Minor League Preview – Double-A Tennessee Smokies
The next installment previewing the 2016 minor league season focuses on the Tennessee Smokies, and manager Mark Johnson’s quest for the third straight league championship with many of the same players that have won rings the last two years.
Please note that the previews of the Cubs minor league affiliates 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.
Double-A – Tennessee Smokies
It’s another step on the ladder for Manager Mark Johnson. In four years as a manager in the Cubs’ system, Johnson has taken his team to the finals three times, won two championships, and twice has had the top pitching and defensive team in the league. Now, much of the same squad that has made this incredible trip with Johnson is taking on the Southern League. And odds are, another championship is in the offing.
Infield – The biggest question mark in this area will be third base, as Top 10 prospect Jeimer Candelario was optioned to the Smokies last week, but few believe he will stay for long, if at all. Tennessee would probably rely on a revolving door at the position, starting with 27-year old former first round draft pick Ryan Dent. Now considered more of a system player than one with any Major League potential, Dent is in his ninth minor league season and hit a combined .252/.313/.367/.680 with 15 doubles, a triple, five home runs and 32 RBI in 97 games between the Smokies and Triple-A Iowa. While Chesny Young most likely will be the primary second baseman, he will also get some turns at third. The 23-year old was one of the pleasant surprises of the Cubs’ system last year, winning the Carolina League batting title and playing six positions. After spending the first month with Low-A South Bend, Young was a part of the Pelicans championship team and batted a combined .320/.392/.386/.778 with 23 doubles, four triples, a home run, 44 RBI and 21 stolen bases. The double play partner for Young appears to be defensive whiz Carlos Penalver. Only 21 years old, Penalver is the best defensive infielder in the system. However, Penalver’s offense has yet to catch up as he hit only .202/.285/.270/.533 with 10 doubles, four triples, three home runs, 45 RBI and 11 stolen bases in 117 games last season. Anchoring the infield is one of the more unsung players of the Cubs’ minor leagues in Jacob Rogers. Without the national hype of some other prospects, the 26-year old left-hander has been consistent in his rise while providing outstanding defense. Last year, Rogers split time with the Smokies and Myrtle Beach, hitting .249/.352/.388/.740 with 23 doubles, 13 home runs and 82 RBI in 129 games. At just what level Dan Vogelbach starts the season remains to be seen. The 23-year old first baseman began 2015 hot, but the league and injuries caught up with him as he ended at .272/.403/.425/.808 with 16 doubles, a triple, seven home runs and 39 RBI in 76 games. Vogelbach was also way below average as a base runner and defensively. Giving Johnson loads of flexibility will be Danny Lockhart and Bryant Flete. Capable of playing second, short, and third, Lockhart is a 23-year old lefty who played 118 for Myrtle Beach last year and batted .223/.271/.301/.573 with 18 doubles, four triples, two home runs, 34 RBI and nine stolen bases. The front office still believes in Flete’s ability even though he only played in 58 games last year. Hitting .166/.261/.221/.482 during that span with four doubles, a triple, a home run and 10 RBI, Flete can play outfield as well as second base, shortstop, and third.
Outfield – Presently, it appears that the Cubs No. 2 prospect Billy McKinney will be returning to Tennessee. While for some that might be a setback, remember that McKinney is coming off a knee injury and will only be 21 years old. McKinney has impressed the Major League coaching staff with his baseball IQ to the extent that he has been nicknamed “Billy Baseball.” Splitting time with both Tennessee and Myrtle Beach, the left-handed hitter was .300/.371/.454/.825 with 31 doubles, three triples, seven home runs and 64 RBI in 106 games. Also playing for the Pelicans and Smokies, Jacob Hannemann is one of the speediest players for the franchise. The 24-year old has still to figure out how to translate incredible athletic ability into offensive production as he was a combined .244/.303/.366/.668 with 24 doubles, nine triples, six home runs, 45 RBI and 24 stolen bases. Lining up in right field should be Mark Zagunis. In his first full professional season, the 23-year old was an on-base machine. Zagunis had a batting line of .277/.406/.412/.818 with 24 doubles, five triples, eight home runs, 54 RBI and 12 stolen bases in 115 games. Backing this bunch will be a pair of veterans in Ryan Kalish and Anthony Giansanti. A former protégé of the front office, Kalish is now more of a fill-in than prospect after not playing last season. Capable of playing every position on the diamond, Giansanti is also one of the best locker room presences in the system. In 69 games between Tennessee and Iowa, the 27-year old hit .226/.293/.269/.562 with six doubles, a triple, 24 RBI, and three stolen bases while playing outfield, third, and first base.
Catching – Tennessee will have possibly the best catching combination at any level of the franchise in switch-hitting Victor Caratini and Cael Brockmeyer. A defensive presence and a great handler of pitchers, Caratini is just starting to come into his own offensively. The 22-year old played for Myrtle Beach last year and hit .257/.342/.372/.714 with 31 doubles, a triple, four home runs and 53 RBI in 112 games. At 6-foot-5, Brockmeyer is also considered to be a fine defensive catcher and game-caller. The 24-year old Brockmeyer played at four levels in 2015 and was a combined .251/.338/.389/.726 with 24 doubles, a triple, nine home runs and 61 RBI in 111 games. Also on hand will be Ben Carhart. A jack-of-all-trades, the 26-year old can play every infield position except shortstop as well as catch. In 44 games for the Pelicans last season, Carhart batted .255/.324/.444/.768 with eight doubles, seven home runs and 25 RBI.
