A Glimpse of Future Bullpens at AAA Iowa, and a Disappointing Year Overall

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A Glimpse of Future Bullpens at AAA Iowa, and a Disappointing Year Overall

Chicago Cubs

This was not a good year for the competitiveness of the Cubs’ AAA affiliate in Iowa. By the end of April, the Iowa Cubs had already suffered through an eight-game losing streak. They did not win back-to-back games until May 5th and 6th. They were basically out of contention by end of the first month, and, while they did play better later on in the summer, they never really climbed back into any sort of a chase.

When you look at individual players, the story arguably got worse. Adbert Alzolay, one of the Cubs’ top pitching prospects, was slowed by injury and did not open the season with Iowa. He pitched well when he did arrive… until being shut down again with a back injury. Oscar De La Cruz was expected to reach Iowa, but was suspended for performance-enhancing drug use before he got out of Tennessee. We hoped that Jen-Ho Tseng would take a step forward this year. He didn’t. We hoped that Dillon Maples would tame his control issues and force his way into the Major League bullpen. Nope.

It really just wasn’t a good year overall.

But it did have some bright spots. David Bote opened the season in Iowa, but he finished as an important member of the Chicago Cubs (not to mention a guy who provided a number of key moments). Victor Caratini spent some time in Iowa and eventually hit his way back onto the major league roster. James Norwood was a surprising bright spot as he went from a guy no one was really watching to someone who got a taste of the majors.

Aaaaaand that’s about it for the definite good news. Sorry. It was just that kind of a year for Iowa.

For example, even if we set the minimum plate appearances down to 1, the second best hitter for Iowa in 2018 was… Efren Navarro. Victor Caratini leads the pack (136 wRC+) followed by the 32-year-old Navarro (116) and Bote (115). Mark Zagunis and Ryan Court were the only other hitters to even have a wRC+ over 100. There were just three pitchers who threw 100 or more innings, and none of them had an ERA under 4.50 (Tseng 6.27, Alec Mills 4.84, Duane Underwood 4.53). Seven pitchers did have a K/9 in the double digits (including Carl Edwards Jr. who only pitched two innings), but walk rates for all of them were elevated. The best was Justin Hancock, who had a solid season (11.22 K/9, 3.32 BB/9), though even he wound up injured. Everyone else had a walk rate over 4.60.

That said, there were some positive trends in Iowa this year, trends that I think we should definitely keep in mind as we start to look towards 2019.

For example, Alec Mills came back from losing the 2017 season to injury to pitch 124.2 innings for Iowa as well as 18 pretty good innings for Chicago. His big league numbers include a K/9 of 11.50, a ground ball rate of 51.2%, and a FIP of 2.49. Given the sinking, grounder-focused nature of his stuff, I think we could see Mills compete for a spot in the 2019 bullpen as a middle/long reliever or spot starter.

Duane Underwood’s career was headed in the wrong direction after a very pedestrian 2017 season in Tennessee, but he effectively turned things around in Iowa. None of his numbers stand out, but he did post a 3.94 FIP in 119 innings (20 starts, 7 bullpen appearances) and made it into Chicago for four innings. Another year of seasoning in Iowa seems likely for Underwood, but he now looks like a guy who could turn into a part of the 2019 Cubs’ story.

Trevor Clifton is a similar case. His 2017 was nothing to get excited about, but he rebounded nicely in Tennessee to open 2018 and held his own in Iowa during his final 69.1 innings. He will probably be part of Iowa’s 2019 rotation, and he should be on the short list of candidates for spot start duty in Chicago early in the season.

Iowa also finished the year with a pretty nice bullpen. In addition to the electric (and sometimes wild) stuff of Dillon Maples, reliever Dakota Mekkes struck out plenty (11.78 K/9) after making it to Iowa in just his second full season as a professional. Justin Hancock pitched will in relief, as did Luke Farrell and Kyle Ryan. The Cubs will have some work to do in order to bring back all of the promising Triple A reliever crew for next year, particularly if they are going to hang on to some move veteran rebound candidates like Allen Webster and Danny Hultzen, but if the Cubs can pull it off they could enter 2019 with a deep and talented group of relievers ready to ride the Iowa to Chicago shuttle all year long.

There should be a few starters on that shuttle as well. If Mills isn’t in the Major League bullpen, he’ll be available as an up-and-down starter, as will Tseng (assuming he can bounce back), Clifton, and Underwood. Duncan Robinson made it to Iowa for 11 innings, and he could be back there to begin the season. Daury Torrez and Zach Hedges are also names worth remembering, although they may have a hard time finding innings in Iowa as more pitchers start to come up from Tennessee (more on the Tennessee crowd in a future article).

And we can’t forget about the return of Adbert Alzolay and, possibly, Oscar De La Cruz either. Even before we account for new minor league free agent additions (and account for some inevitable subtractions), Iowa looks to have a good (not great) group of pitchers ready to go for next season.

That’s important, because I don’t think there will be much to look forward to on offense. Slugging corner infielder Jason Vosler should be back, and a solid group of defensively-flexible infielders should come up from Tennessee (Zach Short, Vimael Machin, Trent Giambrone). Ian Rice will likely take over most of the innings behind the plate. And that might be about it. We’ll likely spend 2019 talking about who on Iowa looks the most like a possible Major League utility infielder, not who could impact a pennant race.

The good news for Iowa fans, I suppose, is that I don’t think that 2019 will be as rough as 2018. On the pitching side, in particular, they may well see some quality future major league players stop by in Des Moines for a month or two. Ultimately, though, Iowa will likely finish closer to the basement than the penthouse. And that’s fine, so long as we see the positive trends in player development (particularly for pitching) continue.

Author: Luke Blaize

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