Keys to the Cubdom4/5/2017
I-Cubs preseason preview
One year ago, as the Iowa Cubs trotted onto the green grass of Principal Park for opening day, the roster included four of minor league baseball’s top prospects — catcher Willson Contreras, outfielder Albert Almora Jr., first baseman Dan Vogelbach, and relief pitcher Carl Edwards Jr.
All four players finished the season by making significant contributions to the Chicago Cubs historic season, which ended with a World Series win that shut the door on a 108-year championship drought — the longest such drought in the history of major league sports.
Can history repeat itself? Is the upcoming I-Cubs roster loaded with another wave of championship talent? Can the hometown Cubbies help their big-league affiliate take home another trophy? Before answering, keep this fact in mind: 16 of the 25 players on Chicago’s championship roster, at some point in life, wore an Iowa Cubs uniform.
CITYVIEW caught up with I-Cubs president and general manager Sam Bernabe and play-by-play announcer Randy Wehofer to preview the upcoming season. And the team’s assistant ticket manager and the group sales manager Jason Gillis offered details on the Knothole Gang as well as some of the other promotions to look for at Principal Park.
I-CUBS 2016: A LOOK BACK
The man behind the mic for the I-Cubs the previous nine years has been radio play by play man Randy Wehofer, so it’s safe to say he knows a thing or two about the team.
Wehofer recognizes the 2016 campaign wasn’t the best from a wins and losses standpoint — the I-Cubs finished with a record of 67-76 — but winning isn’t the only thing in minor league baseball. He points out that Iowa sent four key contributors up to the Chicago team.
“In the starting lineup on opening day (the I-Cubs) had Albert Almora Jr., Willson Contreras and Daniel Vogelbach,” Wehofer says.
Almora scored the go-ahead run in the championship’s decisive Game 7. Contreras was called up in June, and he played in 76 regular season games before starting five games at catcher in the World Series.
Vogelback’s contribution to the championship run was indirect. It was Vogelbach — the I-Cubs opening day first baseman — who was traded to the Mariners for relief pitcher Mike Montgomery in July. And Cubs fans will remember it was Montgomery who entered World Series Game 7 in the bottom of the 10th inning and recorded the final out, putting an end to any chance of a Cleveland comeback and winning the championship for Chicago.
Relief pitcher Carl Edwards Jr. also began the season in Iowa and went on to be an important part of the bullpen after being recalled in May. The lanky right-hander — known as the “The String Bean Slinger” in reference to his slight 6-foot-3 frame that weighs only 170 pounds — posted an ERA of 3.76 with two saves in 41 appearances.
Losing talented players to the parent club is one reason the I-Cubs struggled last season, but Wehofer says injuries played a much bigger role.
Coming into the year, most observers felt the I-Cubs top three starting pitchers were Ryan Williams, Pierce Johnson and Eric Jokisch, but it didn’t work out that way.
“Ryan Williams was kind of the hot pitching prospect coming out of spring training,” remembers Wehofer. “And he started off fine, but then he hurt a shoulder.”
Williams was the opening day starter for the I-Cubs. The former 10th-round-pick and winner of the Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year award initially performed well, posting a 4-1 record with a 3.27 ERA and striking out 30, but he was shut down in May due to shoulder soreness.
Johnson went on the disabled list twice within his first three starts with freak injuries — he was first hit with a line drive, and upon returning he turned an ankle while covering first base.
Jokisch made only one start before being designated for assignment and being claimed by the Marlins.
“So we were scrambling right from the start to figure out who’s going to start,” says Wehofer. With the pitching staff crippled by injuries in mid-April, it took a while for the team to find the right arms to steady the ship.
“Drew Rucinski was the only guy that made every start the whole year,” says Wehofer.
In 28 starts, Rucinski posted a 7-15 record with a 5.92 ERA and 116 strikeouts.
Wehofer says Jake Buchanan, who started 22 games, also helped solidify things.
“And then when Rob Zastryzny came up from Double-A in the middle of May, that gave us a little bit of order,” says Wehofer. “But we kind of had dug a hole by then in the standings.”
Triple-A teams often have roster turmoil to deal with, but it is typically a result of the big league team needing injury replacements.
“To think of how stable the Chicago Cubs pitching staff was, especially the starting rotation throughout the year, and then to think of the kind of nutty things that were happening here independently, that stands out as unusual,” he says.
The team didn’t win as many games as expected in 2016, but Wehofer says the team was fun and interesting to watch. He sees reasons for fans to have optimism for the upcoming year.
“(Jeimer) Candelario came up from Double A, and he was our best player in August,” says Wehofer. “He just tore the cover off the ball.”
He says that despite Candelario’s stellar play last season — he batted .333 with nine homeruns — it’ll be difficult for him to advance to Chicago unless the team suffers an injury because he is stuck behind Chicago all-star corner infielders Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, who play third base and first base, respectively.
