First off, there is a duality in the title of this post. The 2015 Tennessee Smokies should have plenty of power from their hitters for the second year in a row. In 2014 the team had Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, and Addison Russell. This year, the Smokies will not be short on power with Kyle Schwarber, Dan Vogelbach, and possibly Ben Carhart. Add in RBI machine Billy McKinney, top prospect Albert Almora, up and comer Bijan Rademacher, the secretive Gioskar Amaya, and athletic catcher Wilson Contreras and you have a team that can put some runs on the board. They did so in my backyard at Kane County two years ago, and again in the second half of last year at Daytona.
The problem is the inability to stop the other team from doing the same thing in 2013 at Kane County and the first half of last year in Daytona. However, the pitching staff may have figured it out in the second half last year as the team made a run to the Florida State League Playoffs losing to Fort Meyers in the finals. Rob Zastryzny put together a string of excellent starts and Tayler Scott might be starting to develop some consistency as well.
But when it comes down to it, this could be the most talented team across the board that Tennessee has seen in a while. While last year’s team was also loaded with top prospects, it was also loaded with injuries to CJ Edwards, Ivan Pinyero, and Jorge Soler. Then later, Kris Bryant was promoted mid season followed shortly by Soler. I don’t see that happening this year at Tennessee. I think it could be a special year for many of the Cubs top prospects.
For me, it all starts with Kyle Schwarber. The 2014 1st round pick of the Cubs destroyed A ball to the tune of a .344 average, a .428 OBP, a .634 slugging percentage and an OPS of 1.061. Astonishing numbers to say the least but these were accomplished in 72 games for three teams after a full NCAA season. Throw in 18 home runs and 53 RBIs and it projects out to almost 40 home runs and 110 RBIs in a 162 game season. Schwarber, who will spend the better part of his time at catcher this year, is fast becoming one of the game’s top prospects, and he is advancing just as quickly in his skills. At the recent Cubs Convention, Schwarber revealed he had two 4 day catching lessons with Mark Johnson at Kane County and then again at instructs after the season. Those lessons will continue this spring training, but Johnson will be at Myrtle Beach as the manager.
While Albert Almora is the highest ranked prospect slated to be in Tennessee, Schwarber has taken most of Almora’s thunder. Almora is easily the best defensive outfielder in the Cubs system and is gold glove caliber already. When Almora was at Kane County, it was like watching a panther in center. He glides to the ball, always takes good routes and makes hard catches look easy. The problem for Almora going into 2014 was his health. He stayed healthy all year in 2014. The Cubs made some adjustments to his swing. To me, he can get wood on almost any pitch, but he doesn’t need to. The Cubs are trying to make him more selective. At Daytona, Almora hit .283 in 89 games with 7 HRs and 50 RBIs – solid on the surface. However, his OBP was only .306. He just doesn’t walk much as he can hit most pitches. The Cubs are trying to retrain his brain to hit only those pitches he can hit well. A mid season call up to Tennessee saw Almora hit .234 in 36 games with a .250 OBP. However, here’s the thing about Almora, he might never walk much. He might not need to. Maybe the Cubs value his defense more. He can hit enough to get to the show. This year Almora could get to Iowa and begin the final phase of his development to arrive in Chicago by the summer of 2016. He needs to hit better than .236 and get on base at a better clip. A 15-20 home run total will suffice.
Billy McKinney has taken the organization by storm. As a 19 and 20 year old in the Florida State League, McKinney ripped to the tune of a .301 avg. but he drove in runs at a 120 RBI pace. While he had 10 HRs in California before coming over in the Samardjiza trade, he only hit 1 in the pitcher friendly Florida State League. It will be interesting to see what kind of power McKinney does have. We know he can hit for average and get on base, it would be great to see him develop some 15-20 HR power. McKinney will likely see time in left this year and at DH some. His arm is not strong enough to be out in right every day.
The other outfielder for Tennessee this year will be Bijan Rademacher. Rademacher did not take a giant leap forward last year, but it was a noticeable movement. Rademacher proved he could hit in 2013 and earned a summer promotion to Daytona. He did well enough (.276) in his short time there. In 2014, Rademacher began to show he had some pop to his bat hitting 10 home runs with a .281 average. He also flashed a great glove playing all three outfield positions and had an impressive run in the Arizona Fall League. He will be a steadying force in the Smokies’ lineup.
