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Feature Story

Out of the park

4/3/2024

“We get a lot of overwhelmingly positive comments about how their time in Des Moines was among the best times that they had in their minor league career. And that’s not just about us. That’s about the community. That’s really cool,” said Randy Wehofer. Photo Courtesy of Iowa Cubs

Friday night fireworks. Bobblehead nights. B-Bops burger races. The family-friendly fountain in right field. Win or lose, the Iowa Cubs continue to attract fans with as much entertainment as the biggest brand names in baseball across the entire country. 

Yes, the Iowa Cubs are a big draw in central Iowa. One of the reasons is history, as few teams have been associated with the same major league program for as long as the I-Cubs have with the Chicago Cubs. Another reason is that the team wins. The I-Cubs narrowly missed out on the AAA MiLB playoffs in the 2023 season. The talent in the highly touted farm system that the Cubs organization has been building up over the last few years is packed with incredible prospects. But maybe most noticeably and importantly, I-Cubs fans simply have fun at the ballpark. CITYVIEW readers certainly love the team, which is apparent by their votes to name the I-Cubs as the Best Local Sports Team and Best Local Outdoor Sporting Event in the 2024 Best Of Des Moines awards. 

With all these positives heading into the 2024 season, fans are eager to learn what the I-Cubs will have to offer this summer. The Iowa Cubs assistant general manager, Randy Wehofer, sat down with us to share what fans can look forward to in 2024.

 

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Last season

Looking back at the 2023 season, the Iowa Cubs posted an impressive 82-65 record in the International League west division, which was just 1.5 games behind the first place St. Paul Saints. This was a huge improvement from the 2022 season, when the I-Cubs went 68-81.

The I-Cubs had four players hit more than 20 home runs last season: Yonathon Perlaza, Matt Mervis, Jake Slaughter and Jared Young. These four were also the team’s top four leaders in RBIs. Outside of Jared Young, who is now part of the St. Louis Cardinals, the Cubs will be bringing back Perlaza, Mervis and Slaughter, which is great news for the offensive production.

The I-Cubs also received great production out of their bullpen in 2023. Caleb Kilian led the team in wins last season, going 8-3. Those eight wins were tied for ninth across all of AAA in 2023. Just behind him in wins were Cam Sanders and Bailey Horn with seven and Ben Brown with six. While these numbers may not jump off the page, Kilian, Horn and Brown did an excellent job of putting K’s on the board. Brown’s 100 strikeouts were tied for 15th across AAA, Sanders’ 97 tied for 20th and Kilian’s 95 tied for 24th. Just like the batting leaders, there will only be one player missing out of their top producers, with Bailey Horn now part of the Chicago White Sox. Sanders, Brown and Kilian will all return for the Cubs in 2024.

 

Photo courtesy of the Iowa Cubs

This season

The Chicago Cubs farm system is loaded with talent. According to MLB.com, the Cubbies are home to seven of the top 100 prospects in baseball right now: outfielder Pete Crow-Armstrong, right-handed pitcher Cade Horton, outfielder Owen Caissie, infielder Michael Busch, shortstop/second baseman Matt Shaw, outfielder Kevin Alcántara and second baseman James Trinatos. 

The MLB ranks the Cubs as having the second best farm system overall heading into the 2024 season. That means the potential to see some of baseball’s brightest talents in Des Moines is as high as it has been since the years leading up to the Chicago Cubs World Series Championship team in 2016. 

Who might we see in Des Moines this year?

“Since Cody Bellinger is back, Pete Crow-Armstrong doesn’t have a really good opportunity to be an everyday player in Chicago,” Wehofer said. “He was here for a short stint last year and learned some things about himself in the major leagues that he can continue to work on in spring training. So, I think he’s a guy that would seem likely, at least the way the roster is constructed right now.”

Crow-Armstrong only played 34 games with the I-Cubs last season, but his impact was evident. Crow-Armstrong is ranked as the 15th best prospect in baseball and batted in 6 home runs and 22 RBIs with a .271 batting average in his stint in Des Moines.

“I think Jordan Wicks is in a similar kind of situation,” Wehofer said. “He was here last year and got a taste down the stretch, but they’ve added some more veteran pitchers going into the start of the season. He’s going to be in the big leagues at some point. So will Pete. It’s just whether or not they start here.” 

Wicks made seven starts for the I-Cubs last season, collecting three wins and posting no losses and finishing with a 3.82 ERA. 

Photo courtesy of the Iowa Cubs

Wehofer also mentioned Alexander Canario as a player to watch. Canario hit 8 home runs and 35 RBIs with a .275 batting average while with the I-Cubs. Wehofer made note of these players because of their situation in relation to the Chicago Cubs. Each of them is talented and will undoubtedly spend time in the majors, but due to the veterans in front of them, they’re sure to also spend time with the I-Cubs in 2024. Crow-Armstrong, Wicks and Canario will all be the subjects of bobble-head nights at some point during the season.

While they won’t have their own bobbleheads, Wehofer pointed out other players who are likely to spend more time in Des Moines, such as Luke Little, David Bote, Brennan Davis and Cade Horton. 

