Minor League Preview – Double-A Tennessee Smokies
The fourth installment of a series previewing the 2015 minor league season focuses on the Tennessee Smokies.
Please note that the previews are based on current roster assignments and anticipated Spring Training success. All assignments, both as to position and level, are subject to change pending the completion of Spring Training. Click here for the Cubs’ minor league camp rosters.
Double-A – Tennessee Smokies
Tennessee has been one of the more successful teams in the Cubs’ chain, always seeming to be in contention for the playoffs. However, this may be a bit of a trying season in eastern Tennessee as the Smokies appear to be the transition team among the affiliates this year.
Infield – Part of the reason for all of the concern for the Smokies is the apparent mess the infield is in as uncertainty abounds at every position. Starting at third base, Tennessee will most likely open with a familiar face, Christian Villanueva. The 23-year old Villanueva has spent parts of the past two seasons in the Southern League, but most likely will be biding his time until Kris Bryant is promoted to the majors, and then moving up to Triple-A Iowa. Villanueva played this waiting game with Bryant last year, and it affected him aversely.
Splitting his time between Iowa and Tennessee, Villanueva batted .230 with 10 home runs and 58 RBI combined. An accomplished third baseman that has also played second, Villanueva prepared for a future utility role by playing mainly outfield this winter. Just who will take over at third when Villanueva moves on is a complete mystery. One option could be Ben Carhart. Making a successful conversion to catcher last season, the 25-year old Carhart was originally a third baseman and played 17 games there last season while batting a combined .277 with five home runs and 50 RBI between Low- and High-A.
Another option may be Dustin Geiger. The 23-year old Geiger has played only nine games at third base since 2012 after becoming one of the best defensive first baseman in the Cubs’ system. Geiger struggled in his first season at Double-A last year, hitting only .223 with 12 home runs and 47 RBI for the Smokies. A real longshot is 22-year old Andrew Ely. Drafted in the 32nd in 2013, Ely hit a combined .298 with five home runs and 16 RBI in 34 games that include nine games at Triple-A Iowa.
About the only sure thing, somewhat, is that Stephen Bruno will be back, and probably at second base. Bruno returned from a season off due to injuries and took a little time to get readjusted, needing to spend a couple of short stints on the DL. In 105 games, the 24-year old Bruno batted .276 with three home runs and 42 RBI. There is also a possibility that Bruno could be considered in the mix for third base.
It appears that the front office will give the first base position to Dan Vogelbach. The burly 22-year old was mediocre at High-A Daytona last season, hitting .268 with 16 home runs and 76 RBI, and followed that with a tepid performance in the Arizona Fall League. The biggest circus will be the shortstop position, where there will be four contenders.
Leading the way will be former first round pick and front office favorite Ryan Dent. In eight minor league seasons, Dent, 26 years old, has a career line of only .229/.309/.338, and has not distinguished himself at any defensive position. After drawing a lot of interest last preseason, Wes Darvill did not live up to expectations.
Starting the year at Tennessee, the 23-year old Darvill was demoted to High–A Daytona and hit a total of .248/.301/.330 with two home runs, 37 RBI, and eight stolen bases. The best defender of the bunch is 25-year old Elliot Soto. A good soldier for the organization, Soto earned a promotion to Triple-A Iowa late last season. All together, Soto hit .244/.321/306 with a home run and 23 RBI in 69 games. Another veteran available will be 27 year old Jonathan Mota. Mota will be beginning his 11th season in the Cubs organization, and has played every position and at every level. Last year, Mota batted .252 with four home runs and 28 RBI between Iowa and Tennessee.
Outfield –Not only will outfield be the strongest squad for Tennessee this season, it will also be one of the best in all of minor league baseball. It all starts in the center with former first round draft pick Albert Almora.
