Cubs Organizational Depth Chart: Iowa Cubs

Photo courtesy of Iowa Cubs/Dylan Heuer

Photo courtesy of Iowa Cubs/Dylan Heuer

There is still a great deal of uncertainty surrounding next season. Yes, the Major League season will take place, but how much it will resemble a normal season or the soon-to-be-completed 2020 variant is still up in the air. That means teams need to prepare not just for a typical MLB campaign accompanied by the Minor League equivalent, but also another bubble scenario, perhaps expanded, perhaps not, where once again the MiLB season could be scrapped.

While it is still too early to guess what the 2021 season will look like for the Cubs and their affiliates, it isn't too early to project what those rosters will look like should the Minor League season kick off under something approaching normal circumstances. Today, I'll focus on the Iowa Cubs, then will move down through the system throughout the week.

I should note that when the Minors do resume, it won't be under the same structure in which we last saw it. The short season leagues are being eliminated. Some of those clubs with the best facilities will move into full season leagues to replace franchises with substandard setups. This means a number of affiliated clubs will be eliminated. Some will end up folding, others will likely join Independent Leagues.

I'll do a deeper dive into the changes later in the offseason, but as for right now let's just focus on what it will mean for the Cubs. And the answer is not much. The Eugene Emeralds and the Northwest Short Season League will no longer be a part of the organizational structure, with in essence a modified version of the Arizona Rookie League to take its place.

AAA - Iowa Cubs

2021iowacubs

The strength of the I-Cubs roster leans heavily towards their pitching staff. Tyson Miller struggled in his 2019 AAA debut, but he tweaked his repertoire at the South Bend camp this summer, eventually leading to his MLB debut. I don't envision him with a great shot to make the MLB roster out of Spring Training as a starter or reliever, but he should help anchor the Iowa rotation and battle to be the first callup should a starter go down in Chicago.

Cory Abbott (Photo by Stephanie Lynn)

Cory Abbott (Photo by Stephanie Lynn)

His strongest competition for that opportunity will likely come from Cory Abbott. Abbott does not possess overpowering stuff, but does command the ball pretty well, utilizes the entire strike zone, while mixing his pitches. He's succeeded at every level through AA and even missed a decent amount of bats. He should be added to the 40-man roster this offseason and I believe there is a good chance he eventually gets on to a career trajectory similar to the one Alec Mills has been on.

Top prospect Brailyn Marquez also needs to enter the discussion at this point. Expected to open this season in AA, there was a decent chance he could have worked his way up to AAA by the end of the year, especially in light of the fact the Cubs allowed him to make his MLB debut the final game of the season. So, he could certainly open next year atop the I-Cubs rotation, and as a member of the 40-man roster, he would likely displace Miller and Abbott as the choice to fill a MLB rotation openings. The Cubs could take a more conservative approach though and hopefully let Marquez get his feet under him in pitcher friendly Tennessee rather than start him off in the hitter friendly PCL.

Keegan Thompson, Duncan Robinson and Matt Swarmer provide excellent veteran depth for the rotation in the meantime. A couple of 40-man roster players, Colin Rea (if he is tendered a contract) and Justin Steele, could also factor into the rotation but my hope is the Cubs transition them into full-time relief roles.

Justin Steele (photo by Stephanie Lynn)

Justin Steele (photo by Stephanie Lynn)

Steele could form a part of a stingy left-handed trio at the back of the I-Cubs bullpen alongside a hopefully healthy Brad Wieck, and groundball specialist Wyatt Short. Rex Brothers could add a power arm to the mix if the Cubs tender him a contract for 2021.

Danny Hultzen (along with a ton of other LHPs - see list below) is a Minor League free agent, but he could be brought back as well. Beyond them, former Texas Ranger C.D. Pelham has shown an ability to miss bats in the past, but he'll need to overcome control issues. And of course 2020 second round pick Burl Carraway could earn a role in AAA right away, although for now I expect him to open the year in AA while the Cubs let their veterans sort themselves out in Iowa.

