Commentary

Down on the farm, Cubs finding help

Iowa Cubs finding success in big leagues

Originally Published: July 8, 2009
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

The pitcher came from Iowa.

He seemed familiar, as if you knew his name just faintly, like an old politician or a junior high classmate. But you didn't spend the winter wondering when he would be called up already, debating where he fit in the rotation. Old Randy Wells was there in Iowa, not exactly blowing off the barn doors or setting scouts' forearm hairs ablaze, but he was there, and now he's here.

You didn't know him from before because you don't watch Iowa Cubs games or read the notes from spring training.

You're not alone. Who has the time?

"I always find it amusing when people write about the minor league system, who don't go to any of the games," Chicago Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said to me, somewhat pointedly, the other day.

Maybe we could start an exchange program. For every 200 tourists who get off the bus on Waveland Ave., two reporters have to go to Des Moines, Iowa, for a week. But we'll wait until the Triangle Building is finished before we get into all that.

For a very long time, the Cubs, short on winning traditions or traditions that begat winning, produced homegrown position players less frequently than Iowa produced presidential front-runners, yet now all of a sudden, the guys from the farm, a few hitters and a couple pitchers, are making their presence known.

[+] EnlargeSam Fuld
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesSam Fuld is among the talent home grown by the Chicago Cubs.

While Wells has had the most impact, the Cubs' lackluster offense has been buoyed by an in-season influx of his teammates, the not-so-young, not-so-touted hitting talent from the bushes, like the homegrown Jake Fox and Sam Fuld, and minor league free agents like Andres Blanco and Bobby Scales. Their contributions have helped the $135 million Cubs stay within striking distance in the National League Central, despite losing their best hitter for two months and enduring stifling slumps from others.

These aren't high-ceiling guys, whose falls are so long and public and expensive that they're bitter. They're just baseball players.

Six years ago, when the Cubs were rewriting history behind pitchers they produced and hitters they found, about the only reason to catch an Iowa Cubs game was to have a postgame beer outside the late Rod Beck's trailer.

Iowa was the place to rehab major leaguers, develop pitchers and pay three-figure, biweekly checks to players like Trenidad Hubbard, who started for the 2004 I-Cubs, a first-place team with an almost laughably talentless lineup, at the grand old age of 38 years old.

Hendry, the kind of guy who would put "Baseball Man" on his business card if he could, laughed, almost mockingly, when I brought up Hubbard's name as a pejorative.

"What's wrong with Trenidad?" Hendry asked me. "How'd you like it if Trenidad heard you say that? Referring to him not being a good player?"

I'm not going to lock my doors for fear of retribution, because it wasn't Hubbard's presence that stuck in my mind, but rather the memory of looking through minor league reports and saying to myself, "This guy's still in the game?"

If the Cubs, suddenly spending cash, wanted a hitter they'd trade for him, passing off the likes of Bobby Hill and Hee Seop Choi to easily fleeced GMs for All-Stars like Aramis Ramirez and Derrek Lee. If the Cubs needed backups, they'd sign a fringe guy like Joey Gathright and then trade him for Ryan Freel, and then release him for "cash considerations" back to the team that originally released Gathright in the first place. (Wait, they're still doing that.)

For the past few years, the I-Cubs, and the lower rungs of the Cubs' system, have produced some talent that might not make the front page of Baseball America, but is good enough to contribute to teams with winning records and occasionally thrill the 40,000 who show up every day at Wrigley Field in search of something new, something old and, if you're the poetic type, something universal.

The Cubs made news this spring when they released their top picks from each of the 2003 to 2005 drafts in the same week. That kind of housecleaning won't win you any awards at the winter meetings, but it needed to be done.

The Cubs have long drafted and developed quality pitching, from the U.S. and abroad, but on the offensive side, and surely at the top of the draft, things started to change for the better when John Stockstill left the organization after the 2005 season and Tim Wilken came in to head the scouting department, joining Oneri Fleita, the vice president of player personnel, as Hendry's top talent lieutenants.

The last three top picks in the amateur drafts, Tyler Colvin, Josh Vitters and Andrew Cashner, are all still in the system, with the latter two the Cubs' top prospects.

"Our development guys have done a good job," Hendry said. "There were a couple years we didn't have the greatest drafts with high-end guys, but Oneri and his guys have done a good job developing people."

While Vitters and Cashner are years away from getting big league checks signed by Tom Ricketts, Marc Utay, Ronnie "Woo Woo" Wickers, the kid from "Rookie of the Year" or whoever lands this team, the Cubs have managed to utilize a small army of major league-ready hitters from Triple-A Iowa. Not to mention Wells, who has won four straight starts and boasts the lowest ERA on the staff (2.48), and is now a legitimate dark-horse candidate for rookie of the year.

Fox was hastily converted into a third baseman this year because the club needed his bat desperately after a succession of slap hitters tried to fill Ramirez's void at third. All Fox did to earn his two separate promotions was hit .409 with 17 homers and 53 RBIs in 45 games through mid-June.

In April, fans were calling for Micah Hoffpauir, a 29-year-old hitter drafted by the Cubs in 2002, to replace Lee at first. Hoffpauir finally made his major league debut in 2008 and started the season with the Cubs, joining backup catcher Koyie Hill, a minor league free agent who played 36 games with the Cubs in 2007 and came back in 2008 after nearly cutting off three fingers in a table saw accident.

