Play ball! (and soon, please?)4/1/2020
Relaxing at Principal Park while sipping something cold and watching America’s hottest up-and-coming baseball talent is a summer staple in central Iowa. Triple-A baseball usually begins in April and runs through August and into September, but due to the spread of Covid-19 as CITYVIEW went to press, Minor League Baseball’s first pitch was put on hold.
In a press release, Pat O’Conner, president and CEO of Minor League Baseball, stated Minor League Baseball’s position:
“With the health and well-being of the players, umpires, team employees and our fans in mind, we will continue to monitor the developments and follow guidelines set forth by public health agencies and our partners at Major League Baseball… Once the public health experts and agencies have decided it is safe to begin the 2020 season, and the players are physically ready to begin the season, we will do so.”
Likewise, the I-Cubs will follow the lead of MLB, Minor League Baseball and the CDC, according to a team spokesperson.
As such, this 2020 I-Cubs season preview might be a tad early, but what better way to spend some unexpected downtime.
Play ball! (And soon, please?)
The top 8 questions regarding I-Cubs baseball for 2020
The opening date for the upcoming season at Principal Park may be unknown, but sooner or later — hopefully sooner — players adorned in classic blue, red and white uniforms will sprint onto the field to the delight of hometown fans. When that happens, it will mark the 52nd year of Triple-A baseball in downtown Des Moines. Located near the confluence of the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers, Principal Park, along with its two predecessors, have hosted professional baseball games since 1947.
In anticipation of fastballs, knuckleballs, homeruns, hotdogs and seventh-inning stretches, CITYVIEW gathered answers to the top eight preseason questions for I-Cubs fans.
1. Going from worst-to-first and winning a division title, how did last season happen? Can fans expect the winning to continue?
BACKGROUND: Last season’s Iowa Cubs rolled to a division championship while posting a regular season record of 75-65. The team was eventually eliminated by the Round Rock Express in Game 5 of the PCL semifinals, but it was the franchise’s third 75-plus-win season in the last decade, and it was a major improvement from the team’s dismal 2018, when the team finished with the worst record in all of minor league baseball.
QUESTION: How did that happen?
ANSWER: “Last year was a really impressive season for the I-Cubs,” says Alex Cohen, I-Cubs broadcaster and radio voice.
Of course, many factors play into a turnaround of that magnitude, but Cohen points out that last season’s squad had an abundance of world-class talent. Thirty-one players suited up for both Iowa and Chicago in 2019, including big league All-Stars Craig Kimbrel, Carlos Gonzalez, Cole Hamels, Willson Contreras and Ben Zobrist. Other big leaguers who suited up for Iowa included Ian Happ, Brian Duensing, Carl Edwards Jr., Albert Almora Jr., David Bote, Mike Montgomery, Daniel Descalso, Victor Caratini, Pedro Strop and Xavier Cedeño. Iowa also produced three players who made their Chicago debut in 2019: Adbert Alzolay and Danny Hultzen, both pitchers, and infielder Robel Garcia.
2. Who makes it all mesh?
BACKGROUND: Having that much big-league firepower is a good problem to have, no doubt, but only five I-Cubs players were active for the entire regular season, and the I-Cubs made a franchise-record 232 transactions. The ever-revolving roster tallied 72 different players, in all, and getting that many moving parts to mesh means someone did a top-notch managerial job.
QUESTION: Who was the managerial mastermind melding the team together, and will he be calling the shots for Iowa again this season?
ANSWER: Marty Pevey returns to skipper the I-Cubs for his eighth consecutive season in 2020. Pevey is the longest tenured manager in Iowa’s history and has notched a franchise record 479 regular season wins.
“You don’t normally have minor league baseball managers in one place for this long of a period of time,” says Cohen. “The common conception is that, if he’s here that long and not in the big leagues, then he’s not good enough to be in the big leagues. That’s not the case… Marty has the perfect demeanor and the perfect mindset to mold Triple-A minds.”
One key to Pevey’s success, according to Cohen, is communication.
“You have to keep the guys motivated,” he says. “You’re as much a psychologist as you are a manager.”
Another important attribute for minor league managers is temperament. With so many roster moves, managers must recognize the franchise’s role is to further the success of the big league club.
“You have to be able to adjust,” says Cohen. “ I think Marty does that better than anybody in the business.”
3. Will the I-Cubs’ Big 5 be back?
BACKGROUND: The 2019 I-Cubs team had a lot of turnover, but five players went coast to coast, playing for the team all season.
QUESTION: Will any of those fantastic five be back?
ANSWER: Cohen says each of the five played a big part in 2019’s success, but the nature of minor league baseball makes it impossible to know for sure who will land where until after spring training, but here are a few quick thoughts.
• Pitcher Colin Rea went 14-4 with a 3.95 ERA in the regular season and earned PCL Pitcher of the Year honors. The Cascade, Iowa, native and right-handed starter was originally a 12th-round draft pick by San Diego in 2011 before signing with the Cubs as a free agent before the 2019 season. He will battle to make the big league club and could end up in either Iowa or Chicago.
