Last year was a huge disappointment for the Tennessee Smokies, a team stacked with players who won back-to-back championships at Kane County and Myrtle Beach. Aside from a few outstanding individual performances, the Smokies and limped to a 58-81 record under manager Mark Johnson.
Infielder Chesny Young and outfielders Mark Zagunis and Bijan Rademacher were the highlights of the season. Zagunis and Rademacher were promoted to AAA Iowa in the middle of the year while Young stayed in Tennessee through the end of the season and competed for the Southern League batting title.
Injuries decimated the starting staff and a mid-season trade of top pitcher Paul Blackburn to the Mariners did not help. However, there were a few things that went right, including the second halves of starter Zach Hedges and relievers James Farris and Jose Rosario.
Johnson has to be excited about the 2017 campaign in which he is getting an influx of players coming off yet another championship with Myrtle Beach. Combined with some holdovers, Tennessee could make a run at that championship that eluded them in 2016.
Hedges will start the year at Tennessee, but he won’t be in Kodak very long if he pitches like he did last year in the second half. Trevor Clifton, whose home is only about 45 minutes away, could be taking over the ace role very quickly. Both pitchers improved exponentially in 2016, Clifton with his command and Hedges with his velocity. The former South Bend and Myrtle Beach teammates could both be in contention for future starting spots next year in Chicago if they can get to Iowa by August this year.
Duane Underwood returns to Tennessee after an injury-riddled 2016, though it is still unclear if he will be a starter or a reliever. I am hoping for the former. Erick Leal should build upon his excellent 2016 season and might be the breakout prospect for the team this year. It would not surprise me to see Preston Morrison do well at Tennessee with his wiffleball repertoire.
Jake Stinnett has yet to put it together but he still has a starting spot at AA. It is close to “make it or break it” because of his age (25 in April). A relief role might be calling sooner rather than later.
Ryan McNeil, Jordan Minch, Daury Torrez, Tommy Thorpe, and James Pugliese lead an experienced bullpen that was a key to the Pelicans championship run.
New to Tennessee will be a few of position players who are starting to come into their own. They are not necessarily elite prospects yet, but they are excellent baseball players who could play an important role in the Cubs system going forward.
All winter long I thought Ian Happ would be with the Smokies at least to begin the year. That all changed last Monday night, when he was assigned to Iowa. The group of that is headed to Tennessee is used to roster changes and I think they will thrive with the opportunity to play.
During last year’s championship run for Myrtle Beach, Yasiel Balaguert and David Bote both put the fear of God into every baseball that crossed their respective paths. Balaguert hit 19 home runs in a noted pitcher’s league and Bote hit over .400 in July and August to lead the Pelicans down the stretch. Bote can play all four infield positions but is best suited for second base and third base.
2015 draftee Ian Rice showed he could hit for power while maintaining a high on-base percentage between South Bend and Myrtle Beach last year. Rice spent more time this spring honing his catching skills and the hope is that his bat will produce more home runs in the Southern League. He displayed a fair bit of power, hitting nine dingers for Myrtle Beach in 39 games and 15 for the year. The young catcher will be the sleeper of the year for the Smokies and it would not surprise me to see him hit 20+ homers this summer.
Gold Glove outfielder Trey Martin should be patrolling centerfield and will be an asset to any pitcher on the mound for the Smokies. The key will be improving his bat, since he already has major league defensive range. Charcer Burks struggled in the first half and was very good in the second half from the leadoff spot last year at Myrtle Beach. I expect to see him do better playing above sea level, too.
Overall, this is an experienced team that will use power and the ability to get on base to score runs. They are not going to overwhelm anyone with the ability to hit for average, but they will capitalize on opportunities to get the job done by doing the little things…and maybe even the big things.
The pitching, on the other hand, has the potential to be something special. With Clifton, Hedges, Leal, and Morrison anchoring the rotation, an experienced and disciplined bullpen rounds out a big-time staff. This year’s Smokies team has a lot of talent that really began to round into form last year at Myrtle Beach.
Breakout prospect: Erick Leal
Leal had the quietest 10–4 season of any pitcher in the Cubs system last year, putting up a 3.23 ERA and striking out 66 batters in a little over 90 innings. He might never be a power pitcher, but he could be a ground-ball machine. Leal is able to keep hitters off-balance and he works quickly in doing so. Double-A will be quite the task for him, but he should succeed on pitchability factors alone.
LF – Charcer Burks
CF – Trey Martin
RF – Jeffrey Baez
3B – Jason Vosler
SS – Bryant Flete, Andrew Ely
2B – David Bote
1B – Yasiel Balaguert
C – Ian Rice, Alberto Mineo
I still think the Smokies are going to need some help on offense. When his bone bruise is healed, I would not be surprised to see Eloy Jimenez arrive by the end of May or early June.
First to Be Promoted
It’s going to be a pitcher. If I had to put money on it, I would go with Hedges who already has a half season of experience at AA. If I went with my heart, though, I would go with Clifton. Either way, the Iowa Cubs will benefit from Tennessee’s loss.