Team Update: Tennessee Smokies Showing Signs of Life

Current Record: 13–15; 5 games out of first
Last 10: 4-6, lost 3 in a row

It was a big week of news in Tennessee as Smokies Chesny Young and Paul Blackburn were named minor league Player and Pitcher of the Month by the Cubs.

The Tennessee Smokies easily have the most talented team in the system. At one point in their careers, eight position players and nine pitchers were on MiLB’s top 30 prospect list. Manager Mark Johnson is in his first year at Tennessee and he has coached most of the players on the team to two consecutive championships at Kane County and Myrtle Beach. This year, however, the group has been beset by inconsistent hitting, starting pitching, and bullpen performance. The upside is that there still a lot of baseball left to be played and the Smokies have a lot of talent to get it done.

Heading into the season, I thought the Smokies would be one of the bright spots in the organization. On the roster were top 30 hitting prospects Jake Hannemann, Billy McKinney, Mark Zagunis, Jeimer Candelario, Chesny Young, and Victor Caratini. In addition, Tennessee originally had a starting rotation of Duane Underwood, Rob Zastryzny, Tyler Skulina, Jen-Ho Tseng, and Paul Blackburn. Throw in relievers David Garner, Starling Peralta, Corey Black, and Josh Conway, and this team looked like they were cocked, locked, and ready to rock. Despite all that, it’s been a pretty disappointing start. They win a few, they lose a few; there’s just no consistency.

At the plate, Chesny Young and Bijan Rademacher had excellent months in April as both hit near .400. The problem was no one else was hitting near .300. In fact, most were around the .200 mark. Some of that has changed as Hannemann, Caratini, and Zagunis all have hit over .300 in the past seven days, with Zagunis well over .400. Billy McKinney, a top 10 Cubs prospect, is struggling in returning from a knee injury. He really can’t use his lower half the way that he wants to just yet.

On the mound, Paul Blackburn is having his best year as a Cub prospect. To date, he has a 0.24 ERA and is controlling the game by keeping hitters off balance and getting a lot of weak ground balls. Blackburn’s curve has been a little sharper this year and, while it is not quite an out/plus pitch yet, it’s one he can throw for a strike at any point in the count.

Brad Markey had a nice April with a 3.00 ERA while Rob Zastryzny had a couple good starts but has been roughed up more often than not. His ERA is a rather inflated 5.29. Tyler Skulina is sitting with a 4.07 ERA, but if you take away one bad start, it drops to 3.20. Duane Underwood’s made two starts in his return and has a 4.00 ERA in 9 innings of work but has only struck out three.

I thought coming into the year that the bats that returned this year (Candelario McKinney, Hanneman) would carry the offense as new AA players (Young, Caratini, and Zagunis) would just kind of slide right in. The opposite has been true. I don’t think anyone foresaw Blackburn or Gerardo Concepcion (0.00 ERA in 14.2 innings) having the years they’re having. And after the job he did at Spring Training, where hit close to .400 against the big boys, no one could have foreseen Jemier Candelario sitting at .188 after a month.

Going forward

A 13-15 record is not a terrible start from which to build some success. When you look at what’s happening in the pen at Tennessee, it is just a mirror image of what is happening to the starting rotation. You have a couple of relievers who are doing well and the rest are inconsistent or struggling. I didn’t expect David Garner and Josh Conway to come to AA and struggle. Honestly, I thought Garner would not be at AA very long. Now he’s having a hard time even getting through an inning.

Opposing hitters are more disciplined at AA than they are at high-A; they’re going to lay off pitches out of the zone and they’re going to hammer mistakes up in the zone. The AA level prospect is actually not that far from the big leagues. Right now several prospects at Tennessee have yet to turn it on , but there are signs of life.

The prospect that I think that could change the Smokies’ fortunes is Candelario. He’s not even hitting .200 this year and yet he still sitting in the middle of the lineup. When he has good nights, Tennessee scores a lot of runs. When he doesn’t, they’re scratching and clawing to get a victory.

There’s enough talent on this team to turn it around and make a run for a playoff spot in the first half. I think the odds of Mark Johnson duplicating past success and competing for a third straight championship at a different level are slim this half, but they’ve got a real shot when his team could be firing on all cylinders in the second half. I think once Candelario gets going, they could reel off 6-7 wins in a row without much effort.

It’s been up and down thus far and that may continue for a while. I’d say give until June 1 though, then you’ll see this team show what it can do.

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