By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) It’s still in Iowa, but these days the Field of Dreams exists about 190 miles southwest of Dyersville, just outside downtown Des Moines.
Or at least it sure does for Chicago Cubs fans.
That’s because Principal Park, home of the Triple-A Iowa Cubs located at the confluence of the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers in Iowa’s capital city, is also the current nexus of the franchise’s hopes and Cubs fans’ dreams.
Heck, the place even has a few ghosts floating around, to boot.
This past weekend, my dad and I road-tripped five hours west of Wrigley Field to Des Moines in pursuit of actual compelling Cubs baseball – a brand of the sport not seen at the Friendly Confines since before Lou Piniella retired.
With phenom third baseman Kris Bryant having been called up to Iowa last Thursday to join a fellow whiz kid, in shortstop Javier Baez – the organization’s top two prospects ranked No. 8 and No. 5, respectively, in Baseball America’s Top 100 list – we wanted to get a first-hand look at the future that Tom Ricketts and Theo Epstein keep promising us.
And we came back home cautiously optimistic – although we didn’t exactly start that way.
On Saturday night, my dad and I settled into our seats along the first-base line at Principal Park – cleverly located at 1 Line Drive – and then failed to see the Iowa Cubs’ hitters settle in at all, especially Bryant and Baez. In fact, between the two of them, we saw just one line drive.
On that evening, Bryant looked uncomfortable at the plate against the Albuquerque Isotopes, the Triple-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers. He unspooled several awkward swings while batting fifth in the order as he went an unimpressive 0-for-4 with three strikeouts to drop his Des Moines average to 1-for-12 (.083) in at the time.
Meanwhile, batting third, Baez’s incredible bat speed lived up to its billing, but so did his erratic approach at the plate as he too struck out three times and went 1-for-5, lowering his season average to .226.
Watching Baez, I was struck with how it seemed as if he swings for the fences on every single pitch – even with two strikes. When he makes solid contact, like he did when he lashed a screamer up the middle in the third inning for his lone hit of the night, the ball does rocket off his bat. But when he doesn’t, he’s an easy out.
And while I think an aggressive approach at the plate can be great, Baez appears almost too aggressive. Case in point: During the bottom of the ninth inning on Saturday, the I-Cubs were trailing 4-0 but loaded the bases with two outs to finally put a bit of pressure on Albuquerque’s pitching staff.
A fresh reliever was brought in from the bullpen to face Baez, who had a chance to tie the game on one swing. However, rather than get a look at the new pitcher and let the pressure on him build a bit, Baez immediately bailed the guy out of the tight spot by swinging at the first pitch and grounding out softly to the shortstop to end the game.
For the night, the Iowa Cubs’ lineup struck out 12 times against Albuquerque, stranded a whopping 21 men on base and failed to score, looking a lot like their big league counterparts. Baez and Bryant went a combined 1-for-9 with six strikeouts and left a total of nine men on base between just the two of them.
If this was the Cubs’ future, my dad and I wanted no part of it. But, of course, we also knew it was just one game.
And on Sunday afternoon, after another sluggish start, our hopes were buoyed by the I-Cubs – or, at the very least, by Bryant.
In his first game in Des Moines on Thursday, Bryant had muscled an opposite-field home run over the right-field wall, but since then he had barely put the ball in play – going hitless and striking out six times over Friday and Saturday.
On Sunday, he finally reached base in the second inning – on a fielder’s choice. In the third, he struck out yet again. However, in the sixth inning, the Kris Bryant that we drove 340 miles to see finally arrived.
Facing Isotopes starter Red Patterson with a runner on first and Iowa trailing 5-2, Bryant turned on a fastball and absolutely destroyed it. Traveling like a missle, the two-run homer stopped sailing only because it smacked off the signage at least 30 feet above the Principal Park luxury boxes in left field.
In the eighth inning, Bryant stepped back up to the plate and again brought his prodigious power with him as he unloaded on a pitch from reliever Matt Magill and launched it over the 400-foot sign in dead-center for another homer, breaking a 5-5 tie in a game Iowa would go on to win 7-6.
Sunday’s 2-for-4 performance gave Bryant three hits in Iowa – all home runs, all to different fields. On Monday, he added yet another homer, making all four of his hits in Des Moines thus far long balls. This afternoon, he did it again, homering in his first at-bat for his fifth homer.
At some point, the 22-year-old will need to get a hit that’s not a home run, but after Sunday’s display, my dad and I came away convinced that Bryant has clear All-Star potential and the kind of power that could one day lead the league in homers. The kid is that strong, and he’s not far away from being Major League ready, even if he doesn’t make the majors this season.
Baez, meanwhile, left us still wanting on Sunday as he went 0-for-4 with one strikeout – that coming while swinging wildly at a pitch over his head. His all-or-nothing approach at the plate needs more work before the 21-year-old is prepared to face big league pitchers.
Based on our observations, the Iowa Cub who may be closer to Chicago than either Baez or Bryant could actually be Arismendy Alcantara. Over the weekend, the diminutive Dominican impressed us with his speed (he stole two bases on Saturday), his hitting (he went 2-for-5 on Sunday and is currently batting .286) and his versatility (he switch hits, leads off and started games at both second base and center field).
Ranked No. 100 in Baseball America’s Top 100 list, the 22-year-old Alcantara entered Tuesday with eight home runs, 18 doubles, 10 triples and 17 stolen bases so far this season while flashing some strong leather, primarily at second base. He’s a reminder that some of the Cubs’ best pieces for the future may actually be those who fly under the radar.
However, in Des Moines, there’s also the reminder that sometimes even the best prospects crash and fall off the radar. Because alongside Bryant and Baez on the Iowa Cubs’ roster are former phenoms Josh Vitters (now a left fielder, batting .234) and Brett Jackson (no longer even a starter – he had just one pinch-hit appearance over the weekend).
Those two are the ghosts at the Field of Dreams for Cubs fans — and a word of warning.
But don’t let them scare you away from visiting. Because during this long summer, Bryant and Baez are producing more can’t-miss at-bats in one game in Iowa than the Cubs do in Chicago all week.
And here’s to hoping that they continue producing.