In 2015, the Iowa Cubs were a disparate collection of players. Some were prospects, some were AAAA players hoping for one final crack, and some were organizational players. The team went 80-64 and finished tied for second in the American North Division of the Pacific Coast League. Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, and Addison Russell all spent short stints with the club before heading to Chicago.
Javy Baez led the team in batting average and Christian Villanueva paced his teammates with 18 HRs and 88 RBIs. Reliever Blake Cooper topped the pitching ranks with 50 appearances while Carlos Pimentel went 12-6 and was named the Pacific Coast League’s Pitcher of the Year. He was let go this offseason by the Cubs. Dallas Beeler had an up-and-down year, as did reliever Armando Rivero, and Eric Jokisch tore his labrum and missed an extended amount of time.
For 2016, the team has changed drastically. The pitching staff has been rebuilt to back up the big league bullpen, and some new hitters have been given one more chance to make it as bench players in the majors. In addition, and most importantly, there are several prospects who will be at Iowa who can’t wait to get their shot at the next level.
This year’s Iowa team will have a lot of depth with the potential to score a lot of runs. I remember seeing most of the players, but not all, in 2013 at Kane County when they were just two years out of high school. Currently, there are over 45 players who will compete for spots at Iowa.
Willson Contreras will be the prospect everyone has their eyes on in 2016. Contreras didn’t come out of nowhere last year to rise to the top of the prospect list, but it sure seems like he did. He’s always been seen as a great athlete, it’s just that he finally began to put everything together in his third year as a full-time catcher in the Cubs organization. After hitting .333 and winning the Southern League batting title, Contreras was named the Cubs Minor League Player of the Year and looks like he is being groomed to take over for David Ross in 2017 and Miguel Montero in 2018.
Two position players that will return are Christian Villanueva and Arismendy Alcantara. Longtime Cubs Logan Watkins, John Andreoli, and Stephen Bruno join them. All five are blocked by players above them and have others below them breathing down their necks.
Albert Almora really turned it on in the second half last year and looks like he made a jump in his development based largely on a different leg kick. Mike O’Neill comes to the Cubs from the Cardinals organization, where he had a solid record as a high-on-base-percentage hitter, similar to Mark Zagunis but with a higher average. It will be interesting to see what O’Neill can do playing every day at Iowa.
Here is a list of prospects who are likely to be competing for a spot on the opening day Iowa roster:
C: Willson Contreras, Taylor Davis, Mike Federowicz, David Freitas
1B: Jesus Guzman and Kelly Dugan
2B: Stephen Bruno, Arismendy Alcanta
SS: Logan Watkins, Ryan Dent
3B: Christian Villanueva, Anthony Giansanti
OF: John Andreoli, Mike O’Neill, Albert Almora, Juan Carlos Perez, and Bijan Rademacher
SP: Ryan Williams, Frank Batista, Jeffrey Antigua, Erick Jokisch, Dallas Beeler, Drew Rucinski, Stephen Fife, Luis Cruz, Felix Pena, and Pierce Johnson
RP: Andury Acevedo, Edgar Olmos, Carl Edwards Jr, Zac Rosscup, Spencer Patton, Armando Rivero, Brandon Gomes, Jean Machi, Scott Barnes, Blake Cooper, Yoanner Negrin, Starling Peralta, Luis Parra, Michael Jensen, Tayler Scott, Gerardo Concepcion, Matt Brazis, Jack Leathersich (Injured – TJS) and PJ Francescon (Suspended).
When it comes to starting pitching, I’m excited to see Ryan Williams, Felix Pena, and Pierce Johnson in AAA for the first time. All three should move up from Tennessee to join Eric Jokisch and Dallas Beeler, among others, in the rotation. Williams, the Cubs’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2015, should be an interesting watch as he has great command and is versatile enough to be a starter or a reliever. Either way, he is going to pound the zone.
Pierce Johnson is probably the most ready in terms of his arsenal, but walks — not to mention nagging injuries — have been holding him back from advancing. He has yet to pitch more than 120 innings in a season, but I think he makes it to Chicago this year nonetheless. His stuff is too good not to get there. The question is whether he goes up as a starter or a reliever. I tend to think he would be eased in as a reliever in late summer just based on innings. That would allow him to pitch deeper into the season. With four pitches at his command, Johnson has a good chance to succeed in either role.
What the Cubs have done this offseason has created a lot of redundancy in the bullpen and starting staff. It’s really going to make for a very competitive atmosphere in Spring Training for both the major and minor league camps. It can only help strengthen the organization from top to bottom.
Five Who Will Thrive in 2016
- Willson Contreras – The Cubs’ reigning Minor League Player of the Year will see if he can repeat his outstanding 2015.
- Albert Almora – A new leg kick helped propel him into an outstanding last six weeks of the season in which he hit over .300. Playing in a hitter’s league will only help him get to Chicago.
- Christian Villanueva – Still hitting for power, driving in runs, and playing multiple positions. There’s just no place for him in Chicago as of now.
- Ryan Williams – I love his versatility on the mound and his mentality in attacking the zone.
- Pierce Johnson – He has everything he needs to get there, he just needs to improve his command to move on up.
Next to Arrive in Des Moines
If I was a betting man, I’d lay money that Brad Markey will be the pitcher that arrives first and Dan Vogelbach would be the hitter. Because of their age, they don’t need a lot of seasoning at AA. Markey is like a miniature Williams and Vogelbach just needs to stay healthy.