When it comes to arms as talented as Marquez and Carraway the level of competition is less important. If they are executing their pitches and repeating their deliveries well, it doesn't matter who they face, be it AA, AAA or MLB batters, they'll be able to record outs.

The composition of the righties in the Iowa pen is tough to pin down right now. Colin Rea and Dillon Maples will be out of options. Michael Rucker, Dakota Mekkes, and Trevor Megill will all be eligible for the Rule 5 draft. Should the Cubs manage to retain most of them, they will join James Norwood to form a potentially dominant pen. Craig Brooks and his wicked slider, along with sidearmer Scott Effross provide experienced depth.

Manuel Rodriguez, a member of the 40-man roster with a mid-90s fastball and good curve, along with slider specialist Ben Hecht, former starter Bailey Clark, and elite spin rate generator Ethan Roberts will also battle for any openings, but are more likely to form the backbone of the Tennessee pen. Any one of them could move up during the course of the year though.

The Cubs will also bring in veteran additions they hope to turn around next season. They got good results out of Ryan Tepera and Jason Adam this season, and they will look to repeat the process. Even if it means cycling through another uninspiring list of former big names to uncover a couple with gas still left in the tank.

Position Players

Cam Balego (Photo by Stephanie Lynn)

Cam Balego (Photo by Stephanie Lynn)

Turning to the position players... this will be a shorter discussion.

They do have catching depth. That's their main strength. P.J. Higgins and Cam Balego are versatile former infielders capable of holding their own behind the dish while contributing elsewhere. I don't expect either ends up a full-time MLB backup, but they do offer intriguing options as shuttle players when injuries strike in Chicago. Tyler Payne is a nice, solid org catcher.

And then there is Miguel Amaya. His situation is similar to that of Brailyn Marquez. One of the Cubs top prospects, and among the best catcher prospects in all of baseball, Amaya was on track to open next year in AAA had the 2020 Minor League season taken place. It may still happen. I tend to be a bit conservative when projecting timelines for catchers, so I think he plays the first 50-60 games in Tennessee next season, but the Cubs will have a pretty good feel for if he is ready for AAA right out of the gate after keeping a close eye on him this summer in South Bend.

Beyond Amaya, there isn't much except 1B Alfonso Rivas in the way of prospects projected to contribute to the Iowa lineup. Rivas has hit for average and makes plenty of contact, but his power production up to this point has not been what you hope for out of a first baseman. He had been in line to play in the cancelled Arizona Fall League this year. With Anthony Rizzo in the final year of his deal, and the DH potentially sticking around beyond next season in the NL, Rivas has an opportunity next year to show he can fill a role on the Cubs 2022 roster.

The Cubs will need to fill out much of the Iowa lineup with veteran additions this offseason. After trading Zack Short at the deadline, they have no one in line to play shortstop. The addition of at least two middle infielders is required. They also need a lot of help in the outfield. Ideally, none of the four outfielders set to compete for jobs in Iowa end up as starters. I still hold out some hope Jared Young can get back on track, and he could offer some left-handed power as a 1B/LF.

Hopefully the Cubs can acquire one or two AAA-ready prospects in trades as they reshape their roster at the MLB level, rather than relying entirely on the Patrick Wisdom and Hernan Perez's of the world for AAA depth.

Minor League Free Agents: C Erick Castillo, UT Hernan Perez, CIF Patrick Wisdom, OF Ian Miller, OF Mark Zagunis, OF Vance Vizcaino, RHP Pedro Strop, RHP Joe Weiland, RHP Corey Black, LHP Josh Osich, LHP Danny Hultzen, LHP Tyler Olson, LHP Luis Lugo, LHP Jordan Minch, LHP Jerry Vasto, LHP Luke Hagerty

Comments

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  • Excellent review as usual, Michael, Thanks.