With some injury and personal issues behind him, it appears that it is Almora’s time to shine, as he is having a productive spring. Just 20 years old, Almora split his 2014 season between High-A Daytona and Tennessee and hit .270/.291/.392 with nine home runs, 60 RBI, and six stolen bases while playing sparkling defense. Lining up next to Almora in left field should be another Top 20 prospect in Billy McKinney.
Acquired in the Jeff Samardzija deal with Oakland, the former first round pick was off to a slow start in 2014 due to injuries. Once part of the Cubs organization, the 20 year old lefty turned things on. McKinney batted .301/.390/.432 with High-A Daytona to improve his yearly totals to .264/.354/.412 with 11 home runs and 69 RBI. Completing the starting outfield should be another Top 20 prospect in Bijan Rademacher.
The 24-year old Rademacher was the rock in the High-A Daytona lineup last season, consistently performing while some of the other high-profile prospects struggled. For the season, the left-hander batted .281/.363/.448 with 10 home runs and 56 RBI. Rademacher then went on to out-shine other touted prospects in the Arizona Fall League, leading the Mesa Solar Sox with a .350 average.
Rounding the outfield picture looks to be John Andreoli, Pin-Chieh Chen, and Anthony Giansanti. Dealing with an undisclosed injury last season, the 24-year old Andreoli batted only .211/.329/.249 in 61 games, but still stole 28 bases. Known mainly as a defensive player, Chen, 23 years old, split his time between Daytona and Tennessee and went .258/.352/.352 with 28 RBI and 13 stolen bases. The unique 26-year old Giansanti has played at every position and at every level in the minors. For example, last year the Smokies tapped Giansanti to play shortstop while starter Addison Russell dealt with a minor injury and he ended up playing a total of seven positions. In 90 games, Giansanti hit .239/.289/.315 with three home runs, 19 RBI, and three stolen bases.
Catcher – All eyes will be on last year’s first round draft pick Kyle Schwarber as he tries to silence the critics about his defensive abilities. The majority of pundits felt that while the 22-year old Schwarber has a Major League bat, that he would not be able to stay at catcher. Schwarber proved the first half of that statement true by riding roughshod over minor league pitching last season. After stops at Boise, Kane County, and Daytona, Schwarber put together a .344/.428/.634 line with 18 home runs, 53 RBI, and five stolen bases in 72 games. Now, Schwarber is determined to prove the other half of the statement wrong, and has gotten off to a good start.
Even though Schwarber played only 20 games at catcher, he fielded a respectable .981 with a 34 percent caught stealing rate. Schwarber has since received rave reviews on his catching ability in Spring Training. Backing Schwarber up should be the versatile Willson Contreras.
The 22-year old Contreras spent all of last season at High-A Daytona, batting .242/.320/.359 with five home runs, 37 RBI, and five stolen bases in 80 games. Contreras is one of the best defensive catchers in the system, fielding .998 and nailing 29 percent of all base runners last year. Contreras can also play third, first, corner outfield, and second base in a pinch.
Also in the mix will be Carhart and system catcher Taylor Davis. The 25-year old Davis is around to fill in when there are injuries, but always seems to provide a clutch performance. In only 53 games, Davis hit .319/.375/.500 with four home runs and 29 RBI while fielding .993 behind the dish.
Pitching – It will be take two for most of the Tennessee starting staff as most of its members began at this level last season. The top of the rotation once again will be Pierce Johnson. The 23-year old missed Opening Day when a hamstring injury sidelined him but came back in late April and made six starts before returning to the disabled list. Johnson was slow in coming back and needed a two game warm-up at Low-A Kane County before rejoining Tennessee.
Once back, Johnson was lights-out, going 4-3 with a 1.66 ERA and 70 strikeouts in 65 innings. His totals for 2014 were 5-5 with a 2.54 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP that included 99 strikeouts in 102.2 innings. Another Top 10 prospect that dealt with injuries last season and is primed for a breakout year is C.J. Edwards.
