Iowa’s 2016 roster to start the season is a nice mix of rising prospects and former MLB players ready to head to Wrigley if needed.
Willson Contreras had his breakout season last year in AA and has established himself as one of the top catching prospects in baseball. The 23-year-old continued to impress in spring training, hitting .278/.435/.444 in 11 games as well as showing off his strong arm with a POP time in the low 1.8s. Playing in the shadows of Kyle Schwarber to start last season, Contreras won the Southern League batting title and finished with a slash of .333/.413/.478 with 8 HR and 34 doubles. A converted third baseman, Contreras signed withe Cubs back in 2009 out of Venezuela and spent his first two years behind the plate in Kane County and Daytona.
Albert Almorais the best defensive outfielder in the system and while he may start the year in Iowa, may find himself on a playoff roster in Wrigley before the season is over. The 21-year-old continues to develop at the plate, hitting .301/.370/.464 the second half of last season in AA. The Cubs first-round pick in 2012, Almora battled injuries early in his Cubs career and will be making his AAA debut.
Last year at this time Ryan Williams was on the South Bend roster and made his MWL debut out of the bullpen on opening night with two scoreless innings. All he’s done since is earn the Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year award after baffling hitters in South Bend and Tennessee. After an impressive spring training that included nine shutout innings in big league camp, the 24-year-old right-hander gets the ball on opening day in his AAA debut. In his first full season (10th round-2014), Williams went 14-3 with a 2.16 ERA between the two levels with 98 K and only 15 BB in 141.2 innings.
Placed on the Cubs 40-man roster during the off-season, look for Daniel Vogelbach, 23, to make some noise in the Pacific Coast Leaguer this summer. The Cubs second-round pick in 2011 only hit seven homers last year in AA but the Florida native battled injuries most of the season. He got off to a hot start and was named the Cubs Minor League Player of the Month in April but landed on the DL in late May.
Carl Edwards, Jr. hasn’t gone anywhere. Once projected as a starter in the Cubs rotation, the String Bean Slinger made the move to the bullpen last season and is poised to help out the North Siders this summer. Already on the Cubs 40-man roster, Edwards appeared in seven games this spring for Chicago, fanning six in seven innings. He made his MLB debut last year.
Healthy at the start of a season for the first time in three years, Pierce Johnson made 16 starts in AA last year (6-2, 2.08 ERA, 95 IP, 32 BB, 72 K, 1.14 WHIP) and closed out the season in the Arizona Fall League. A first-round compensation pick in the 2012 draft, the 24-year-old was added to the 40-man roster in the off-season. Johnson will start the year in Iowa’s rotation and could make his MLB debut this season after a September call-up.
Eric Jokisch, the Cubs 11th round pick in 2010, is back in Iowa for his third season after three trips to the DL last year that limited the left-hander to 17 starts and 81 innings. Free agents Stephen Fife and Drew Rucinski, both right-handers, will be part of Iowa’s rotation and look for Felix Pena in the rotation at some point this year..
Acquired by the Rangers for prospect Frandy Delarosa, Spencer Patton may be the first call-up from Iowa if anyone in the Chicago bullpen struggles or is injured. Patton had a great spring, tossing eight shutout innings while allowing only two hits and one walk with 12 punchouts. The Illinois native has appeared in 36 big league games and was a perfect 11-for-11 in save opportunities last year in the PCL for Round Rock. Armando Rivero, signed out of Cuba in March of 2013, is back for his third season at Iowa and the only other homegrown arm in the pen. Free agent right-handers Brandon Gomes and Jean Machi along with lefties C.J. Riefenhauser and Scott Barnes round out the Iowa bullpen. All four have big league experience.
If a catcher at the big league level goes down early in the season, it could be Tim Federowicz that gets the call to Wrigley and not Contreras. The former Dodger backstop spent parts of four seasons in LA and was signed as a free agent during the off-season. He hit .324 with two homers in 18 spring games.
Arismendy Alcantara is back in Iowa after hitting .231/.285/.399 in 120 PCL games last year. A member of the Cubs 40-man roster, the 24-year-old has played in 81 big league games the last two seasons. After missing 2015 with an Achilles injury, Logan Watkins is back in the Iowa infield and will be joined by free agents Munenori Kawasaki and Kris Negron.
John Andreoli had a great spring for the Cubs and proved he belongs if called upon during the year. Hitting .270/.341/.649 with four homers and 10 RBI in 25 games in Cubs camp, the 25-year-old is back in Iowa for his second season. Also assigned to the outfield were free agents Juan Perez, Ryan Kalish and Matt Murton. Perez played the past three years with the Giants while Kalish and Murton are back with the Cubs organization.
Marty Pevey begins his fourth season as Iowa's manager after serving as Chicago's catching coordinator for three seasons from 2010-12. Pevey started with the Cubs back in 2009 as manager in Peoria. Pevey has a combined 32 years of professional experience (13 years as a player and 19 years as a manager, coach or coordinator), and was named the 2009 Midwest League co-Manager of the Year.
Joining Pevey at Iowa will be newly hired pitching coach, Rod Nichols, who spent the last three years as the Philadelphia Phillies major league bullpen coach. The 2016 campaign will mark Nichols' 17th season as a coach. Originally selected by Cleveland in the fifth round of the 1985 draft, he appeared in seven big league seasons, going 11-31 with a 4.43 ERA (203 ER/412.2 IP) in 100 games (48 starts).
Brian Harper returns for his fourth season as Iowa's hitting coach after managing AA Tennessee in 2011 and High A Daytona in 2012. A former catcher, Harper played 16 seasons in the majors with seven teams. Rounding out the coaching staff is former Cubs farmhand Leo Perez, who begins his eighth season as a coach in the organization and second with Iowa. Shane Nelson joins Iowa as the team's athletic trainer after handling the same duties in Tennessee the past two seasons. Sean Folan is the club's assistant athletic trainer after last year serving as Mesa's minor league rehab athletic trainer and strength coach while Ryan Clausen enters his third season as Iowa's strength and conditioning coach.
Iowa will be one of the first minor league teams to open the 2016 season as they host Round Rock (Rangers) on Thursday, April 7 with a 3:08 p.m. CST start time. The I-Cubs have three more games with Round Rock and then close out the eight-game home stand with New Orleans (Marlins).
All AAA games are on MiLB-TV and also on the radio through Milb.com. Randy Wehofer and Deene Ehlis are back for the play-by-play duties for their ninth season. Wehofer, a University of Miami grad who serves as the Director of Media Relations, joined the I-Cubs in 2008 after beginning his career as the voice of the Burlington Bees in 1999. Ehlis has been the voice of the Iowa Cubs since 1990.