Pitching – The pitching staff for the Tennessee Smokies is potentially so deep that manager Mark Johnson may have to invent ways to get everyone playing time. It all starts with top five prospect Duane Underwood Jr. The 21-year old started the season fine, but had to be shut down for a time due to concerns over his elbow. Underwood Jr. bounced back to have a strong showing in the playoffs as he ended the year with a 6-3 record, 2.58 ERA, 1.03 WHIP and with 48 strikeouts in 73 innings. Leading the Carolina League in ERA and WHIP, Jonathan Martinez is one of the more overlooked prospects in the system. Also 21 years old, Martinez demonstrated pinpoint control as he went 9-2 with a 2.56 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, and he had 66 strikeouts in 116 innings. The lone holdover from the 2015 Smokies’ rotation appears to be lefty Rob Zastryzny. The former second round pick battled injuries and was 2-5 with a 6.23 ERA, 1.73 WHIP and 48 strikeouts in 60.2 innings. A year removed from being named the Minor League Pitcher of the Year, Jen-Ho Tseng found High-A ball more challenging. Another 21-year old, Tseng was 7-7 with a 3.55 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and had 87 strikeouts in 119 innings. One of the biggest pitching surprises of the year, Brad Markey now gets a chance to show he belongs. Mired in the bullpen for Low-A South Bend, Markey was moved into the rotation and simple exploded. The 24-year old was a combined 7-0 with two saves, a 1.71 ERA, 0.82 WHIP and 63 strikeouts in 84 innings for both the SB Cubs and Myrtle Beach. Lost in the shuffle, Paul Blackburn remains a very solid prospect. Blackburn had to deal with some minor injuries in 2015 as the 22-year old went 7-5 with a 3.11 ERA, 1.23 WHIP and had 63 strikeouts in 89.2 innings.
All that talent has left former starter Daury Torrez in search of a role. Torrez led the Pelicans in victories and was fifth in the league in WHIP as the 22-year old was 10-6 with a 3.75 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and 86 strikeouts in 134.1 innings. Following Torrez is a bevy of holdover talent, including Gerardo Concepcion, Fernando Cruz, Michael Jensen, Tyler Ihrig, Juan Paniagua, and James Pugliese. Concepcion and Ihrig are the lone lefties, with the 24-year old Concepcion going 0-3 with a save, a 6.90 ERA, 2.05 WHIP and 37 strikeouts in 44.1 innings. Appearing at four different levels and starting five games, Ihrig is a valuable player to the minor league system. The 24-year old was 3-4 with two saves, a 2.89 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 67 strikeouts in 90.1 innings overall. Cruz is just beginning to come into his own after converting from a position player two years ago. Appearing for Iowa, Tennessee, and Myrtle Beach, the 25-year old was a combined 3-4 with three saves, a 5.64 ERA, 1.54 WHIP and 58 strikeouts in 68.2 innings. Staying on the field has been the biggest problem for Jensen, who made only 22 appearances in 2015. The 25-year old was effective, going 2-2 with a save, a 2.23 ERA, 1.39 WHIP and 29 strikeouts in 32.1 innings. With a fastball that sits in the mid-90s, throwing strikes has always been an issue for Paniagua. At 25 years old, Paniagua combined to go 3-4 with a 4.19 ERA, 1.27 WHIP and 49 strikeouts in 58 innings between Myrtle Beach and Tennessee. A model of consistency, Pugliese often gets overlooked. At 4-3 with five saves, a 2.81 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, and 51 strikeouts in 57.2 innings, the 23-year old Pugliese is among the unheralded.
But the bullpen may have the biggest impact with three newcomers led by Josh Conway. Scouts are beginning to hint that Conway deserves to be among the Cubs’ top 25 prospects as he has finally been able to move past a series of injuries. Taking another step in his recovery, the 24-year old Conway was 2-2 with three saves, a 2.92 ERA, 1.52 WHIP and 49 strikeouts in 52.1 innings for Myrtle Beach. Having an impact in the playoffs, sixth round draft pick David Berg will be among the choices for closer. Getting a big jump from Short Season-A Eugene, the 22-year old submarine pitcher dazzled Carolina League hitters, going 1-1 with four saves in 16 appearances with a 1.69 ERA, 1.31 WHIP and 14 strikeouts in 16 innings. A rising star, David Garner acquitted himself very well in the playoffs and the Arizona Fall League after splitting time between South Bend and Myrtle Beach in 2015. Garner’s regular season numbers paled to how dominant he was in the post-season as he was a combined 4-1 with three saves in 32 appearances that included a 3.88 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 67 strikeouts in 55.2 innings.
Minor League Previews
Five Minor League Players to Watch
- Rookie and Short Season A-Ball
- Low-A South Bend and High-A Myrtle Beach
- Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa
Down on the Farm Prospect Poll
The nominations were made and for the next two weeks our readers will be able to vote for the 10 prospects you would like us to highlight in a weekly report throughout the minor league season.
This year we will be posting the Top Prospect Watch in a separate article on Tuesdays.
You can vote for up to 10 prospects, per IP address, either above or in the right side bar.
So if you want to know how many home runs Eloy Jimenez hit for South Bend in a given week. Or how Gleyber Torres and Ian Happ are hitting in the Carolina League. Or how many strikeouts Dylan Cease has once joins the very talented South Bend Cubs rotation, cast your votes, and we will bring you the details every week in a detailed report.