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Cubs minor leagues: Get to know the Iowa Cubs

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The Cubs longtime Triple-A affiliate is competing in a new league this season.

Principal Park in Des Moines, home of the Iowa Cubs
Principal Park in Des Moines, home of the Iowa Cubs
Dylan Heuer

Our preview of the four Cubs minor league affiliates wraps up now with the Iowa Cubs, the Triple-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs. This preview will be a little shorter than the other three since many of these players have seen time in Chicago with the Cubs or with other other major league teams. Most of them got a lot of playing time in Spring Training in Mesa this year as well. I don’t think I need to explain who most of them are.

Who? The Iowa Cubs have been the Cubs’ Triple-A affiliate since 1981, which is the fourth-longest affiliation in baseball, behind only Reading (Double-A Phillies), Lakeland (Low-A Tigers) and Omaha (Triple-A Royals). They’ve been with the Cubs so long that this is now their third league that they’ve played in since joining up with the Cubs organization. From 1981 to 1997, they played in the American Association. From 1998 to 2019, they were a part of the Pacific Coast League.

Now after the lost 2020 season, the I-Cubs (as they’re called) are now a member of the new Triple-A East League. However, they will only be competing against the other six teams in the Triple-A East Midwest Division for 2021. So all of their games in 2021 will be against Omaha, St. Paul, Indianapolis, Columbus, Toledo and St. Paul. And even in that schedule, they’re going to be playing the vast majority of their games against Omaha, St. Paul and Indianapolis. This is a pandemic-related change in order to lower the amount of long-distance travel, but I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if some version of it continues into the 2022 season or beyond. Basically what I’m saying is that if you’re hoping to see the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp or the Gwinnett Stripers play in Des Moines, you may have a very long wait.

The I-Cubs play at Principal Park in Des Moines. They open up their schedule at home against Omaha tonight. Joe Biagini will get the Opening Night start for Iowa. The I-Cubs are selling tickets in which there are two empty seats to the left and the right of every individual group of people together and there is an empty row in front of and behind each group.

WHERE’S BRAILYN MARQUEZ? WHERE’S KOHL FRANKLIN?

As I mentioned in the Smokies preview, the Cubs are being pretty cautious about ramping up the innings for their pitchers after having missed the entire 2020 season. So Marquez, who was my number two prospect in the Cubs system, and Franklin, who I ranked at number six, are still in Mesa. I’d expect Marquez, who made his major league debut late last year, to arrive in Iowa in a few weeks when the Cubs feel he’s built up enough arm strength and stamina to pitch in games. Franklin might come to Iowa, but I think he’s more likely heading to Tennessee. Riley Thompson is another good pitching prospect who isn’t on anyone’s roster at the moment.

In any case, don’t worry if you don’t see your favorite prospect on any of the Opening Night rosters. They’re (probably) not injured. They’re just getting up to speed in Mesa.

Who is in charge?

Marty Pevey has been the manager of the I-Cubs since 2013. Pevey has become a bit of an Iowa institution and the affection between Pevey and the city of Des Moines is mutual. Last week at a beginning of the season press conference, Pevey said he’d move to Des Moines permanently if “it weren’t so daggun cold in the winter.” And yes, he said “daggun.”

Last summer (and this spring), he was one of the people in charge of the alternate site in South Bend. He’s been a manager or coach in the Cubs system since 2009. He first started managing in the Blue Jays system in 1996 and spent four non-consecutive years with Toronto in the majors as either a bullpen coach, a first base coach or a third-base coach. He was a catcher in the minors with the Twins, Cardinals, Expos, Blue Jays, Tigers and Mariners from 1982 to 1995. He got into 12 major league games with the Expos in 1989.

The pitching coach is Ron Villone, who has been a pitching coach in the Cubs system since 2012. He was the pitching coach for Tennessee in 2019 and was supposed to be Iowa’s pitching coach last year. Villone pitched in the majors from 1995 to 2009 for 12 different teams, but never the Cubs.

The hitting coach is Desi Wilson, who has been a hitting coach in the Cubs system since 2008 and for Iowa since 2017. He also had a short stint as Iowa’s hitting coach in 2009. Wilson played for six different organizations in the minor leagues from 1991 to 2002. He also played 41 games in the majors for the San Francisco Giants in 1996. Wilson also played 16 games for the Hanshin Tigers of NPB in 1998.

What in the world is the taxi squad? As part of the pandemic-related rules tweaks of 2021, each MLB team is allowed to carry up to five players as part of a major league taxi squad. As the rule works, the Chicago Cubs take the players on their taxi squad on road trips, so that they can be activated immediately if there is a player who tests positive for COVID or some other last-minute injury. When the Cubs are at home, these players are available to play for Iowa.

