The 2016 Iowa Cubs: A Team of Questions and Upside

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The 2016 Iowa Cubs: A Team of Questions and Upside

Chicago Cubs

iowa cubs logoAs the highest level representative of the Cubs’ farm system, the Triple A Iowa Cubs should have a larger impact on the near-term future of the Major League team than any other squad. That was certainly the case last year as Kris BryantAddison Russell and Kyle Schwarber made brief stops in Des Moines on their way to the NLCS.

The good news for Iowa fans as we enter 2016 is that the Chicago roster looks pretty solid. Barring some severe injuries in the majors, Triple A Cubs fans should be able to enjoy their best prospects for quite a lot longer in 2016 than they did last year. And there are going to be some good prospects for the Iowa crowd to enjoy.

What there isn’t is a lot of certainty. Many eyes will be focused on the Triple A Cubs early in the season as we seek answers, probably prematurely, to a number of questions that will have a marked impact on the short and medium term direction of the Cubs as an organization.

Is Willson Contreras for real?

Contreras has been lurking in the farm system for awhile, but finally in 2015 he delivered a huge Double A campaign. Even though his offensive peripheral numbers are rock solid across the board, there are plenty of analysts questioning whether or not Contreras is anything more than a one-season wonder. Those who are buying in (like me) rank him in the top two or three of the farm system and project him as a future above average Major League catcher with both the bat and the glove. Those who are more skeptical rank him lower in the organization and see him as maybe a somewhat ok backup catcher, if things go right. Which call is correct?

Six to eight weeks into the Iowa season, we may know. If the 2015 Contreras breakout is sustained, if he does show that he is for real, then the Cubs have their post-Montero catcher. He can spend 2016 honing his game in Iowa, spend 2017 splitting time with Montero in Chicago, and take over as the primary catcher in 2018. It is a patient, measured pace that should work for everyone. If he falters, though, the Cubs have a hole to fill in a few years. We need to be careful not to rush to judgement, but 2016 should tell us a lot about what we can expect from the Cubs current number one overall prospect (according to me, anyway).

Can Albert Almora be a plus hitter?

Albert Almora is similarly splitting the analysts, although in his case the fans are significantly outnumbered by the skeptics. Those who think that Almora’s second half of 2015 offensive renaissance is likely connected to a mechanical change in his swing and increasing buy-in to the organization’s approach at the plate (like me) still see Almora as a offensively average, defensively exceptional Major League starting center fielder in the making. The skeptics see him as a high quality defensive fifth outfielder.

As with Contreras, six to eight Iowa weeks are going to tell us a lot about Almora. If he can maintain the hard, consistent contact that propelled him late in his 2015 Double A campaign, fans are going to start clamoring for his arrival in Wrigley sooner rather than later. If he struggles again, we are probably looking at the heir to Matt Szczur. Either way, Iowa fans are going to get an up close look at some of the best outfield defense to pass through Des Moines in years.

Can Billy McKinney play quality outfield defense?

Billy McKinney has a very nice, left-handed swing that projects to make him a productive Major League hitter. The only drawback is that he does not look like he has the power that we normally expect from a corner outfielder, and it doubtful he has the range to be effective enough in center field. The combination of those factors means he could emerge as a very good fourth outfielder and bat off the bench (Chris Coghlan is a frequent comparison); that’s not a bad thing by any means. That future becomes even more likely if he shows he can play good corner outfield defense, and can handle center field when needed. I’m not sure how many chances he’ll get to play center while Almora is on the Iowa roster with him, but I suspect he will get a few.

[Brett: I’d add that McKinney’s power taking a step forward will also be a question/something to watch.]

What will the Cubs do with Vogelbach?

Dan Vogelbach is a patient, disciplined hitter who fought through some nagging injuries to post a Double A SLG of .425 while walking at an 18.2% rate. When the Cubs are trying to teach young hitters the Cubs’ Way, they may as well just point to Vogelbach. I’m not sure any player in the organization exemplifies the patient power approach the Cubs appear to have embraced quite as much as Vogelbach. If he can stay healthy long enough for the power to appear in games, Vogelbach is destined to be a fan favorite.

But unless the NL adopts the DH, he has no home in Chicago. His glovework at first is kindly described as adequate at best; that won’t be enough to supplant Anthony Rizzo. If the Cubs had the need for a full-season DH we would probably see Vogelbach getting a long look in Mesa for that very job. But they don’t. So, for now, the best we can hope for is that Vogelbach destroys baseballs all season long and that the Cubs can either trade him or convince the NL to embrace the DH. Expect the rumors on both fronts to heat up if Vogelbach finally delivers the season-long power show he has been hinting at for a couple of years.

Can Pierce Johnson stay healthy?

When he’s at his best, Johnson looks like a guy who could compete for a rotation job in Chicago as soon as late 2016 (assuming he can tame his slight wildness by then). Unfortunately, thanks to an array of varied injuries, we haven’t seen Johnson at his best too often.

A clean campaign in 2016 is key not just for Johnson’s own development and future, but as a guidepost that could help steer the Cubs’ approach to the July trade deadline. A healthy, strong start to the 2016 Iowa season could help lessen the pressure on the Cubs front office to find a young, cost-controlled starter for 2017 and beyond this summer. If the Cubs become convinced that Johnson can fill that role, perhaps they become even more reluctant to move a guy like Baez or Soler in a midseason deal. Bottom line – everyone is better off if Johnson can avoid the DL.

Can Ryan Williams be the next Kyle Hendricks?

Would you take an ERA of 3.94 and a FIP of 4.10 out of a number five starter? Because that is what Steamer is projecting for Ryan Williams right now. Given that this guy has only been a professional for a season and a half and has never put on a Triple A uniform, that’s not bad at all. The veteran hitters of Triple A will be a challenge for him, though. The younger Double A batters couldn’t resist grounding Williams’ sinking stuff into easy outs, but the crafty Pacific Coast League hitters may have more success.

I suspect they won’t fare much better. Pitchers who attack the bottom of the zone and throw sinking stuff are having success right now, and Williams looks perfectly positioned to ride that trend into a possible second half Wrigley Field appearance. The Cubs’ are certainly hoping that is the case as Williams could be a nice bit of extra pitching insurance down the stretch.

And more…

Those are the major questions, but we will be seeking plenty of more answers once the season is underway. In fact, it is very likely that these major questions could be surpassed in importance by others topics as the situation in Chicago and the upper levels of the minors changes. Those other questions include:

  • Can Corey Black, Armando Rivero, and Carl Edwards, Jr. find enough control to become effective late inning relievers?
  • Is John Andreoli an option in center, and could he take over as the fifth outfielder in Chicago one day?
  • How much does Matt Murton have left in the tank?
  • Just how valuable is catcher Taylor Davis?
  • Do the Cubs have to trade Jeimer Candelario, or can he handle the outfield well enough to be a flexible super-sub type?
  • When will Christian Villanueva get his Major League chance (assuming he is still in the organization when the season starts)?

It should be a fun summer.

Author: Luke Blaize

Luke Blaize is the Minor League Editor at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @ltblaize.