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Cubs minor leagues: Get to know the Iowa Cubs

Our tour of the Cubs minor league begins with the Cubs Triple-A affiliate, the Iowa Cubs

MLB: Spring Training-Cincinnati Reds at Chicago Cubs
Brennen Davis
Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

The minor league baseball season is underway and that’s as good a reason as any to review the four Cubs minor league affiliates. Since the Iowa Cubs season is already underway, we’re going to start with the Triple-A affiliate in Des Moines.

Most of the players on the Iowa Cubs are players you are likely already familiar with, as they’ve either played in the majors for the Cubs (or other teams) or you’ve seen them in Spring Training. There are also a few top prospects that you may have heard of playing in Des Moines this spring. So consider this a refresher course on the I-Cubs, as they are colloquially known.

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). Just in case you don’t know, Triple-A baseball is the last stop before reaching the majors. It’s an interesting level because it is filled with players coming up, players going down and players whose careers have just stalled out there. But I will say that if you just look at the quality of the baseball on the field, it’s not always easy to tell the difference between Major League Baseball and Triple-A baseball. Most players in Triple-A are of “almost” major league quality. Most of them will see at least some time in the majors during their careers.

The Iowa Cubs play in the International League, which is actually their third different league. From 1981 to 1997, they were in the American Association and from 1998 to 2019, they played in the Pacific Coast League. Last year they played in the “Triple-A East” League, which has reclaimed its traditional name of the International League that was abandoned for one season.

For those of you who complained that landlocked Iowa played in the Pacific Coast League, every team in the International League is located within the borders of the United States. So now you have something new to complain about.

The International League consists of 20 teams with 10 teams in each of two divisions. The Iowa Cubs will only play nine of the other 19 teams in 2022. Oddly, they will not play two teams in their own division — Nashville and Gwinnett — and they will play two teams in the other division, namely Buffalo and Jacksonville. Do not ask me to explain this.

The Cubs play their home games at Principal Park in Des Moines. The home opener is Tuesday, April 12 at 6:38 Central time against the Toledo Mud Hens, the Triple-A affiliate of the Detroit Tigers.

Who are the prospects?

I’m going to put the big prospects up front here because for the most part, that’s what readers are most interested in.

Two of the Cubs’ top 5 prospects on my preseason rankings are starting the season with the Iowa Cubs. The big one is someone you are probably familiar with. Outfielder Brennen Davis is universally considered the be the Cubs top prospect and one of the top 30 prospects in all of baseball.

Davis is a five-tool center fielder who does everything pretty well. None of his tools are outstanding, but there are not many weaknesses in his game either. His best skill is his power, and there is definitely a potential 30 home run season in him if he can tap into that during games. His biggest weakness is that he does strike out more than you’d like, especially on good breaking pitches. But he’s always been able to make adjustments as he’s moved up the ladder and there’s no reason to think he won’t be able to do that again in Triple-A and beyond.

The Arizona native is known for his hard work, his outgoing and friendly personality and his team leadership skills. In short, Brennen Davis is likely to be your next favorite ballplayer.

Right-handed pitcher Caleb Kilian was one of two prospects the Cubs got from the Giants in the Kris Bryant trade. He was a pretty good pitcher when the Cubs got him, but the Cubs made some adjustments in his repertoire and those changes have people thinking he could be a lot better. The Cubs told Kilian to start throwing his four-seam fastball more and up in the zone. The Giants had made adjustments that added about four miles per hour onto it so that it now sits mid-90s, but he still didn’t trust it as much as he should until he joined the Cubs. The Cubs also taught him a new spike grip for his curve and the pitch was nearly unhittable in the Arizona Fall League this past winter.

If everything goes right, both Davis and Kilian should make their major league debuts this season.

Left-handed hitting outfielder Greg Deichmann came over to the Cubs in the Andrew Chafin deal. He’s considered a good fielder with good contact and on-base skills. However, the power he showed earlier in his career has been nowhere to be found recently and he’s struggled to stay healthy. (Those two things are probably related.) If he can stay healthy and rediscover his power stroke, he could have a major league future. He went 4 for 30 in his major league debut last year.

There are also some interesting prospects in the I-Cubs bullpen that could help the team this season. Manuel Rodriguez made his major league debut last season and he wowed at time with his upper-90s heat. He just needs to throw more strikes.

Right-handed pitcher Ben Leeper is the Cubs’ 28th-ranked prospect according to MLB Pipeline. He combines a mid-90s fastball with a wipeout slider.

Righty Cayne Ueckert (pronounced ECK-ert) is the final interesting bullpen piece in Iowa. He was someone who really rebuilt his delivery during the wiped out 2020 season and now combines an upper-90s fastball with a hard, low-90s slider.

Cory Abbott also made his major league debut last season and he’ll try to use his slider and overall command into a career as a back-end starter.

Who is in charge?

The Iowa Cubs coaching staff mostly returns intact from the 2021 season as only a new trainer and new strength and conditioning coach join the club.

