re wondering where they are, the answer to your question is most likely “Extended Spring Training.” Either the player is hurt, they got a late start to Spring Training and aren’t in game shape yet or the Cubs are holding the player back until Eugene starts in June.

Who are the top prospects? Does Ian Happ count? What about right-handed pitcher Adbert Alzolay? Alzolay is expected to pitch for Iowa in May but is starting the season in Extended Spring Training.

The best of the prospects who are still prospects are a pair of late-round infielders from the 2016 draft. Shortstop Zack Short was the Cubs’ 17th-round pick that year out of Sacred Heart. Short combines a strong glove with good on-base skills and surprising power. I ranked him as the Cubs’ eighth-best prospect this winter.

“Stat Guys” have always liked Short, who hit 17 home runs and had a .356 on-base percentage in Double-A Tennessee last year. Scouts are more dubious, pointing out that Short struck out 136 times in 436 ABs last summer. They think Short’s approach at the plate is going to get exposed as he faces better pitching. This summer in Iowa will be a fascinating test between the two evaluations. But even if the scouts are right and Short struggles to hit in Triple-A, his glove is good enough to get him to the majors as a backup.

The Cubs took second baseman Trent Giambrone in the 25th round out of Delta State in 2016. Giambrone has drawn a lot comparisons to David Bote recently. Both are second baseman who can play a variety of other positions. Both saw a big surge in power in Double-A as a 24-year-old. Giambrone is smaller, quicker and has a slightly-better glove than Bote. Bote has more power and will hit for a higher average. I ranked GIambrone as the Cubs’ 12th-best prospect this offseason and clearly Giambrone is going to try to follow Bote’s path to the majors this year.

Who are the coaches? Marty Pevey is returning for his seventh season as the manager of the Iowa Cubs. That’s a record for the franchise and Pevey is already the winningest manager in I-Cubs history with a record of 404-448. He’s been a manager or a coach for 23 years, mostly in the Cubs and Blue Jays organizations. He played 13 major league games with the Expos in 1989.

Rod Nichols is back for his fourth season as the I-Cubs pitching coach and his 20th season overall of coaching. Nichols pitched in the majors from 1988 to 1993 and again in 1995, mostly with the Indians.

The first hitting coach is Desi Wilson, and he’s back for his third season as the Iowa hitting coach. He’s been a coach in the Cubs system for 12 years. He played 11 seasons in the minor leagues and had 41 games in the majors with the Giants in 1996.

The only newcomer to the I-Cubs coaching staff is the other hitting coach, Keoni DeRenne. DeRenne played eight seasons in the minors and three in independent ball. He’s spent the last three seasons as a coach in the Pirates system, most recently with the Double-A Altoona Curve.

Who are the pitchers? Duncan Robinson got the Opening Night start and the fact that he’s a “pitchability” right-hander from Dartmouth means he gets compared to Kyle Hendricks a lot. His pitching arsenal is different from Hendricks (he doesn’t have that changeup, but who does?) but Robinson has certainly studied Hendricks to see how he uses location and pitch selection to retire hitters without overpowering velocity.

If it seems like tonight’s scheduled starter Duane Underwood Jr. has been around forever, it’s only because he’s been around since 2012. Underwood finally made his major league debut last season with a four-inning start at Dodger Stadium. He’s still only 24, so the game hasn’t passed him by yet. But he doesn’t seem likely to live up the promise of his early years. If he does find success, it might come in the bullpen.

Matt Swarmer lead the Cubs’ minor league system in strikeouts last season and won the Cubs’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year award after going 9-8 with a 3.22 ERA between Myrtle Beach and Tennessee. Swarmer’s ceiling is another back-of-the-rotation starter, but maybe everyone is selling him short. The results from last year seem to indicate there’s more there but he’ll need to repeat those number in Iowa to convince people that they were for real.

You may remember Colin Rea from his time with the Padres. You may also remember he was involved in a famous deal between the Padres and Marlins that got reversed when it turned out that Rea needed Tommy John surgery and the Marlins felt the Padres hid that information from them. Rea is an Iowa native and signed with the Cubs as a free agent this winter partially so that he could play close to home. He’s made 25 starts in the majors, so he’s injury insurance for the Cubs’ rotation. Lefty Kyle Ryan is also back for his second season in Iowa.

The bullpen has a lot of familiar names. Dillon Maples is back in Des Moines with his electric stuff, still trying to throw strikes. James Norwood throws heat and also needs to throw more strikes.

Perhaps the most interesting pitcher in the bullpen is right-hander Dakota Mekkes. Despite being 6’7”, Mekkes doesn’t really throw hard. Instead, he uses his unusual delivery to fool hitters and his long frame to release the ball closer to home, making his low-90s fastball play a lot faster. He could be a major factor in the major league bullpen if he shows some success in Iowa.

Right-hander Matt Carasiti is back in Iowa after a season in Japan. The Cubs got right-hander Rowan Wick from the Padres for Jason Vosler this winter. I probably don’t have to tell you about left-handers Brian Duensing or Tim Collins. The Cubs re-signed Allen Webster to a minor-league deal this winter.

Who are the catchers? The honorary mayor of Des Moines, Taylor Davis, is back for his fifth season in Iowa. That’s just two seasons short of Micah Hoffpauir’s team record. Davis had his best year at the plate last year, hitting .275/.348/.360 and was 1 for 4 with a double in the majors.

Francisco Arcia played 40 games with the Angels last summer and is the only other catcher currently on the roster.

Who are the infielders?

Short and Giambrone are joined by three players who are new to the Cubs’ organization and the return of one old friend. Dixon Machado has played 172 games for the Detroit Tigers over the past four seasons, mostly at second and short. Phillip Evans has been in the Mets organization since 2011 and played 34 games in the majors over the past two years. Cristhian Adames played for the Marlins Triple-A team last year after ten years in the Rockies organization, including 166 games in the majors, mostly in 2016.

Finally, first baseman Jim Adduci rejoins the organization after playing in the Cubs system from 2007 to 2012, including two years in Iowa. Adduci has 149 games of major league experience and also spent two years playing in Korea’s KBO.

Who are the outfielders?

There’s Happ, for now, at least. There are two more outfielders who are new to the Cubs and one more returning player. Johnny Field made his major league debut last year, playing 62 games with the Rays. After being designated for assignment, he ended up with the Twins where he played 13 more major league games. Now he’ll play for Iowa. Zach Borenstein is from Arlington Heights and has played for the Angels, Diamondbacks and Mets in his eight-year minor league career.

Finally, Donnie Dewees returns to the Cubs, two seasons after they traded their 2015 second-round pick to the Royals for Alec Mills. In March, the Cubs traded right-hander Stephen Ridings to KC to get Dewees back. Dewees hit .258/.310/.383 with 16 steals between Double-A and Triple-A in 2018.

When does the season start? The season started Thursday with a 5-4 win in Nashville over the Sounds. The I-Cubs home opener is this Tuesday, April 9 against New Orleans.