Things started out well for the 23-year old, as he had a 2.61 ERA with 20 strikeouts through his first four starts. But Edwards started to experience discomfort in his throwing shoulder, and the Cubs took immediate action. Edwards was shut down, and then slowly worked back into shape. Returning to action in late July, Edwards pitched two games in the rookie league before coming back to the Smokies for the last month of the season. In six starts, Edwards had a 2.30 ERA and 26 strikeouts in 27.1 innings. For the year, Edwards was 1-2 record with a 2.35 ERA and a 1.06 WHIP that included 54 strikeouts in 53.2 innings. Edwards followed that up with an impressive showing in the Arizona Fall League, going 1-0 with a 1.80 ERA and a 0.87 WHIP (13 strikeouts in 15 innings over six starts), and an appearance in the Future Stars game.
It was somewhat of a lost season for Ivan Pineyro last year as he dealt with injuries. The 23-year old struggled out of the gate for Double-A Tennessee, and was clearly not the pitcher he was in 2013. Pineyro still managed to post a 3.60 ERA in seven starts before going on the disabled list in mid-May with a forearm injury. It wasn’t until mid-July when Pineyro got back on the field, but there was some question as to whether he was ready. Pineyro had a shaky two starts in the rookie league before rejoining the Smokies in August, where he was rocked in his final five starts. Pineyro ended up at 0-6 with a 5.55 ERA and a 1.63 WHIP that included 50 strikeouts in 60 innings. In order to make up for some lost time, Pineyro was assigned to the Arizona Fall League and for the most part pitched well, going 1-0 with a 1.98 ERA and 16 strikeouts in 13.2 innings.
The fourth starter will most likely be 2013 second round draft pick Rob Zastryzny. The 22-year old also dealt with an injury and command issues last season. The lefty was already struggling in his first full season with an 8.33 ERA through his first six starts for High-A Daytona when he was struck on the forearm by a line drive. Zastryzny only missed one start and had a 2.78 ERA in his next seven appearances before missing another start to have his arm evaluated at the Cubs’ facility in Arizona.
When he returned, Zastryzny played a pivotal part in the D-Cubs push for the playoffs, going 4-0 and averaging five innings over his final 12 starts. For the season, Zastryzny was 4-6 with a 4.66 ERA and a 1.40 WHIP that included 110 strikeouts in 110 innings. However, he was 4-3 and his ERA was 2.39 with 84 strikeouts after the injury.
On the outskirts of the rotation will be Felix Pena. Signed as a free agent in 2009, Pena, to use a football term, is a tweener who seems to work best as a limited starter and long reliever. The 24-year old suffered from a lack of run support while being the most consistent starter for High-A Daytona in 2014. For the year, Pena was a combined 6-10 with a 4.15 ERA and a 1.37 WHIP (102 strikeouts in 123.2 innings) between the D-Cubs and Tennessee.
Left in limbo will be Tayler Scott. The 22-year old South African did not have the greatest season last year, but with High-A Myrtle Beach’s rotation looking loaded, there is no telling where Scott may land. Starting 26 games with High-A Daytona, Scott posted an 8-8 record with a 4.34 ERA and a 1.441 WHIP (79 strikeouts in 134.2 innings).
The closer role should be a spirited, four-way battle between right-handers Frank Batista, Matt Brazis, Zach Cates and Tony Zych.
Frank Batista, “El Tiburon” (The Shark), has been one of the most successful closers in Cubs minor league history, with 85 career saves including 80 over the last five years. This past season, the Cubs loaned Batista out to Tijuana in the Mexican League but he wound up returning to the team after Armando Rivero was promoted. For the Year, Batista was 4-2 with a 2.10 ERA with 11 saves, a 1.12 WHIP, and 50 strikeouts in 64.1 innings.
A relatively unknown quantity to Cubs’ fans, Brazis has a chance to make the most of a fresh start with a new organization. This past December, the Cubs acquired the 25-year old Brazis from the Mariners for OF Justin Ruggiano. In total between High-A High Desert and Double-A Jackson, Brazis went 4-1 with six saves and a 2.36 ERA, a 1.00 WHIP, and 84 strikeouts in 72.1 innings.