Gioskar Amaya is a secretive little guy to most Cubs prospect lovers. In 2014, he began to fulfill some of the promise he flashed in 2013 at Kane County. He is not going to hit for a lot of power, but he has a good stick and good defensive skills. Although he hit .276 for the year, he has the potential to do better. Amaya needs to do it consistently rather than in spurts. For example, the last 10 games of the season, Amaya hit .366 in the drive to the playoffs.
Wilson Contreras has a hard row ahead of him in 2015. With Kyle Schwarber at Tennessee, Contreras is no longer the top catching prospect in the system. He does possess the athletic ability behind the plate, his bat has not responded consistently. Like Amaya, it is easy to get lost in the numbers of prospects in the minor leagues. With Contreras you cannot do that. He is a very good defensive catcher who has the ability and the talent, but he also is working on other aspects of hitting at the same time. For example, while Contreras hit .280 in the first half of the season, he hit only .212 in the second half. But in the last ten games Contreras figured some things out in August where hit .412 wth 2 HRs and 8 RBIs. The talent is there, and like Amaya, he needs to be more consistent.
Out of all the hitters no one is probably more happy and sad to leave to leave the Florida State League than Dan Vogelbach. Playing close to his family was a dream come true for the young first baseman but playing in a league known for being a pitcher’s league because of the humidity and thick air, Vogelbach had mixed emotions. The 6’ 230 lb. first baseman hit only 16 HRs while hitting .268. While a .276 second half average was better, it was not the season Vogelbach himself wanted. He kept at it though and he will keep at it at Tennessee. The ball flies a little better in Tennessee and hopefully Vogelbach will take advantage of the atmosphere in Kodak. I do feel for Vogelbach a little. He lost a lot of weight in between the 2013 and 2014 seasons and the loss retooled his swing. It took some adjustment.
For me, there is one other player I would like to see start the year in Tennessee and that is Jake Hannemann. I like this kid a lot. The more he plays the better he gets. I saw him last spring at Kane County and liked his play in the outfield a lot. He gets to a lot of balls easily. His bat is slowly adjusting in small segments. He could start out at Myrtle Beach to begin the year, but he should go to Tennessee as his speed is just too much to keep down.
There are a few positions to fill out on the roster. Jordan Hankins, who was awesome in the first half at Kane County, struggled in his first month at Daytona before righting the ship. He and Ben Carhart, a player I like a lot and can play multiple positions with power, will be fighting it out for the 3B job. I like Carhart as a 1B, a DH, even some 2B, and as a leader. With Marco Hernandez going to Boston in the Felix Doubront deal, SS is wide open. I could see Wes Darvill filling this or even Tim Saunders, if he can rebound from a nonexistent 2014, but I don’t even know if Saunders is still a Cub. Even Elliot Soto could come back.
Regardless of whom the SS is, this team is going to put some runs on the board. They will show some occasional power in doing so, but this will be one team that is exciting to watch at the plate.
This is where it gets rough for me in writing team previews. Iowa’s roster is largely contingent upon the MLB roster and depth. As for Tennessee, the hitters are clearly ready for the challenges of this level, the pitchers are a concern. As I sat down to write out who the starters were I struggled on who I would put in the rotation. I got Felix Pena, Rob Zastryzny, and Tayler Scott down and that was it.
Pena had a great year at high A Daytona and Zastryzny had an abomination of a first half but turned it around with a great second half. Scott, meanwhile, seems to be improving slowly, but his odds of making it past AA are slim. A lot has to go right for him to advance. He is athletic enough to repeat his delivery, he just doesn’t have much beyond a fastball and hitters hit .268 against him last year and he only struck out 79.
At 6’3” and 170 pounds, Scott is still a prospect who could fill out and gain some “oomph” to his repertoire. In other words, there is a lot of projection left to him. The thing I like about him most is he takes the ball every fifth day. He has been injury free and he works hard to get better. He is improving slowly (he had an ERA under 4 the second half in 2014) but he is not improving as fast as others in the lower levels who may pass him up this year or next. Hopefully, this will be the year he breaks out!