Iowa Cubs manager Marty Pevey, the longest-serving manager in I-Cubs history, is beginning his 10th season with Iowa and his 14th overall in the organization. The Georgia native calls Des Moines his second home, although he does make it clear that he has no desire to spend winters there.

Pevey has a career managerial record of 1174-1208. Those 1174 wins rank 10th among active minor league managers. He is Iowa’s all-time winningest manager with 530 wins.

After starting his coaching career with the Blue Jays in 1996, Pevey served as Toronto’s bullpen coach in 1999, their first base coach in 2006 and 2007 and their third base coach in 2008. He’s been in the Cubs organization since 2009.

Pevey’s major league playing career consisted of 13 games as a catcher with the Expos in 1989.

The pitching coach is Ron Villone, who was the definition of a journeyman left-handed reliever as he played 15 years with 12 different teams from 1995 to 2009. None of those 12 teams were the Cubs. This is his third season as Iowa’s pitching coach and his 11th season in the Cubs organization over two different stretches.

Desi Wilson returns to Iowa for his sixth season as the I-Cubs hitting coach. Wilson has been in the Cubs organization, in total, for 15 years now. Before that, Wilson played 11 years in the minor leagues, one season in Japan and six seasons in independent ball. He had 41 games in the majors with the Giants in 1996.

Griffin Benedict returns for his second season as Iowa’s bench coach. Before that, he spent ten years in the Padres organization, both as a coach and a member of the front office. Benedict played two seasons in the Padres minor leagues, getting as high as Low-A Fort Wayne in 2010.

Who are the pitchers?

I mentioned much of the bullpen and two of the starters in the writeup of the prospects. But there are other pitchers who will be fighting to have their names called when there’s an opening in Chicago.

Adrian Sampson spent the end of last season in the Cubs rotation after spending the 2020 season in Korea. Mark Leiter Jr. looked good in Spring Training. Matt Swarmer is returning for his third season with Iowa.

The rest of the pitching staff has a lot of those non-roster invitees that we talked about over the winter and during Spring Training. Locke St. John, Robert Gsellman (who could also get some starts), Stephen Gonsalves, Eric Yardley, Eric Stout and Conner Menez are all new to the organization this year. Matt Dermody returns after spending the 2021 season in Japan. James Bourque was with the Cubs last year, but missed the entire season with an injury.

Who are the catchers?

With only two healthy catchers on the Cubs’ 40-man roster, there will be a lot of eyes on the Iowa Cubs catchers this season. P.J. Higgins made his major league debut last season, but going 1 for 23 there did not inspire confidence. He was much better in Iowa, going 13 for 48 with a home run and an .458 OBP in limited action.

Tyler Payne also made his major league debut last year, going 0 for 2 in one game in October. He’s been in the Cubs’ system since 2015 and has yet to have an at-bat in Triple-A.

John Hicks has 264 major league games under his belt, including 10 with the Rangers last season. He hit four home runs in those 10 games. He might get the first call to Chicago when the Cubs need another catcher.

Who are the infielders?

Shortstop Dixon Machado was arguably the best player on the 2019 Iowa Cubs before spending the last two seasons in KBO. He’s back in Iowa again this season. Machado had 172 major league games with the Tigers before joining the Cubs.

Second baseman Robel Garcia is also back from that 2019 Iowa Cubs team. He’s got tremendous power and issues making consistent contact.

Ildemaro Vargas is also back with the Cubs after riding the waiver wire carousel last season.

Trent Giambrone went 2 for 13 in his major league debut last year. It’s his third straight season in Iowa.

Levi Jordan returns to Iowa after hitting .236/.331/.378 in 43 games there last year.

First baseman Jared Young has decent power and hit .254/.326/.421 in 37 games in Iowa after his mid-season promotion from Double-A.

The Cubs got Esteban Quiroz from the Rays in March in trade for Harold Ramirez. He’s 30 years old, but he hit .268/.401/.526 for Triple-A Durham last season.

Who are the outfielders?

Davis and Deichmann are joined in the outfield by Zach Davis, whose best assets are his speed and his defense. He struggled to hit in 29 games in his Triple-A debut last year.

Narciso Crook was one of those “interesting” prospects in the Reds organization for seven years with a nice power-speed combination. But he’s always struggled to stay healthy and make enough contact. He’s still only 26, so he’ll try to finally put it together in a new organization.

It’s clear the Cubs love Donnie Dewees, since after the traded him to the Royals for Alec Mills in 2017, they traded Stephen Ridings to KC to get him back two years later. He was solid for the I-Cubs in 2019, but thanks to injury and a pandemic he’s only played winter ball since then.

How do I see them?

Other than going to Principal Park or somewhere on the road, you can always sign up for milb.tv and get almost every minor league game for every team for 2022. Some games show up on Marquee Network, with the Iowa Cubs’ fine broadcaster (and House Hunters star) Alex Cohen on the call. Last season he was often joined in the booth by Elise Menaker for the Marquee broadcasts, and the two of them made a great team. I hope they do that again in 2022.

Also, if you don’t want to pay out any more money, you can always just listen to the radio broadcast for free at IowaCubs.com.