“I just think, for me, you always want to talk about the individual names, but what I feel, and what I’ve seen, is we’re in that 2014-2015 mode in the organization right now, where (Kris) Bryant and (Javier) Baez and (Anthony) Rizzo and (Willson) Contreras and (Kyle) Hendrix and all those guys were coming up to be part of that group,” Wehofer said. “They became consistent winners and World Series champions. It’s hard to do. I’m not saying that there’s a World Series team here, even though I’m hoping for it, but it feels the same with the players that were acquired. We’re in that same pattern, and now it’s up to them to produce and perform.”

 

Roster turnover

With the main purpose to prepare players for the Chicago Cubs’ needs, the roster will change. This contiually changing clubhouse is something that is handled carefully throughout the course of a season, especially one that’s fostering some of the sport’s best up-and-coming talent.

“Some of it is just based on the character of the individual guys,” Wehofer said. “I don’t know of any other industry where you can be that close to your dream and not have an effect on you a little bit in order to get a taste of it.” 

As someone who has been part of the Iowa Cubs organization for two decades, from play-by-play announcer to assistant general manager, Wehofer has seen plenty of players come and go.

Pete Crow-Armstrong dives into second base during his time with the Iowa Cubs in 2023. Photo Courtesy of Iowa Cubs

“The guys who have handled that the most successfully, looking back on my time in the game, are the guys who avoid the mindset that their teammates are their main competition. They are the ones who last the longest at the major league level,” Wehofer said.

In the end, these players’ ultimate goals are not to be with the Iowa Cubs. They are here simply because they want to reach the next level, but they still deeply value their time here. 

“Because if it doesn’t work out with the Cubs, they may be a better fit somewhere else. But if they don’t handle that mentally very well, they’re not going to get that opportunity somewhere else either,” Wehofer said. “If you were a young catcher, and Wilson Contreras was in his third year in the big leagues, if you have all this negative energy toward Wilson Contreras being your obstacle, you’re missing the big picture. There’s 29 other teams that could use a really talented catcher, and the Cubs would then benefit from trading you to give you that opportunity,” Wehofer said.

“That’s been the dynamic for me. And then to understand that when players give interviews or make comments about not wanting to be here, it has nothing to do with the Iowa Cubs or Des Moines,” Wehofer said. “They shouldn’t want to be here. They have to operate with the mindset of wanting to be in Chicago.”

 

Promotions

When it comes to promotions, the I-Cubs keep things simple and classy. They don’t need to go over the top like some minor league teams do. That is a testament to the fandom here in Des Moines and what the team has built over the years.

The classic “B-Bops Race” held at I-Cubs games has been a fan favorite over the years. Photo Courtesy of Iowa Cubs

“We were actually the top-viewed team for minutes watched on the streams through MLB TV and MiLB TV last year, and the AA team (Tennessee Smokies) was fifth, and the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox AAA teams were the ones in between,” Wehofer said.

Being able to top the list among two of the biggest brand names in not just professional baseball, but American sports in general, is not something many Midwest teams can boast about. 

“We don’t push the envelope here the way some other minor league teams do,” Wehofer said. “I have a lot of respect for the teams that take on a little bit more of the zany side of Minor League Baseball, but the teams that do that typically are operating in markets where they need to fight for that awareness.”

While a minor league team in Brooklyn might need to do something out of the box to grab attention, that’s not as much of a focus here in Des Moines.

“We have such a great history and tradition here as the triple A affiliate of the Cubs since 1982,” Wehofer said. “It will be over 50 years and, you know, we try to operate as the major league team of the state of Iowa. That doesn’t mean we don’t try to be creative, but it’s never been our mindset to have shock value be our top priority.” ♦


