Summer is almost upon us, and with it comes another season of Iowa Cubs baseball. Spring training has wrapped up, and the April 7 opening day is upon us. As of this writing, the AAA roster had yet to be finalized, but looking at the parent club Chicago Cubs’ strengths and needs, there are a few logical guesses as to who Des Moines baseball fans will get to root for in the coming months.
Arismendy Alcantra has spent parts of two seasons in Chicago but has been a familiar face in Iowa’s lineup as well.
In 2015, Baseball America ranked the Chicago Cubs minor league system as the best in baseball. This year, the organization fell to No. 20. Contrary to how it might seem to the outside observer, the downgrade is not a bad thing: Last year the Cubs had five of the top 40 prospects in all of baseball, and four of those five — catcher/outfielder Kyle Schwarber, outfielder Jorge Soler, shortstop Addison Russell and third baseman and 2015 Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant — are all firmly entrenched in the Chicago Cubs major league lineup. When your developmental rankings take a dip because prospects do not pan out, you are in trouble. When it takes a dip because players keep becoming valuable members of the big club, you take it happily.
And while this year’s crop of draftees and prospects may not carry the same level of hype, there is still plenty to look forward to as the 2016 baseball season approaches.
“Room for playing time in Chicago is going to be a lot harder to come by,” said Iowa Cubs’ Director of Media Relations and long-time broadcasting voice Randy Wehofer. “But there are several guys who we could see here in Des Moines who could have homes in Chicago in 2017 and could even provide help in case of an injury or trade this year.”
Who to watch
At the heart of that discussion is Willson Contreras, the hard-hitting 23-year-old from Venezuela, who is currently listed by Baseball America as the second-best catching prospect in the game. After making his Cubs organizational debut in the Dominican Summer League as a 17-year-old, Contreras’ bat had been a work in progress through the system before finally figuring things out last year in AA Tennessee and hitting at a .333 clip with 38 doubles.
After a strong showing in spring training this year, Contreras is the most logical fit as Iowa’s starting catcher, a position he will likely hold for the entire season as long as last year’s production wasn’t a fluke. While the Chicago Cubs are young and/or versatile at six of the eight non-pitching positions, the catching situation is one of the few spots where a young player can still develop into an everyday starter in a year or so. Starter Miguel Montero, 32, is a solid defender with an average bat, while backup and clubhouse glue David Ross is entering his final season at age 38. With Ross’ departure, Montero entering his decline years and young stud Kyle Schwarber most likely to get his starts in left field, the 2017 catching job is Contreras’ to contend for if he can post a solid season in Iowa this summer.
Another position player with eyes on Chicago and the potential for a lot of time in Des Moines this summer is outfielder Albert Almora. The 22-year-old has dealt with extra scrutiny since 2012 after being the first draft pick of the Theo Epstein years in Chicago. While guys like Chicago first baseman Anthony Rizzo were brought in via trade, Almora can be pinpointed as the point where Epstien’s home-grown talent began.
Almora has hit at every minor league stop he has made, though his numbers in AA Tennesee (.262, 33 doubles) took a bit of a dip. Last July, something seemed to click for Almora, and he started showing better gap power and a better eye for pitch selection. This year, he hit .278 in 18 spring training games and seems to be a good bet to start in Iowa’s outfield on opening day.
“He’s a player that has had to deal with those expectations everywhere he’s played along the line,” Wehofer said. “Being Theo’s first pick, and having people judge you based on that, can be tough. But he’s a young man who has done a good job of playing through that and has put himself back on track to be one of the Cubs better prospects.”
Almora has the athleticism to play all three outfield positions. The majority of his time in the low minors was spent in centerfield, but he split his AA time between left and right. With Jason Heyward signed to an eight-year contract, and a glut of other outfield options in Chicago that include Schwarber, Soler and Dexter Fowler, don’t expect Almora to go anywhere in 2016. However, Fowler is only signed to a one-year deal, which would make Almora an attractive option for the 2017 centerfield job, provided his bat proves up to the task. So, like Contreras, Almora should be a feature in Des Moines for the entirety of this season, giving local baseball fans plenty of chances to see him for themselves.
On the mound
Not all of the reasons for Iowa Cubs fans to cheer will come from the lineup, however, as 24-year-old pitching prospect Carl Edwards Jr. may return to Iowa to begin the summer as well. Drafted by the Texas Rangers in 2011, Edwards came to the Cubs as a part of a trade for pitcher Matt Garza in 2013. Rated as a top 40 prospect by Baseball America in both 2014 and 2015, Edwards has shown the ability to strike batters out at a high rate, compiling 369 strikeouts in just 292 innings of work in the past four seasons. Working exclusively as a starting pitcher in his first three seasons, the Cubs converted him to a relief role in 2015, and Edwards did not miss a beat, striking out 75 batters in 55 relief innings while also picking up 6 saves.
Chicago’s bullpen entering the 2016 season figures to feature many players who have the experience and ability to move from the bullpen into the starting rotation. Clayton Richard, Aaron Brooks, Adam Warren, Trevor Cahill and Dallas Beeler all have starting experience and could move into the rotation if the No. 4 or No. 5 starters Kyle Hendricks or Jason Hammel falter, or if No. 3 man John Lackey begins to show his age. It stands to reason that Edwards would be on the short list for a call-up, considering his ability to throw hard, throw for strikes and handle a heavier workload.
“In the old days, virtually all your relievers were converted starters,” Wehofer said. “I think a lot of teams are going back to that, because those guys can go a little longer if you need them to. But coming out of the bullpen, it’s easier to have your best stuff for 50 or 60 innings over a season than it is for 180.”
