The Chicago Cubs have been lucky the past few years. Though not all of them spent much time in Des Moines, all but but one of their regular position players has gone through Iowa to get to the major leagues. Only Jason Heyward did not. The matriculation of all that elite talent means the need for everyday position players is gone until the year 2022.
This year, then the Iowa Cubs have a different set of objectives. The young prospects that the affiliate is going to mold and shape could be called upon to fill one of several roles. These include backup catcher, backup bench position player, a bullpen piece, and a spot starter.
In 2017, several prospects from Iowa filled the aforementioned roles, as Eddie Butler, Victor Caratini, Mark Zagunis, and Dillon Maples all saw time at the big league level. The emergence of Ian Happ was a huge surprise to many last year, including myself, who thought he was still a year away when 2017 began. Here are some names to keep an eye on at Iowa this spring.
Most Likely to Play a Significant Role
Victor Caratini has grown by leaps and bounds defensively over the past year. His bat is more than ready for the major leagues, which is why he was chosen to break camp as part of the 25-man roster. The only issue is that the Cubs really don’t have a spot for him to play every day. A backup role is not very suitable as he definitely is one of those guys who needs to play every day with his hitting profile, so could still spend a good bit of time moving between AAA and Chicago.
Could Play a Somewhat Major Role
With Mike Montgomery being christened the sixth starter, and the likely inclusion of Eddie Butler on the roster, it is going to be extremely difficult for any starting pitcher at Iowa to end up in Chicago. There are, however, three names to watch.
Jen-Ho Tseng was a revelation last year as he re-inserted himself into most prospect lists. He is still relatively young and a full year at Iowa can only help him find his fastball command some more.
Alec Mills came over in the Donnie Dewees trade and could be a spot starter at some point this year. Like Tseng, he does not have much left to prove at Iowa. It’s a matter of command.
Duane Underwood looked really good in camp and Joe Maddon praised hiss physical and mental transformation from a year ago. He still only 23 and he still has some elite talent that could hopefully make it at the majors. His issue has been command. His second half in 2017 showed some promise and seemed like a small flashback to his dominant 2014 breakout season.
Could Play a Minor Bench Role
Mark Zagunis, David Bote, Ryan Court, and Mike Freeman all played well this spring, but the issue with these four is the same issue as the first two. There are just no spots for them unless there’s an injury. When called upon, they could be ready to fill in for a short period of time. Out of all of them, Zagunis is the most ready at the plate. Bote is coming on fast and is improving by leaps and bounds each year.
Still Has Some Work to Do
Dillon Maples‘ future is going to come down to command. He has unbelievable movement on all of his pitches, he just has to throw them for strikes. It’s no secret. The Cubs know it, he knows it, and pretty much everyone else knows it.
Ryan Williams missed two years of baseball, including an aborted comeback last year, due to shoulder problems and will probably be handled with kid gloves this year. A closer in college, he could fill a bullpen role. For somebody who is a ground-ball machine and has great command in the lower part of the zone, I think you get where I’m going. The issue is whether he can come back and not have his shoulder flare up again.
There are plenty more names that have been around for a long time — like Jake Hannemann, Charcer Burks, and Bijan Rademacher — and that just don’t have a place to go from Iowa. In the meantime, all of these players are going to have to wait for their opportunity to go up and help in whatever role they can. You never know what can happen and they should be prepared to fill whatever role is needed.