2018 was not a good year for the Iowa Cubs in terms of wins and losses. Their 50-88 record was the worst in the league and in the Cubs’ system. But in terms of producing help for the major league squad, Iowa was more than successful. Randy Rosario, James Norwood, Victor Caratini, and David Bote all contributed in Chicago after success at Iowa.
As for 2019, a strange thing is happening.
Over the past few years, the Cubs relied heavily on AAAA players to fill out the roster at Iowa. The roster for 2019 will see a dramatic shift in that construction as most of the pitching staff will be made of homegrown arms. As for position players, there are a few MiLB free agents that will have some spots in the daily lineup.
Projected daily lineup
C – Taylor Davis
1B – Jim Adduci
2B – Trent Giambrone
SS – Zack Short
3B – Cristhian Adames/Phillip Evans
OF – Ian Happ, Donnie Dewees, Jacob Hannemann, Johnny Field
SP – Duncan Robinson, Trevor Clifton, Jen-Ho Tseng, Matt Swarmer, Duane Underwood
IL – Alec Mills, Adbert Alzolay
While the starting rotation could be formidable once everyone is healthy, the bullpen is looking pretty vicious right now. With Dillon Maples, Dakota Mekkes, and Norwood on board, the I-Cubs can attack a team in a variety of ways on a nightly basis. The main issue for the bullpen is who is going to be healthy and when.
Top 3 prospects to watch
When healthy, Alzolay is the top prospect to watch. While the Cubs may want him to be a starting pitcher, his body has not been cooperating over the last year. Still, his live upper-90’s fastball and tight 2-7 curve make him one of the best arms, if not the best, currently in the system. Alzolay might actually be a better reliever in the long run as his stuff could tick up to triple digits.
Trent Giambrone and Zack Short were drafted in 2016 and both have moved quickly through the system with varying levels of success. Giambrone has been playing all the field to make himself more versatile after a great 17-homer season last year at Tennessee where he put up a wRC+ of 118. At 25 years old, he has somewhat taken on that super-utility role, a la Bote. Not bad for a 25th round pick out of Delta State.
The 23-year-old Short, a 17th round pick, also had 17 dingers in 2018. However, Short’s 15.6% walk rate helped put his wRC+ at 123. Yes, he could hit for a higher percentage, but his .356 OBP would do in a pinch. Short was also lauded for his glove work as he was named the best defensive shortstop in the Southern League by Baseball America. If needed, he’s close to being ready.
The Ian Happ Factor
Happ’s move to Iowa was surprising and expected at the same time. It was easy to spot he was in a slump, but considering his talent, one would have thought he’d be given the opportunity to work through things at the MLB level. That didn’t happen. With a new focus on “Playing like it’s October in March,” Happ was the first casualty of the new mantra.
Still, Happ is just 24 and he’s got power, speed, and athleticism. He has always been a streaky hitter, even in the minors, and he’ll get hot before teams would adapt, then he would just dominate and take away their will to live. Happ went through the system in less than two years, going from Eugene to Iowa in just 843 at-bats. That’s not a lot.
One could ask if that lack of experience is his issue, but the answer would be no. Happ’s issues are at the MLB level. Going to Iowa is going to be strange because he’s not going to see MLB pitching there. He will see a lot of junk-ballers, a few phenoms, and some guys hoping for a last chance. At times, Happ will destroy the baseball and there will be moments when he struggles against pitches that start with a C or a S.
This is not going to be easy for him. When he’s ready, and he will be in time, it will be fascinating to see whose place he takes on the roster.
First to be promoted
If life was fair, everyone at Cubs Insider would pick Maples, especially considering the adjustments he made this spring. In 8.1 spring training innings, he struck out 16 while only walking five. Opponents only hit .143 against him. Still, if the Cubs wanted him to stay with the big league club, he would have.
As a result, whichever reliever is pitching the best at the time of need is the one who will come up. It could be Mekkes, it could be Maples, or it could be Norwood. Then again, if a lefty is needed, that kind of screws the aforementioned three.
The great thing about Triple-A is that you never know how a prospect will do until they get there. Could this be the year Trevor Clifton makes it? Will Duncan Robinson continue the dominant run of starting pitching he began last August? Can Duane Underwood figure it out as a starter again? How will Matt Swarmer‘s offspeed stuff and funky delivery play at this level? How will Donnie Dewees do in returning to the fold?
There are a lot of good storylines to follow in Des Moines this summer, enough that the I-Cubs may just be the affiliate to watch every day for the first time in a few years.