At 6-foot-3-inches and 170 pounds, Edwards has never been regarded as having the kind of build needed on a starting pitcher. What he does have, however, is an impressive ability to vary the speed on his pitches, including a reliable fastball that comes in at 92-96 mph to go along with a curveball that has shown exceptional break at times. He offsets those two pitches with a change up, but he will need to work on it more before it can be considered a reliable third option. Edwards is a virtual lock to start the season at Iowa, but with the relative volatility inherent in Major League pitching staffs, how much time he spends here could be up for debate.
A number of players with Major League experience stand to see varying degrees of playing time at Principal Park as well.
On March 29, the Cubs signed former Philadelphia All-Star Shane Victorino to a minor league deal. Victorino had been with the Cubs all spring, but a leg injury had limited him to just four spring training games. Victorino signed the minor league deal in hopes of getting his legs back into big league shape in Iowa, and he should see regular playing time early in the season.
The same day, the Cubs also signed former Milwaukee and Cincinnati pitcher Manny Parra and 35-year-old utility infielder and fan favorite Munenori Kawasaki to minor league deals as well. Parra stands to be a key piece of Iowa’s bullpen but could be one of the first calls Chicago makes if lefthanders Travis Wood or Clayton Richard falter or get hurt.
Kawasaki is a defense-first, light-hitting player who has been wildly popular everywhere he has played. His infectious, upbeat personality is an invaluable lift to any clubhouse.
How long any of the three spend with Iowa will be dependent on a number of outside factors, but all should be regular features in Des Moines at least through April and May.
The fan experience
Of course, the product on the field is only half of the equation when it comes to minor league baseball. The Iowa Cubs’ fan experience is something Wehofer and the rest of the front office staff are constantly looking to improve and keep interesting.
“I wouldn’t say that conversation ever stops,” Wehofer concurred. “The discussions might be a little less intensive in October than they are in February, but we’re always talking about ways to make the experience more fun and engaging.
“The great thing about the minor leagues is that there’s a lot of shared information. On the field, we might have friendly rivalries with Omaha or any of the other teams in our league, but we’re not fighting with them for season ticket holders or radio ads or anything else. So a lot of the events that you’ll see between innings or before and after games are ideas that we’ve borrowed from somewhere else and has been shared around.”
Wehofer said the biggest competitive drawback to a minor league team is the lack of control over its own roster. With all moves being handled in Chicago, it is impossible to gauge how competitive the on-field product will be from one day to the next. So it falls to the I-Cubs front office to make the best of the things they can control, namely the off-field fan experience.
Since adding post-game fireworks to each Friday date, those games have consistently been the most popular on the schedule. Those will return in 2016, along with a few other standards, including Dog Days on May 24, Bike to the Ballpark on May 30, Bobblehead Night on Aug. 4 and an appearance by the always-popular San Diego Chicken on Aug. 8. New games and activities will be introduced as new sponsors are signed on and between-inning entertainment is catered to them.
Sponsorships change at times, but finding out who is interested in being a sponsor and working out what works best for each of them is part of the process every year, Wehofer said.
The potentially ever-changing roster can make it difficult to focus an ad campaign or promotion around a particular player, so Wehofer said the club puts a focus on the organization as a whole, rather than focusing on any one person.
“We try to make each of our 72 home games special for our fans,” added Scott Sailor, Iowa Cubs’ Director of Consumer Experience. “It might be something as simple as our traditional Friday night fireworks shows or tried-and-true promotions like T-shirts, baseballs and bobble heads. But we’re always on the lookout for something different.”
This year, “different” includes Jake Arrieta Beard Beanie Night (April 25) and Cubbie Bear Super Hero Cape Night (June 5). The club has also featured a Dog Days night each year since 1997, in which fans can bring their pets to the game. This year, the I-Cubs will have two such nights.
“That has been one of our most popular nights since we first started the tradition,” Sailor said. “The extra Dog Days night is, of course, against the El Paso Chihuahuas on May 24.”
Wehofer is one of the fixtures who has become familiar to Iowa Cubs fans. Serving as the team’s play-by-play voice since 2008, he is the most recognizable link to the team for fans who cannot make it to Principal Park.
But while he is the off-field personality who most people may listen to, he is well aware which non-playing member of the Iowa Cubs most people watch.
“Cubbie Bear is out there 365 days a year,” he said. “He’s our most important ambassador.” CV
Most everyone knows that the promotions are half the fun of going to a minor league ballgame, and the Iowa Cubs strive to make each game an experience.
Here, courtesy of Director for Consumer Experience Scott Sailor, is a look at a few of the highlights from this year’s schedule.
7 Magnet Schedules | PPG | KCCI-TV 8
11 Poster Schedules | Laser Resources
12 Dollar Dogs | Klement’s
25 Jake Arrieta Beard Beanie Night
28 Kyle Schwarber Jersey Shirt Night
29 Living History Farms 1800s Game
10 Kids Night
23 Fan Batting Practice
24 Dog Days | Anderson Animal Hospital
5 Cubbie Cape | G&L Clothing
6 Jersey Shirt Night
9 Iowa Oaks Cap Night
10 UnityPoint Baseball Night
4 Holiday Fireworks
6 Team Photo
20 Kris Bryant Mini-Bat Night
3 Fan Batting Practice | Scheels
4 Tony Watson Bobble Head Night | RTL Equipment
7 Post-Game Movie Night
8 Famous Chicken
9 Dog Days | Anderson Animal Hospital
20 Party with the Princesses
22 Team Card Set Night