This weekend, there were a number of roster moves at AAA Iowa that bear on the big league team, either sooner or later.
Tsuyoshi Wada (groin) completed his work at extended Spring Training, and is now at AAA Iowa on a rehab assignment. On Friday, Wada threw 81 pitches, which means he’s just about fully stretched out (in terms of building up start-of-year arm strength – I’m not commenting on his readiness vis a vis his injury). Wada went 4.2 innings, giving up 4 hits, 2 walks, 1 earned run, and he struck out 6.
Wada can remain at AAA Iowa for another 29 days on a rehab assignment, and, given that there’s no spot for Wada right now, the Cubs may take their time with his rehab stint. My instinct is that he’s one of the best 12 pitchers the Cubs have, either for the rotation or the bullpen, especially with Justin Grimm and Neil Ramirez out. Incorporating Wada, however, is a little tricky. Until and unless Edwin Jackson is moved out and the Cubs opt to make Wada the long reliever, or unless Wada replaces someone like Zac Rosscup, or until there’s an injury in the rotation, I don’t see where Wada goes. I suppose it’s possible the Cubs simply shuttle him in as a reliever at some point, but he’s being stretched out as a starter, and once he’s back and up with the Cubs, he’s not a guy who can be optioned back down.
Speaking of AAA relievers and optioning them up and down, one guy who could have been in that role is Blake Parker, but now he’s on the disabled list with an elbow that’s bothering him (Tommy Birch). I know that’s vague – Parker had a stress reaction in his elbow a couple years ago – but that’s all the info we have for now. So, Parker could be out for a couple weeks, or he could be out for longer. For now, it’s probably safe to assume that, like Neil Ramirez and Justin Grimm at the big league level, we’re not going to see Parker pitching for the Cubs for a little while.
Taking Parker’s place in the bullpen at Iowa is a promising arm who got a non-roster invite to Spring Training, Hunter Cervenka. The 25-year-old lefty was who the Cubs got for Marlon Byrd from the Red Sox way back in 2012, together with Michael Bowden. In some ways, Cervenka’s ascent up the Cubs’ farm system looks a whole lot like another lefty who is now helping in the big league bullpen (Zac Rosscup). Something of a throw-in for a larger trade (Matt Garza), Rosscup was always able to strike out a ton of batters in the minors, but he always walked far too many of them. Even in recent years, that was still the case, but his strikeout rate was so overwhelmingly absurd (near 40% between AA and AAA in 2013, and 31.4% at AAA last year) that you could live with the walks. Cervenka’s K rate hasn’t been quite as strong – more like mid-20s – but his walk rate has similarly been in the unacceptable 12-13% range. He’ll get a shot to stick at AAA Iowa, and if he can get the walk rate under 10%, and he keeps the ball in the ballpark (which he’s been very good at), there’s a chance he could emerge as a big league reliever.
Taking Kris Bryant’s spot at Iowa, as expected, is third baseman Christian Villanueva. It was a really disappointing 2014 season for 23-year-old. While the glove still drew great reviews, the bat simply didn’t come with him when he was initially promoted to AAA Iowa, and he was ultimately sent back to AA to finish out the year. In a six-game sample at AA to start this year, Villanueva had a .208/.321/.458 line over 28 plate appearances, with a .250 ISO and a 14.3% BB rate (17.9% K rate). Those are excellent numbers, but he’ll need to perform a little better at AAA Iowa this time around to stay on the Cubs’ radar for the future. He’s already on the 40-man roster, but is only 23, so there’s a little time – especially if his defensive abilities at third translate to other positions, where he might be able to carve out a utility role in the big leagues.
Odds are, if Villanueva has a nice first half, he could be a trade chip for the Cubs come July (or could help the Cubs be a little more comfortable dealing other utility types if it came to that).
Finally, the Cubs activated catcher Taylor Teagarden from the disabled list, where he started the season (extended Spring Training – shoulder soreness). The 31-year-old is a defensively-minded back-stop, the kind you love to have as a back-up-back-up at AAA. Good to know that he’s healthy, and I expect it provides the Cubs just a little more comfort at the big league level as they consider their options with respect to potentially trading Welington Castillo.