As for the other two to three starters, it is hard to pick. Nathan Dorris and Justin Amlung were converted relievers who filled in down the stretch last year at Daytona. Otherwise, Jose Rosario is one possibility but he had a horrendous year at Daytona. I don’t see him as a starter long term let alone at the AA level. Matt Loosen will likely repeat at Tennessee for a third year after an ungodly 2014 with a 5.50+ ERA. Loosen is a name who at times is brilliant and just as many times as equally, if not more so, baffling. He has the stuff to throw no-hitters yet has the stuff to give up 8 runs in 3 innings.
Tyler Skulina and Juan Carlos Paniagua got just a few starts at Daytona (10 combined) after being promoted from Kane County, but neither of them is ready for the rigors of AA ball yet. However, that doesn’t mean they have the stuff or the ability to do so. Paniagua is physically ready and old enough to do so. Skulina has some tendonitis issues in his left knee to clear up before he even pitches anywhere.
There are pitchers who are starters who could be at AA quickly this in year in Duane Underwood, Paul Blackburn, Daury Torrez, and Jen-Ho Tseng, but I don’t see the Cubs brass breaking up that 20/21 year old quartet. Johnathon Martinez, who came over from the Dodgers mid-season, is another possibility along with rehabbing pitchers Marcelo Carreno and Barret Loux.
Recent minor league signees could be in the mix, too. Andres Santiago, who has spent most of his career in the Dodgers system, might get a look as a starter. However, a 4.47 ERA at nearby Chattanooga in 2014 doesn’t breed confidence. However, maybe the Cubs saw something in him when he no hit the Smokies.
Anything is possible at this level. In all honesty though, Theo and McLeod are not going to rush Underwood, Blackburn, Tseng, Torrez, and Martinez. Jake Stinnett, on the other hand, could be a name that might surprise at some point this year. The depth of organizational pitching is starting to get staggering at all levels of A ball.
The bullpen is the strength of the pitching at AA Tennessee. If Andrew McKirahan does not make the Marlins roster, the Texas lefty comes back to the Cubs and should anchor a bullpen with flame thrower Stephen Perakslis, who I like a lot and had a great second half in 2014. Add in Michael Jensen (2.85 ERA), Gerardo Concepcion (1.17 ERA at Daytona), who progressed greatly last year. Lefty Austin Kirk, and Sterling Peralta are rounding into form, and that’s a pretty solid group. Then there is newly acquired hard throwing Matt Brazis who should delight Smokies fans out of the pen. Add in the lefty Dorris, and the righty Amlung, who was almost unhittable out of the pen at Kane County, and you have quite the deep pen.
The question for the Smokies staff will be, “Who will the number 4-6 starters be?” It could be a mish-mash of rehabbers, cast offs from Triple A, or organizational guys. I think minor league spring training will shake those starters out. If I had to place a bet as to whom they would be, I would go with Carreno, Loux, and Dorris. You might even see Dorris and Carreno piggyback starts (each goes 3 innings) together taking turns who starts.
When the season does begin in Tennessee, it will be very exciting. With Zastryzny, he needs to keep the ball down. His great second half with a 3.32 ERA showed great character and a willingness to make adjustments. Felix Pena, on the other hand, just needs some run support, and Scott needs to add a few pounds and develop his secondary pitches. The hitters and bullpen will handle their end, the rest of the starting pitching needs to develop some consistency.
Having seen most of these players the last three years at Kane County and Peoria, this is their last chance to prove themselves as a quality player in the Cubs organization. Iowa is turning into the place where only the top prospects play along with players that have some experience at the major league level and provide depth in case of injury.
By mid season, Almora, Schwarber, Brazis, Perakslis, and Zastryzny have a solid chance at moving up to Iowa. However, it would not surprise me to see them stay at Tennessee, either as there is no rush for any of them to get to Chicago. Most of the team will be here for the long haul.
What most of the prospects are beginning to understand is that there is somebody a level down who is pushing to take their place. The redundancy built into the Cubs system is starting to get ridiculous when it comes to hitting, the bullpen, and, at all levels of A ball, the starting pitching.
For Tennessee, their hitters have been the most stable collection of bats in the Cubs system the past two years. The Cubs have let them play and develop together as a team and as individuals. After a year and a half of struggles, it paid off in 2015 with a playoff appearance in Daytona. This year should be no different if the rotation can get settled.
Next Week: Going to Myrtle Beach