Candelario has played well in spring training, but not well enough to make the big-league club. The switch hitting corner infielder has been optioned to Iowa where he is expected to start the year.
Candelario wasn’t the only bright spot last year. Other top feats by the team included stellar play in the field and speed on the base paths.
“Our defense was the best in franchise history and set a record for fewest errors,” says Wehofer, adding that Munenori Kawasaki was a big part of that — he led the league in fielding percentage at shortstop — and Almora and John Andreoli were also key contributors to the feat.
On the basepaths, Andreoli led the league in steals with 46.
“It was interesting to watch all year,” says Wehofer.
CROWDED I-CUBS INFIELD IN 2017
Candelario is the most likely talent with star potential to be playing in Iowa on opening day, but other hot prospects could also contribute.
One of the biggest names that could land in Iowa is Ian Happ. The 22-year-old Happ is highly regarded by baseball scouts. He was a first-round pick in 2015 and a polished hitter with power who performed well last season in Double-A. He played shortstop and centerfield in college, but he is known more for his bat than his glove and will likely play either second base or man the outfield.
Wehofer says it’s possible Happ could start the year in Double-A or even in Chicago. He isn’t sure what the organization’s plan is at second base — and the recent addition of another second baseman, Jemile Weeks muddies the waters — but he thinks Happ is going to be the everyday second baseman in Iowa.
Also playing second base is hitting standout Chesny Young. Young has already won a minor league batting title and nearly missed earning another last season in Double A. He primarily plays second base and figures to get a look at playing time in Iowa.
Further complicating the outlook of the middle infield, the organization is bringing back Kawasaki at shortstop, which could create a log jam of talent in the infield.
Last year the I-Cubs started with a prospect at catcher who burst into the big leagues and had success. This season they hope to have continued prosperity behind the plate.
“Victor Caratini is a catcher who is regarded as a good prospect and could be on the team,” says Wehofer. Caratini is a switch hitter who was acquired from the Braves two years ago in a trade. Some scouts say he’s the Cubs’ best catching prospect, and he had a good season in Double-A last year. Wehofer figures he’ll be the I-Cubs’ primary catcher.
Another name to watch is infielder Chris Dominguez. The 30-year-old has experience in the big leagues and was signed to a minor league contract in the offseason. Wehofer thinks Candelario and Chris Dominguez might swap back and forth between first and third base.
Between Happ, Candelario, Kawasaki, Young, Weeks and Dominguez, the team has about six high-quality infielders. Wehofer isn’t sure who will end up playing where, but he thinks it bodes well for Iowa.
“Put some combination (of those six) in there, and it should be pretty good,” he says.
In the outfield Wehofer expects to see John Andreoli and Mark Zagunis.
“Andreoli has been a really good player for us two years in a row,” he says. “Zagunis is rated pretty high on the prospect list and played well last year before sustaining an injury.”
He says it’s also possible one of the talented infielders could attempt switching to the outfield.
Predicting the pitching staff is a bit harder for Wehofer, but if Chicago’s staff stays healthy and intact, then he suspects that Buchanan and Rob Zastryzny will both land in Iowa’s starting rotation. Chicago also traded for Eddie Butler in the off season from the Rockies, and he’s a starter who might contribute.
In the bullpen, Felix Pena pitched well in relief for last season’s I-Cubs, according to Wehofer.
“He was called up to the bigs in August,” he says. “But there doesn’t seem to be a spot for him in the bullpen on opening day, so he would be at Principal Park.”
And don’t forget about Dallas Beeler and Aaron Brooks (hip). They were supposed to be part of the Iowa rotation last season as well, but they didn’t make it out of spring training. They both remain with the organization and could be in Iowa if they are healthy.
Will any players on this year’s opening day Iowa Cubs roster end up chipping in, playing a key role, or even being the guy who is traded for the guy who gets the last out of the 2017 World Series? There’s only one way to find out: PLAY BALL!
THE STATE OF CUBDOM
Euphoria has entered “Cubdom,” and according to I-Cubs team president and general manager Sam Bernabe, the excitement is greater than at any time since he’s been with the team.
Bernabe first arrived in Iowa’s front office in 1983. He began as an intern, but during the ensuing 34 years — all with Iowa — he has worked his way to the top of the organizational ladder.
And not just the I-Cubs ladder.
“I’m just finishing my ninth year as the chairman of the board of minor league baseball, which is the highest position you can take as a non-paid employee in running the game,” he says
In addition, if you look inside the Official Baseball Rules 2016 Edition, you’ll notice Bernabe’s name listed in the opening pages with some of baseball’s biggest icons — former Yankee manager Joe Torre and former front office great Sandy Alderson are both on the same short list.
“I think I’m the longest tenured general manager in Triple-A baseball,” he says. “This is my 34th year, and I wouldn’t trade one second of one day of it.”