  • You left out LHP Jack Patterson. He is the real deal.

  • In reply to BigSkyBob:

    Big fan. But with the left-handed depth competing for spots in Iowa next year, I think it more likely he opens in Tennessee. But it depends if they view him as a starter or reliever. It's difficult to get a read on where the Cubs view his role long term since all of the South Bend info was locked down this year. If they develop him purely as a starter in 2021, he could easily win a rotation spot over one of Robinson or Swarmer.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Thanks Michael. With South Bend being locked down, yes it does make it tough. Looking forward to seeing what they do with him. From what I have seen of him, he is impressive.

  • The Theo/Jed team has really done a poor job of drafting/signing and developing players and this preview of our highest affiliate highlights the terrible job they have done.

    Marquez certainly looks to be a guy that could be a stud and there is hope that 2-3 could be solid BP guys which is important this day and age, but there is a severe dearth of impact positional players at this level. Amaya might be a decent guy but has struggled to develop and there is no one else that has a remote possibility.

    And what makes this more difficult to swallow, the young players, the guys who should be the core with the parent club, have struggled to become impact guys. Happ holds promise but Bryant, Baez and Schwarber took major steps back.

    I am not so sure this organization shouldn't have made a change at the top this fall. Maybe an overreaction, but what was supposed to have been a strength for this organization, Theo/Jed have really laid an egg of late.

  • In reply to IrwinFletcher:

    I actually think they've made positive changes in the draft/development in recent years, but there just hasn't been enough time for those higher upside players to filter up to the top of the system yet. Marquez and Carraway are kind of the tip of the spear there. It was those two years of college heavy, low upside pitching which is hurting the team right now. Miller and Abbott are most of what is left of that, and while I see them pitching in the majors, neither figure to move the needle.

    Also, the new scouting director has only had one draft, and it was a truncated 5 round affair. We need time to see how he alters things moving forward. I did like what he did in those five rounds.

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    Now that the season is over except for the WS. Can the CUBS concentrate on pitching? They should do some trading with Tampa Bay. Tampa has many pitchers and pitching prospects that the CUBS could use to build up their shabby bullpen and then they can find another starter.
    Pitching is definitely their problem! After they get that figured out they can work on a lead off guy or at least someone who can hit.

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    I've made it known on this site for the last few years of this teams draft record, and have been told that this is the correct route, to draft hitters and leave pitching to free agency.
    Look where we are now, the hitters we drafted have been regressing
    and our pitching has cost us a fair share of our cap, now our supposed draft of hitters are ready for their contracts and have decreased in value we'd be lucky to get 50 cents on the dollar.
    Have disagreed with this thinking for awhile, always thought you shoot for the moon with your first picks in the draft, and with pitching being such a hot commodity, you invest heavily, never thought college pitchers were worth it unless you are in the top ten in draft, which we haven't been the last five years, and one last thing, you never reach in the first two rounds.
    As far as hitters are concerned, international hitters seem to be upcoming trend in the last ten years, just look who are the hot prospects every year, usually an IFA.

  • In reply to tater:

    Tater some interesting points.

    Cubs have done a horrible job drafting, outside of a few premium picks, and international signing. Cubs drafts since 2012 absolutely have not been hitter heavy. Very few hitters drafted in the first ten rounds.

    Cubs current front office came in all smug with waves and waves of talent. Is DJ Lemahieu a better hitter than anyone this front office developed with the Cubs? This wise front office drafted a few college hitters that developed, and spent more money twice on the international free agent market limit. I'm still amazed at how good the Cubs got with so few players developed.

    In 2018 Cubs drafted 7 hitters in the first 10 rounds with 12 picks. That is the only hitter heavy draft Cubs had since 2012.

    Cubs drafted too many pitchers with average stuff. Then compounded the problem by paying around slot value, in the first ten rounds.