Moved to closer toward the end of the 2013 season after spending his career as a starter, Cates had trouble establishing himself in that role last season. The 24-year old struggled to find an identity with High-A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee. Cates went a combined 3-2 with two saves in 36 appearances (4.08 ERA, 1.28 WHIP 40 strikeouts in 53.1 innings).
Another power arm that has underwhelmed is Zych, who seems to have stalled at Double-A. The 24-year old Zych was given the opportunity to be the Smokies’ closer’s to begin the 2014 season, but he never was able to deliver. Zych put up some of the worst numbers of his career, going 4-5 with two saves in 45 appearances (5.09 ERA, 1.59 WHIP) and a career low 35 strikeouts in 58.1 innings.
Middle relief appears to be rock solid as the organization has a plethora of former starters congregated at this level. Michael Jensen had a very good bounce-back season in 2014 after losing all of 2013 to arm trouble. The 24-year old was a mainstay in High-A Daytona’s bullpen, with a 7-4 record and a save in 36 appearances that included a 2.85 ERA and a 1.48 WHIP (62 strikeouts in 60 innings). Patrick Jacob (P.J.) Francescon pitched out of the bullpen for Tennessee last two seasons. In 2014, the 25-year old Francescon bailed out the Smokies’ pitching staff time after time. Francescon posted an 11-6 record with a 3.52 ERA and a 1.38 WHIP (48 strikeouts in 69 innings). Two other players that may figure in are Blake Cooper and Jose Rosario.
Acquired from the Diamondbacks, the 26-year old Cooper did not do all that well at Triple-A Reno last season, with an ERA of 6.00 in 17 appearances. After being assigned to the Smokies, Cooper was a combined 4-3 with a 3.16 ERA and a 1.26 WHIP in 49 appearances (69 strikeouts in 68.1 innings). Rosario has always had an impressive arm, but he has had difficulty staying in one piece.
After an injury marred 2013, Rosario was thrust into a starting role for High-A Daytona in which he had a 5.42 ERA in 16 starts. Rosario didn’t do much better in relief, posting a 5.51 ERA. Overall, the 24-year old was 5-8 overall with a 5.44 ERA and a 1.75 WHIP (92 strikeouts in 101 innings).
Lefty Austin Kirk has a no-hitter on his résumé, but the 24-year old has seen his career stall a little recently. Splitting his time between Tennessee and Daytona, Kirk was 2-4 with a 3.75 ERA in 39 appearances, including a 1.364 WHIP and 46 strikeouts in 69.2 innings.
Also available are 23-year old Starling Peralta and 23-year old Steve Perakslis.
What to Watch for
Tennessee will be a team in transition for most of the season. The top prospects that are assigned to the Smokies at the onset of the season will be among the first wave promoted in late May or early June. Their replacements from High-A Myrtle Beach may take some time to adjust. There will be team chemistry issues at times, and the lack of quality infielders will hurt.
Minor League Previews
Five Minor League Players to Watch
- Rookie and Short Season-A Ball – Down on the Farm Report – 02/23/15
- Low-A South Bend and High-A Myrtle Beach – Down on the Farm Report – 03/02/15
- Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa – Down on the Farm Report – 03/09/15
Attention CCO Readers
The Down on the Farm preliminary reader’s poll has been completed, and the top 20 players nominated are part of an online poll to reduce the number down to ten players. Please vote at the CCO home page in order to ensure that that your favorite player is followed by Down on the Farm Report for the 2015 season.
Race to Wrigley
For the third straight year, I will be competing in the Race to Wrigley 5K run on April 25, 2014. If anyone is interested in making a donation or joining the CCO team, please visit Race to Wrigley – Chicago Cubs Online to register. All proceeds go to Chicago Cubs Charities and Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.