Along the way, Bernabe has had his share of ups and downs, but he says that Chicago winning the championship last season was the highlight of his career, and he’s welcoming the challenges that come along with it.
“We’re still trying to figure out how to act when the parent club wins the World Series,” says Bernabe.
He may have been with the organization a long time, but Chicago’s previous World Series pre-dates him by 74 years. Bernabe says fans at Principal Park can expect to have some fun celebrating the historic win and should look forward to an assortment of upcoming promotions, enticements and giveaways.
The fun begins on opening day. Besides the baseball action on the field, Bernabe says T-shirts with a large “W” printed on them, signifying the organization’s title, will be given away.
Another “W” is expected to arrive at Principal Park later in the season when the World Series trophy is likely coming back to town. It has already made one appearance in Des Moines, but it was brief, and Bernabe expects that the fans who missed out on the marvel in February will get another chance soon.
“Until there is a new champion, it’s going to be a Cubs trophy,” he says.
Other hardware will be handled with care, as well. Any player on this year’s I-Cubs team who earned a championship ring for their role in last season’s World Series win will be honored with a championship ring by the parent club. Bernabe says the ring presentation will be done at an early-season home game.
“We will have some ceremonial dates that will be a lot of fun,” he says. “We will do a ceremony here early in the season for them to get them their World Series rings.”
Celebrations are well and good, but helping Chicago “get some runs” and win is the Triple-A affiliate’s primary purpose. That can mean a heavy dose of roster shuffling if the big league club works through injuries and turmoil. While that helps the parent team bolster its lineup, it can hinder the minor league’s chances of having a winning season of its own.
“There’s the 25-man roster in Chicago,” Bernabe says. “And then there’s our 25 guys, and we’re the insurance policies for the 25 guys in Chicago.”
The Iowa Cubs haven’t won a title of their own since 1993, and the squad is the only one that has won it all during Bernabe’s tenure.
“It would be nice to win (another) one for our fans,” he says.
For that to happen, the club needs the right roster in the dugout and talented players on the field, but Bernabe won’t speculate as to what his will look like. Roster changes happen too quickly and frequently, and he’s had situations in the past when the team was coming home from spring training, and by the time the plane landed two or three players had to leave immediately and head to Chicago or go to another organization because of a trade.
He does say that stability is a major factor in determining a Triple-A team’s win/loss record. If the parent club is winning, it usually means it is healthy and producing and that decreases the likelihood of frequent personnel changes.
“If the Cubs win a championship, it improves the ability to play more cohesively,” he says.
Bernabe says minor league baseball isn’t all about wins and losses, especially from most fans’ perspectives.
“You know, you just kind of say: ‘Cubbie Bear is here, so bring the kids out. The hot dogs are hot, and the beers are cold, and the soda is cold, and everything’s great. It’s a beautiful night, and we’re going to shoot fireworks and shoot some T-shirts into the crowd and maybe give you something at the gate. And, by the way, there is a baseball game going. Come right out and enjoy the evening.’ “
THE KNOTHOLE GANG
The Knothole Gang is offered to kids 13 years old and younger. It’s $15 to join the gang, which buys the members admission to 10 Sunday games.
“Essentially it’s all the Sunday games minus the second of July,” says Jason Gellis, assistant ticket manager and group sales manager who heads up the Knothole Gang. “These are general admission tickets, so the kids can choose their seats from what is available. It also enables them to sit with parents, non-Knothole-member friends or whoever they want.”
In addition to admission to 10 games, Knothole Gang members receive a certificate for a free soft drink and treat during each of the Sunday games, says Gellis. They are also given a free T-shirt.
Another highlight for members, according to Gellis, is the clinic instructed by some of the team’s players. This year’s instructional from the pros on hitting, fielding, running the bases and taking fielding practice will take place on Saturday, July 1 at the ballpark.
Gellis says the team offers a package of 10 undated general admission tickets at a cost of $60, and many parents of Knothole Gang members purchase the booklet and attend games with their children.
“Parents often buy one of these so they can accompany their kids,” he says. “And they can sit together.”
OTHER PROMOTIONS OF SPECIAL INTEREST
• Sundays are fun days at Principal Park as kids are allowed to run the bases on the field.
• The Hall of Fame might be coming through town. The Iowa Cubs are expected to host the National Baseball Hall of Fame Tour for one week in early June. The team expects to have an official announcement at the start of the season as to when The Hall of Fame Tour might be at the park. The tour is said to be a state-of-the-art traveling baseball experience featuring artifacts such as the cap Jackie Robinson wore during the 1955 World Series and the baseball that Babe Ruth hit for his 714th home.
• Cubbie Bear is the mascot of the Iowa Cubs and roams Principal Park while cheering on the I-Cubs and helping fans have a good time. ♦