Principal Park sits on a point of land at the confluence of the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers. It is a delightful little ballpark with great sight lines and comfortable seating. The beautiful Iowa State Capital can be seen over the center field fence and the Des Moines skyline can be seen from the first base side seats. Principal, formally known as Sec Taylor Stadium, is the home to the Iowa Cubs, the AAA franchise of the Chicago Cubs.
I was in Des Moines on business earlier in the week and decided to take in the Tuesday game against the Storm Chasers. Both teams play in the 16-team Pacific Coast League, in the American Northern Division. The league is home to some great team names like the New Orleans Baby Cakes, El Paso Chihuahuas and the Albuquerque Isotopes. I got a fantastic seat behind home plate for $14 and picked up a coke and a chili cheese dog for $11. The concourse was lined with a wide variety of food and beer vendors. AAA baseball is one heck of a good value.
My initial thought was to evaluate Nicky Lopez. That idea got blown up when the Royals made the right call and promoted Lopez to the parent team. No problem, I’ll evaluate Frank Schwindel. Wrong. KC unceremoniously designated the Tank for assignment the day before the game. Yet they hang onto Chris Owings.
As fans, we shouldn’t be angry with Ownings. I’m sure he’s a nice young man. He’s just wants to be a ballplayer. It’s to his credit that he found a snook willing to pay him $3 million for the 2019 season. It’s also his luck that he found another snook who felt obligated to play him nearly every day for the first 40 games despite having a .143 batting average. Our anger and frustration should be directed at those two, who obviously didn’t realize that Owing’s .206 batting average in 2018 was not an aberration. Owings is not and never will be the second coming of Ben Zobrist. Anyway, back to the Storm Chasers. Royals Review writer Minda Haas Kuhlmann is the official expert on the Royals minor league system, so if you really want an expert opinion see one of her excellent pieces. Since Lopez and Schwindel are off the table, I decided it’d be a good time to look at the Kansas boy wonder, Bubba Starling.
The I-Cubs came into the game with a record of 24-15 while the Storm Chasers clocked in at 17-21. My first thought was wow, how can that be? Omaha is loaded with guys who have played significant innings in Kansas City. No matter, the Storm Chasers got right after it. In the top of the first, Erick Mejia stroked a one out double and Cheslor Cuthbert hit a sharp single to left. Cuthbert appears to be in great shape. During his 2016 heyday in Kansas City, Cuthbert appeared to have a layer of baby fat. Not now. In fact, I barely recognized him. After Jorge Bonafacio went down swinging, Bubba came to the plate. Starling is a little taller and thinner than I expected him to be. The specs say 6’4, 215 and that would be about right. He’s athletic, just not as muscled as I anticipated. Bubba hammered a foul ball into the seats on the left field line. He has a solid swing and the ball made a pleasing report on contact. Buck O’Neil always said you can hear a good hitter and I hear what he meant. Bubba worked the count before squibbing a single into right field, bringing home Mejia with the game’s first run.
Brian Flynn took the mound for the Storm Chasers. Flynn is on a rehab assignment from the big team, and he looked sharp, holding the I-Cubs hit less for the first four innings. Flynn’s fastball was topping out around 90 mph, but he kept the Cub hitters off balance with a nice assortment of off-speed stuff. He got some nice defensive help including a sweet backhand stop and throw by third baseman Humberto Arteaga to end the first inning and another slick 5-4-3 double play to end a potential Cub rally in the fifth.
The Storm Chasers started to flex their muscles in the top of the fourth. Brett Phillips laced a one out shot over the head of the Iowa right fielder and beat the throw to second. Jecksson Flores poked a single to center to bring home Phillips. Arteaga then tattooed a pitch from Cub starter Duane Underwood over the roof in left-center for a two-run jack. It was more of the same in the top of the fifth. Bubba absolutely crushed a single to left, which handcuffed the Cub left fielder Wynton Bernard. By the time Bernard found the ball, Bubba was standing on second. Samir Duenez looped a short single, moving Starling to third. Catcher Andrew Susac, he of the classic cop mustache, drilled a double to the wall in left center to bring home Starling. Phillips drew a walk before Arteaga greeted Cub reliever Dillon Maples with a solid single, bringing home two more runs. 8-0 Storm Chasers.
Flynn’s no-hitter and shutout disappeared with the first batter in the fifth as Cub second baseman Phillip Evans hit a no-doubt dong over the center field wall. Robel Garcia then hit a seeing eye dog infield single. This seemed to fluster Flynn as he walked the next batter, before Arteaga bailed him out with the aforementioned 5-4-3 twin killing.
In the top of the seventh, the Cubs brought on old friend Tim Collins. Collins looked sharp, getting Phillips and Flores swinging before giving up a sharp single to Arteaga. He ended the inning by getting Mejia looking at a sweet curve ball. Collins was throwing in the low 90s and looked to me like a pitcher that could help a lot of teams in the bullpen, including the Royals. Especially the Royals.
