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
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.
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.
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.
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