Fans have taken to the I-Cubs crew for simple reasons. Everyone loves an underdog and these guys can actually play. While it's easy to get annoyed when a high-priced talent like Alfonso Soriano strikes out three times and plays an unconventional outfield, and Milton Bradley forgets how many outs there are, there is something reassuring to the average fan, the erstwhile Little Leaguer, about seeing a guy like Fuld run hard to the wall or Fox yank a homer past the bleachers in left.

"The guys that have been here have done such a great job," veteran pitcher Ted Lilly said. "They've really brought an energy to the club, and you see how hungry they are when they get an opportunity to come up here and play and prove themselves and how badly they want to play. Just that, in that sense, they have given our club a lift. And also, in some regard, been an example to some of the other guys."

Because the past three months have been as serene as Carlos Zambrano on a trampoline, and you're too busy dreaming of Fox's power in October, you might have forgotten the Bobby Scales story by now.

Scales, 31, finally made his major league debut early this season after spending nearly a decade fighting through various systems. He filled in at third, and played some second base, before getting sent back down, probably until September.

Everyone fell in love with the idea of Bobby Scales. How could you not?

"Oh yeah, we were pumped," said the scrappy Fuld, a fan favorite in his recent stint before recently going back to Iowa to make room for Reed Johnson, who might as well have been speaking about himself. "Everyone knows his story and we were happy for him. We see his work ethic and I don't think you can draw up a better story than that. You can't help root for him."

In addition, slick infielder Blanco remains on the team as a backup and valuable relief pitcher Angel Guzman, who seems to be making the most of his last chance with the organization that signed him, recently returned from the DL. Baltimore refugee Kevin Hart, who's been up before in various stints, is filling Ryan Dempster's starting role while Dempster's on the DL with a fractured big toe.

For years, Cubs fans have dealt with the disappointment of lackluster prospects failing to fulfill their potential, from Corey Patterson's epic flameout to Felix Pie's insignificance to the blahness of guys like Jason Dubois and David Kelton and even the mellifluously named Buck Coats. (Let's not get into the whole Mark Prior ordeal.)

Whatever they're doing in the Cubs' farm system, which had been known for producing All-Star-caliber position players like the Cubs do World Series trophies, it's working. The Cubs placed six in the Double-A Southern League all-star game and two in the Futures Game.

The turning point came in 2006, when shortstop Ryan Theriot got an extended shot during the bunker days of Baker's tenure, and went from unknown prospect to cult hero.

In 2007, Theriot quickly moved past Cesar Izturis, the archetypal disappointing middle-of-the-road veteran who was so Cub-like, to be Piniella's shortstop. That September, Geovany Soto, the MVP of Pacific Coast League, came up when rosters expanded, hit .389 in 18 games, and bypassed Hill to make the playoff roster with Jason Kendall. Both Theriot (third round) and Soto (11th) were drafted in 2001.

"That's what development is about," Hendry said. "It's not just identifying talent, but you also have to identify the people who can handle the pressure when they get up here. It's not for everyone. The world is full of guys who were great minor league players that didn't play well in the big leagues."

Somewhere, probably shaking his head after strike three, Pie's ears are burning.

To minor leaguers like Fuld and Fox, Theriot and Soto are their role models.

"No. 1, it gives [us] confidence," Fox said of their success. "You think, 'I played with these guys. If they can do it, I can do it too.' No. 2, if these are going up and doing what they've always been doing and it's been successful, then we don't need to change anything when we get there."

When Hendry fired hitting coach Gerald Perry last month, he hired Von Joshua, the I-Cubs' hitting coach who previously had the same job with the White Sox. When I asked Fox who was responsible for his professional development of late, he credited his Double-A hitting coach Barbaro Garbey, the first Cuban player to defect to the U.S., who helped him get back on track when the Cubs demoted him in 2008, along with Fuld.

"When they sent me down from Triple-A to Double-A, we worked together every day," Fox said. "To me, he's done the most for me."

While Piniella is quick to give young players a shot, and even quicker to get rid of them when they don't take it, he has grown weary of the constant media attention every time a career minor leaguer draws a walk. Piniella isn't here to edit hero narratives. But Wells (4-3 in 11 starts) is different.

"Wells has had a big impact on us," Piniella said. "He's pitched well. He's probably had the most impact of all the kids we've brought up. He's pitched awfully well."

The 26-year-old rookie was picked in the 38th round of the 2002 amateur draft, 1,142 picks after top selection Bryan Bullington, a resounding bust for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Wells came from Belleville, Ill., the St. Louis suburb that has given Cubs fans Wilco's Jeff Tweedy and, well, Neal Cotts.

A converted catcher -- Wells, Carlos Marmol and Soto were all catchers in rookie ball together in 2002 -- Wells found success on the mound.

Toronto thought so much of Wells' potential, it selected him in the Rule 5 draft in 2008, pitched him once and released him back to the Cubs, where he settled into a role as a swingman, shifting between starting and relieving for the I-Cubs. Last year, he won 10 games and had an ERA just over 4. He didn't make the team out of spring training, but when Piniella decided to put Sean Marshall (sixth round, 2003) back in the bullpen, the team had Wells ready to go out of Iowa.

Now he's sitting in the interview room, fielding softball questions about how awesome life is. Aside from Lilly, he's pretty much the only Cubs pitcher who doesn't make you want to hide inside your Prior jersey five times a game.

"Sitting down in Iowa for three, four years, whatever it was, you're on the cusp and you just want that shot," Wells said after winning his fourth straight start. "That's all you can ask for, just the shot to get the opportunity to show you can play. If you do well, you hope you stay."

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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