I assume who is on the taxi squad is going to change a lot as the season goes on, but right now the Cubs taxi squad is OF Cameron Maybin, LHP Kyle Ryan, RHP Keegan Thompson and infielder Ildemaro Vargas. Were they to add a fifth player, it would have to be a catcher under the rules. Hopefully you got the sense of how that worked when Thompson was activated over the weekend in Cincinnati.

Who are the top prospects? As you might guess, there aren’t a lot of top prospects on the Iowa Cubs at the moment if Brailyn Marquez is still in Mesa and Nico Hoerner and Justin Steele are in Chicago. (Although Hoerner no longer technically qualifies as a prospect.) Right now I’d rank RHP Cory Abbott as the top prospect in Iowa. I had him as the Cubs’ 15th-best prospect before the season starts.

Abbott, 25, was the Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year for 2019 and spent part of the time in South Bend at the alternate site in 2020 after he recovered from a shoulder injury in Spring Training. Abbott doesn’t throw with a lot of velocity with his fastball sitting in the low 90s. But he’s got a hard-breaking slider and a good curve. Abbott is basically in finishing school at Iowa. He needs to learn how to work hitters and keep them off balance so they don’t sit on any one pitch. He needs to develop his changeup and know how to use it. Once he masters all that, he’ll be set to go as a back-of-the-rotation major league starter.

RHP Dakota Mekkes, 26, has always been an interesting relief prospect with a good release that hides the ball until the last instant, so his fastball plays as faster than it is. Word has it that he’s added a mile or two onto that fastball so that it now sits in the 94-95 range. That will be something to look for this season.

RHP Michael Rucker, 27, showed some increase in velocity in 2019 when the Cubs moved him to the bullpen. He’s also got a solid curve and change. He could see some time in the major league bullpen this summer.

Catcher P.J. Higgins and infielder Trent Giambrone are the only two hitters for Iowa that really qualify as even marginal prospects at the moment. Higgins is a solid hitter and posted a line of .281/.349/.416 with ten home runs between Tennessee and Iowa in 2019. It looked for a while like Higgins, 27. might make the Cubs’ Opening Day roster by default, but the front office clearly doesn’t trust his defense and play-calling skills behind the plate yet so they signed Tony Wolters instead. So that’s what Higgins needs to work on in 2021.

Giambrone, 27, looked for a while like he might be on the David Bote path to major league success. He’s a slugging second baseman who hit 23 home runs and 27 doubles for Iowa in 2019. But everyone was hitting for power in the Pacific Coast League in 2019, so those power numbers don’t look as special as they might otherwise. Plus, he needs to cut down on the strikeouts in order to reach base more often. He struck out 131 times in 431 at-bats in 2019, and that was against Triple-A pitching. He doesn’t add a lot on defense, so he’s going to have to slug his way to the majors.

Who are the rest of the pitchers? For the major and minor league veterans, which is everyone here but Nance, I’m just listing the team they played for before the Cubs and not where they went to school or what country they are from.

RHP Jason Adam. 29. FA/2020. Blue Jays

RHP Joe Biagini. 30. FA/2021. Astros.

LHP Ben Holmes. 29. FA/2021. Dodgers (AAA).

RHP Jake Jewell. 27. FA/2020. Angels.

RHP Ryan Meisinger. 26. FA/2021. Cardinals.

LHP Adam Morgan. 31. FA/2021. Phillies.

RHP Tommy Nance. 29. NDFA/2016. Windy City (indy ball)

LHP Kyle Ryan. 29. FA/2018. Tigers.

RHP Kohl Stewart. 26. FA/2021. Orioles.

LHP Brad Wieck. 29. Trade/2019. Padres.

I think you know who most of these players are since they’ve either pitched for the Cubs over the past few season or against them. Biagini will get the Opening Night start tonight.

Who are the rest of the hitters?

C Taylor Gushue. 27. FA/2020. Nationals (Triple-A)

C Jose Lobaton. 36. FA/2021. Dodgers (Triple-A)

SS Sergio Alcántara. 24. Claimed on waivers/2021. Tigers.

SS Abiatal Avelino. 26. FA/2020. Giants.

SS Andrew Romine. 35. FA/2021. Rangers.

1B Patrick Wisdom. 29. FA/2020. Mariners.

OF Nick Martini. 30. FA/2021. Padres.

OF Ian Miller. 29. FA/2019. Twins.

OF Rafael Ortega. 29. FA/2020. Braves.

Other than Gushue, as well as Giambrone and Higgins, who I mentioned earlier, every hitter on the roster has major league experience. Alcantara is the one who might still be reasonably called a prospect. He’s a terrific glove who played some for Detroit last season, but hit only .143 and there’s a real question if he’ll ever be able to hit enough to keep a major league job.

The rest of these players are veterans who are being stored here in Iowa as an insurance policy against an injury in the majors. Lobaton has over 400 games in the majors. Every once in a while, a guy like that turns out to be a quality player when given an extended chance. But most of them will spend the rest of their career bouncing between the majors and Triple-A and from organization to organization.

Tonight: Play Ball!