When I first got to see this year’s Iowa Cubs in action, my initial thought was that these young men have come a long way since Kane County in 2013. That is when I saw most of them in action as Cubs for the first time. I remember Albert Almora patrolling center, Dan Vogelbach drilling the ball all over the field, Willson Contreras slowly adjusting to catching, Pierce Johnson dominating on the mound (when healthy), Felix Pena struggling to adjust to starting, and Armando Rivero throwing gas with no idea where the ball was going to go. Those were exciting times.
2013 was the first year of a two-year agreement the Cubs had with the Midwest League affiliate in Kane County. Most of the roster, at the time, was made of up of players drafted from 2011 to 2013 and a collection of international free agents Jim Hendry signed. Now, three years later, only a few have made it up the ladder to AAA. A few of the 56 players that graced the roster in Kane County are scattered at A+ and AA, but most are out of the system.
While the team itself had a losing record (55-80), it did have a potent offense. The problem was that they were always playing from behind. Outside of Johnson and Pena, the pitching staff was not very good.
On the hitting side of things, Almora lit the first half of the season on fire (.326 in 61 games) before a groin injury derailed him in the second half. Vogelbach was promoted to Daytona to be a part of that championship team. They could have gotten a little help from a kid named Kris Bryant, but he skipped Kane County as he jumped from Boise to Daytona.
In 2014, three hitters (Jeimer Candelario, David Bote, and Trey Martin) and 4 pitchers (Justin Amlung, Michael Heesch, Daury Torrez, and James Pugliese) returned to Kane County and were all part of the exceptional 98-49 team that won the Midwest League Championship.
The most interesting aspect of that 2013 roster is how the prospects have developed since. Some have had injuries and missed a season or more, others have changed positions, and some have never really taken off, but noot one member of the team has made it to the majors. This year, however, it looks like four of them could make an appearance of some sort in Chicago.
Who has made it to AAA?
Albert Almora, Dan Vogelbach, Willson Contreras, Pierce Johnson, Felix Pena, and Armando Rivero
Five of these six are doing very well. Even with injuries to Christian Villanueva and Kyle Schwarber, the Cubs showed they are in no hurry to bring either Almora or Contreras up. Later in the summer, their play will make the case for them. Johnson and Pena both pitched well in the first week in Iowa, though Johnson did take a ball off the forearm. It looks like he will be able to make his next start.
Who is in AA?
Stephen Perakslis, Starlin Peralta, Juan Carlos Paniagua, Rob Zastryzny, Jeimer Candelario, Bijan Rademacher, and Tyler Skulina
While Perakslis is injured, Peralta, Paniagua, and Zastryzny have all struggled in the first week at AA. In fact, they’ve never really taken off in what is their second year at Tennessee. Candelario, who I was surprised to see assigned to AA, is off to a slow start. However, it won’t take much to get him going considering his outstanding spring with the big league club. Skulina was outstanding in his first start, going five innings as he only gave up one run in his AA debut.
Who is in A+?
David Bote, Gioskar Amaya, Trey Martin, James Pugliese, Dillon Maples, Jose Rosario, and Daury Torrez
I was actually stunned to see Pugliese and Torrez back in Myrtle Beach after they helped the Pelicans win the Mills Cup Championship Series in 2015. Rosario has finally returned from Tommy John surgery and has not given up a run in two outings. Martin, who has won two straight MiLB Gold Gloves, seems to be blocked as his offense lags far behind his ability to go get a ball in the outfield . As for Amaya, he went to A+ Daytona in 2014 as a second baseman, converted to catcher in 2015 and played at South Bend and is now back at A+ again in Myrtle Beach.
Remember these names?
Justin Amlung, Reggie Golden, Michael Heesch, Rock Shoulders, Oliver Zapata, Nathan Dorris, and 30 other names have all left the Cubs’ system. Some were cut, some were Rule 5 picks, and a couple were traded. Most of them were gone by the end of July 2014. I thought losing Heesch, one of the few left-handed relievers in the system, to the Cardinals was a big blow.
It is a short career
I find it interesting how fast a career plays out in the minor leagues. And just from an historical point of view, it is also interesting to note the varying rates at which players develop and proceed through the system. I would’ve thought by now that Rademacher and Candelario would be at AAA and that Pugliese and Torrez would be relieving in AA. That may still happen, and soon, but it just goes to show you the depth of the system the Cubs have.
It also shows that being a good player at one level in no way guarantees success at the next. The biggest jump in the development cycle is going from A+ to AA. Some players make the jump and keep right on trucking, but many more struggle and stick around, or even return to high-A. Still more never get to make the jump at all.
I remember sitting at the 2015 Cubs Convention and hearing Jason McLeod talk about how it would be great if one or two pitchers from the 2014 Kane County championship team could make it to the majors. I was a little stunned when I heard that. The odds of even three or four total players from a team actually making it to the majors is quite slim. The Cubs could have that this year with the possibility that Contreras, Almora, Johnson, and maybe Vogelbach make an appearance along the lakefront. I am thinking three of them for sure.
Five percent of a team making it to The Show may not seem like much, but it actually is when you look at the reality of player development. Look back at it now, it’s amazing how fast three years went by.