Iowa Cubs home games 

  • April 2 at 6:38 p.m. vs. Toledo | Twos-Day, Magnet Schedule Giveaway
  • April 3 at 12:08 p.m. vs. Toledo | Windy City Bundle
  • April 4 at 6:38 p.m. vs. Toledo | Mug Club, Throwback Thursdays
  • April 5 at 7:08 p.m. vs. Toledo | Friday Night Fireworks
  • April 6 at 3:08 p.m. vs. Toledo | Pre-Game Catch on the Field 
  • April 7 at 1:08 p.m. vs. Toledo | Kids Run The Bases
  • April 16 at 6:38 p.m. vs. Louisville | Jackie Robinson Day
  • April 17 at 12:08 p.m. vs. Louisville
  • April 18 at 12:08 p.m. vs. Louisville | Mug Club
  • April 19 at 7:08 p.m. vs. Louisville | Friday Night Fireworks
  • April 20 at 3:08 p.m. vs. Louisville | Pre-Game Catch on the Field
  • April 21 at 1:08 p.m. vs. Louisville | Kids Run The Bases
  • April 30 at 6:38 p.m. vs. Omaha | Iowa Caucuses
  • May 1 at 12:08 p.m. vs. Omaha
  • May 2 at 12:08 p.m. vs. Omaha | Mug Club
  • May 3 at 7:08 p.m. vs. Omaha | Friday Night Fireworks
  • May 4 at 3:08 p.m. vs. Omaha | Pre-Game Catch on the Field
  • May 5 at 1:08 p.m. vs. Omaha | Kids Run The Bases
  • May 7 at 6:38 p.m. vs. Columbus | $1 Dogs
  • May 8 at 12:08 p.m. vs. Columbus
  • May 9 at 12:08 p.m. vs. Columbus | Mug Club
  • May 10 at 7:08 p.m. vs. Columbus | Friday Night Fireworks, Outdoors Day
  • May 11 at 6:08 p.m. vs. Columbus | Pre-Game Catch on the Field
  • May 12 at 1:08 p.m. vs. Columbus | Kids Run the Bases
  • May 21 at 6:38 p.m. vs. Indianapolis
  • May 22 at 12:08 p.m. vs. Indianapolis
  • May 23 at 6:38 p.m. vs. Indianapolis | Mug Club, Throwback Thursdays
  • May 24 at 7:08 p.m. vs. Indianapolis | Friday Night Fireworks
  • May 25 at 6:08 p.m. vs. Indianapolis | Pre-Game Catch on the Field
  • May 26 at 1:08 p.m. vs. Indianapolis | Kids Run The Bases
  • June 4 at 6:38 p.m. vs. Toledo | $1 Dogs
  • June 5 at 12:08 p.m. vs. Toledo
  • June 6 at 6:38 p.m. vs. Toledo | Mug Club
  • June 7 at 7:08 p.m. vs. Toledo | Friday Night Fireworks
  • June 8 at 6:08 p.m. vs. Toledo | Pre-Game Catch on the Field, Bobblehead Bundle
  • June 9 at 1:08 p.m. vs. Toledo | Kids Run The Bases
  • June 25 at 6:38 p.m. vs. St. Paul
  • June 26 at 12:08 p.m. vs. St. Paul
  • June 27 at 6:38 p.m. vs. St. Paul | Mug Club
  • June 28 at 7:08 p.m. vs. St. Paul | Friday Night Fireworks, Pride Night
  • June 29 at 6:08 p.m. vs. St. Paul | Pre-Game Catch on the Field
  • June 30 at 1:08 p.m. vs. St. Paul | Kids Run The Bases. Ed’s Dinosaur Display and Jurassic Ballpark
  • July 4 at 7:08 p.m. vs. Omaha | Mug Club
  • July 5 at 7:08 p.m. vs. Omaha | Friday Night Fireworks
  • July 6 at 6:08 p.m. vs. Omaha | Pre-Game Catch on the Field
  • July 23 at 6:38 p.m. vs. Indianapolis 
  • July 24 at 12:08 p.m. vs. Indianapolis
  • July 25 at 6:38 p.m. vs. Indianapolis | Mug Club
  • July 26 at 7:08 p.m. vs. Indianapolis | Friday Night Fireworks
  • July 27 at 6:08 p.m. vs. Indianapolis | Pre-Game Catch on the Field, Marvel’s Defenders Of The Diamonds
  • July 28 at 1:08 p.m. vs. Indianapolis | Kids Run The Bases
  • July 30 at 6:38 p.m. vs. St. Paul | $1 Dogs, Dog Days
  • July 31 at 12:08 p.m. vs. St. Paul
  • Aug. 1 at 6:38 p.m. vs. St. Paul | Mug Club
  • Aug. 2 at 7:08 p.m. vs. St. Paul | Friday Night Fireworks
  • Aug. 3 at 6:08 p.m. vs. St. Paul | Pre-Game Catch on the Field 
  • Aug. 4 at 1:08 p.m. vs. St. Paul | Kids Run The Bases
  • Aug. 13 at 1:08 p.m. vs. Columbus
  • Aug. 14 at 12:08 p.m. vs. Columbus
  • Aug. 15 at 6:38 p.m. vs. Columbus | Mug Club 
  • Aug. 16 at 7:08 p.m. vs. Columbus | Friday Night Fireworks
  • Aug. 17 at 6:08 p.m. vs. Columbus | Pre-Game Catch on the Field
  • Aug. 18 at 1:08 p.m. vs. Columbus | Kids Run The Bases
  • Aug. 27 at 6:38 p.m. vs. Memphis | $1 Dogs
  • Aug. 28 at 12:08 p.m. vs. Memphis
  • Aug. 29 at 6:38 p.m. vs. Memphis | Mug Club
  • Aug. 30 at 7:08 p.m. vs. Memphis | Friday Night Fireworks
  • Aug. 31 at 6:08 p.m. vs. Memphis | Pre-Game Catch on the Field, Bobblehead Bundle
  • Sept. 1 at 1:08 p.m. vs. Memphis | Kids Run the Bases
  • Sept. 10 at 6:38 p.m. vs. Louisville
  • Sept. 11 at 12:08 p.m. vs. Louisville
  • Sept. 12 at 6:38 p.m. vs. Louisville | Mug Club
  • Sept. 13 at 7:08 p.m. vs. Louisville | Friday Night Fireworks
  • Sept. 14 at 6:08 p.m. vs. Louisville | Pre-Game Catch on the Field, COPA – Demonios
  • Sept. 15 at 1:08 p.m. vs. Louisville | Kids Run the Bases

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