    Cubs have been below average at picking players. Cubs draft slot money management has been average or below average? Waves and Waves of talent, or really just building an average farm system Cubs need to be above average with money management of the slot.

    The draft is about picking the right players - totally obvious. Better money management of the slot, gives teams more options.

    In 2019 draft, both of the Dodgers & Braves had 11 picks in first 10 rounds. Dodgers paid 8 picks under slot, and Braves 7 picks under slot. Braves ended up signing 6 high school players, drafted between 11th to 19th round all to over-slot deals.

    No idea what the Cubs, & Kantrovitz drafting strategy is going forward? Who knows what will happen with the draft in the next collective bargaining agreement.

    What I would like to see the Cubs do more of-
    Draft more bats in first ten rounds.
    Save more money versus slot value, especially with college juniors.
    Draft a few more college seniors in first ten rounds every year, and pay them as little as possible to save money against slot.
    Use the slot savings to draft/sign a few more high school players, and look at signing a few more over-slot deals for players picked after the 10th round.

    I personally would rather pay 3 high school pitchers $600K each, then pay one high school pitcher drafted in first 3 rounds $1.8 million or more.

  • In reply to tater:

    I'm not sure it really matters whether you draft pitchers or hitters. The key is that you need a few of the prospects to hit as starters so you can balance the payroll. What I mean is, you need some guys making $500K a year (or close), so you can flesh out the rest of the lineup with FA and pricey trades. So having Bryant, Hendricks, Contreras, Russell, and Schwarber (if he wasn't hurt) as starters in '16, allowed the Cubs to sign Zobrist, Lester, Hammels, Hayward, and the rest. The problem now is that other than Happ, the Cubs are developing no young starters. Now they are faced with decisions like, "Do we sign Baez to a pricey, long-term contract?" When Baez is the backup SS and 2nd baseman and making only $500K, you're cooking with gas. When he's making a ton of money and is your number 3 hitter, you're in trouble. So the thinking of going with hitters was that they were more less likely to get hurt and more likely to hit their floor. And it worked.

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    The only problem with that thinking is the HS pitchers in the first 3 rounds are going to be much higher upside than your pitchers taken
    on over slot deals after round 10, obviously if they already are tied to top colleges you won't get them for 600K, the idea is to get the highest talent you can in the first few rounds, getting HS pitchers under slot is tough in the first 3 rounds, unless they are tied to TJ surgery.

  • In reply to tater:

    I agree, HS players are much harder to get under slot deals.

    The White Sox took 2 high school pitchers in the the 2nd, & 3rd round of the 2019 draft and paid them $2.1, & $2.0 million dollars. Those are the kind of players I would avoid. Tater, I assume you like those type of HS arms.

    I would rather save money really on most of the picks in the first 10 rounds. Look to draft some of the college juniors who might fall in the draft. I want to avoid high school pitchers in the first 3 rounds. I also kind of want the Cubs to try to sign 2 or 3 high school pitchers most years picked in round 4 or later, but don't break the bank to sign them.

    I have no doubt Cubs have spent a lot of money on player development, and amateur scouting departments since Theo took over. We all know the results. Changes have been made. I hope they help.

    I just don't see the Cubs being a player development powerhouse, & as a large market team they shouldn't draft early in the first round very often. Maybe the Cubs could become above average at developing hitters, if they actual spent more picks in the first 10 rounds on them.

    As a large market team player development is very important, but it cannot be the way the Cubs can build a playoff caliber team. It is a supporting piece for large market teams.

    Cubs need to use their financial might to build a winner. I liked how the Cubs stepped in late to sign Darvish, & Kimbrel, try doing more of that. Make a few more trades with veterans going in, and out. Try trading a few players when values are high. Try making some trades for players when values are low. Once in awhile a big market team like the Cubs need to take a step back. Even then use your money to take make your players more attractive in the trade market. Smart front office people should be able to use money for more than just outbidding other teams for free agents.

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