• Pitcher Matt Swarmer joined Vida Blue, Bill Brennan and Paul Abbott by notching 137 strikeouts last season. The fireballer is only the fourth I-Cub ever to accomplish that. He figures to play for Iowa this season.
• Infielder Trent Giambrone led the I-Cubs with 17 stolen bases and belted 23 home runs in 2019. Giambrone possesses rare talent but is predicted by many to spend another year honing his skills in Iowa.
• Infielder Phillip Evans moved on to the Pittsburgh Pirates organization during the offseason.
• Outfielder Donnie Dewees will most likely begin the season as an I-Cub in 2020.
(NEW) Tuesdays: TWOsday offering of two Reserved Grandstand tickets, two hot dogs, and two beers or sodas on any Tuesday home game ($22).
4. Who is the most talented player who could be in an I-Cubs uniform this season?
BACKGROUND: Nico Hoerner is the most talented player within the Cubs farm system, according to most experts. Chicago’s 2018 first-round draft pick makes good contact, drives the ball hard to all fields and generally looks to be as good or better than originally thought.
QUESTION: Can fans expect to see the young shortstop playing at Principal Park in 2020?
ANSWER: After the big-league club was decimated by injuries late season, the young shortstop made the jump from Double A all the way to the MLB and performed relatively well considering his age and experience level. During his 20-game stint in Chicago, Hoerner hit .282 with three home runs. As a result, Cohen says Hoerner is contending to earn a Chicago roster spot, but, most likely, he figures to be a year away from making a big-league opening-day roster.
“I think the organization is going to try and get him every day at bats,” says Cohen. “If that’s up in Chicago, then great. But if it’s in Iowa, I think the fans will be very happy about that.”
5. Who is the next curious case of Robel Garcia?
BACKGROUND: Infielder Robel Garcia emerged from seemingly nowhere this past year. After the switch hitter was released by the Indians following the 2013 season, he fell off the face of the baseball map until he grabbed the Cubs’ attention in fall of 2018 while playing for Team Italy. The 26-year-old began last season with Double-A Tennessee and stroked five home runs in his first 15 games. The diamond-in-the-rough was then promoted to Iowa where he caught fire in late-May and eventually ascended to Chicago, where he remained until August. Garcia received a second call-up in September and was named Minor League Baseball’s co-Breakout Prospect of the Year during this past off-season.
QUESTION: Which relatively unknown player could emerge from nowhere to contribute at the sport’s highest level?
ANSWER: “It’s hard to find the next Robel Garcia,” admits Cohen. “Those guys don’t fall off of trees. But I think Trent Giambrone fits that mold. He has big-league potential.”
6. Where in the world will Ian Happ and Addison Russell be?
BACKGROUND: Ian Happ and Addison Russell — two highly regarded young talents with serious big-league experience — spent significant time in Iowa in 2019.
QUESTION: Will they be back?
ANSWER: The switch-hitting and highly regarded Happ endured a three-and-a-half-month stint in Triple-A, but the slugger eventually found his stroke and returned to the bigs. The 2015 first-round pick is expected to continue producing at the plate and stick in Chicago, probably as a starting outfielder. On the other extreme, Russell is no longer employed by the Cubs organization, and he hadn’t signed with a new team as of CITYVIEW’s press deadline.
7. Statistics, improvements, promotions… How popular is Principal Park, and what’s new?
QUESTION: Just shy of a half million people rolled through Principal Park’s turnstiles last summer. The ballyard now boasts an all-time attendance total that tops 13.5 million, which brings the central Iowa 51-season total attendance to nearly 18 million for Principal Park and its two predecessors. But that’s in the past. What’s new at the ballyard?
ANSWER: This offseason, in an effort to increase fan safety, the I-Cubs completed construction on additional protective netting. The netting runs nearly the length of each foul line. The precautionary additions were not required and cost roughly $90,000, but the Iowa Cubs, in conjunction with the City of Des Moines, decided it was the right thing to do. The addition won’t hinder the fan experience, according to Cohen, but it does enhance safety significantly.
“(Principal Park) is the best,” he says. “It’s exactly what Triple-A baseball is supposed to be… Its atmosphere is unparalleled in minor league baseball.”
8. Dogs Days, hotdogs and other promotions to look forward to.
QUESTION: What promotions can fans look forward to for the upcoming season?
ANSWER: When someone originally pitched the idea of the I-Cubs hosting a “Bring Your Dog to the Ballpark” night, not everyone immediately saw the logic, but Dogs Days has been a grand slam so far for Iowa’s canine-loving baseball fans.
“We usually have somewhere in the 400-450 range,” says Shelby Cravens, Iowa Cubs director of media relations. “Of course, everything is weather dependent.”
Dogs get in free during these dates and enjoy the pre-game pet parade on the field when each canine’s name is announced through the P.A. system. Prior to the season’s postponement, the team was set to host two such Dogs Days dates this summer.
As CITYVIEW went to press, much of the schedule and specific promotions were still in flux. Be sure to check online for updates and changes, but the team’s original home schedule included the following highlights. All dates, times and other details are subject to change. ♦
Selected promotional highlights (Subject to change)
Fireworks: After every Friday home game — and on the Fourth of July — fans are treated to fireworks at the ballyard.