Tim Hill pitched the seventh for Omaha and gave up a one-out single and hit a batter before finding his control and getting the next two Cubs with a pop up and a strikeout.
I had to take a short break in the bottom of the eighth, as my chili cheese dog decided it was time to leave. I guess it’s true when they say, you don’t buy chili cheese dogs, you only rent them. I returned to my seat just in time to see Michael Ynoa retire the Cubs Evans with a nice fastball. Kevin McCarty pitched the ninth for Omaha, giving up a harmless infield single before Mejia turned a nice 6-3 double play to end the game.
Overall, it was a great game to watch. The Storm Chasers played terrific. I was a little disappointed that I didn’t get to see former Royals Alec Mills and Donnie Dewees play for Iowa. Dewees came into the game with a .313 batting average by the way. Seeing his line made me think that Dayton Moore really had a rough spring evaluating talent, unloading Dewees and Brian Goodwin, while hanging onto Bonafacio and Phillips.
Speaking of Bonafacio, who is the space alien occupying his body? He came into this game hitting .190 and ended the day going 0-for-5, on a day when his teammates rapped out 13 hits. He looked overmatched at the plate, striking out three times. His body language was terrible, and his confidence looks shot. I rarely ever feel sorry for a professional athlete. I appreciate their commitment and the price they pay for their success. I’m often awed by their talent. Many athletes make more money in a few short seasons than most of us will over our lifetimes. Yet while I watched the corpse of Jorge Bonafacio flail at AAA pitching, I found myself genuinely feeling sorry for him. What happened to the guy we saw in 2017? Where did the player go that rapped 17 home runs and looked like he had a future as the right fielder in Kansas City. Was his success the product of PED’s? At this point, unless Boni has some type of miraculous career turnaround, I will have to assume that is what we saw in 2017. To me, he looked done. Granted it was a very small sample size, but the numbers don’t lie and usually my eyes don’t either.
And Brett Phillips. I loved the way the guy played in 2018. He brought energy to the team. He came into this game hitting .196. Even though he had the nice double, he ended the day going 1-4 with a walk. He went down swinging three times, though his at-bats felt different than Bonafcio’s. Where Bonafacio rarely made contact and took weak, disjointed swings, Phillips took robust cuts and fouled several balls off in each at-bat. If I were Brett Phillips, I would find and hire a personal batting coach, someone outside of the Royals organization, that could re-tool his swing and improve his contact rates. If there was ever a player who needed someone like Charlie Lau, it is Brett Phillips. If you squint hard enough, you could see a guy like Phillips hitting .275-.300, if he could start putting more balls in play.
Now let’s talk about the good stuff. Cheslor Cuthbert looked solid at first base and at the plate. He went 2-4 on the day, which improved his average to .290, and he made several nice digs on balls thrown to first as well as a couple nice plays on hard hit grounders. With Ryan O’Hearn and the player formerly known as Lucas Duda in front of him and several up and coming first baseman in the system, it’d be a shame to see the Royals let him rot at AAA. Moore needs to do him a solid and either put him on the big-league roster (Duda! Duda!) or trade him for some prospects.
Bubba also looked great. He ended the day going 2-for-3 with two walks, which brought his average up to .342. He hit the ball with surprising velocity. Even his foul balls had a nice sound to them. He’s ready for the big show. I think we’ve all seen enough of the Billy Hamilton experiment. Hamilton is hitting .228/.310/.289 with no home runs and all of five RBI in 114 at-bats. According to scouting reports, Bubba brings good speed and a big-league ready glove, so that would not be a step down from Hamilton. It’s time for Moore and Ned to see what the kid can do on the big stage. Over the years, I thought the only way Starling would ever see the inside of Kauffman would be if he bought a ticket to the game. Not now. He’s ready to make his Kansas City debut and I wish him the best.
The other thought that ran through my head during the game was the idea of jettisoning Martín Maldonado. He’s currently lighting up American League pitchers to the tune of .179/.281/.245 with one home run and three RBI in 106 at-bats. Play Cam Gallagher and call up Andrew Susac as the back-up.
And someone take the checkbook away from Moore before he makes any more ill-advised free agent signings. He’s going to get a reputation as an easy mark.
The real star of the day was Humberto Arteaga. Humberto went 4-5 on the day with four RBI and made a couple of really nice plays at third. He looks comfortable at the plate and he hits everything hard. Along with Dozier and Gutierrez, it looks like Kansas City is stacked with third basemen. Arteaga should absolutely get a September call-up and hopefully 50-100 at bats to see if he can hit big league pitching.
AAA ball is an interesting case study. About three-quarters of the players have had some major league experience and a few have had significant success at the big-league level. The other quarter are the up and comers, young guys looking for the call-up. Overall, AAA ball is a great value for the fans and the quality of the ball is outstanding.