April is a strange month sometimes. For some players, it takes a whole month to get in the swing of things. For the Tennessee Smokies, this seems to be the case. After a rough first two weeks, the Smokies offense seems to have come alive. The team has won five games in a row and is now sitting one and a half games out of first place in the Southern League’s North Division. The Smokies currently have 9 out of 30 of the Cubs Top Prospects on MiLB.com on their team and, to me, it’s been a surprise that they struggled out of the gate.
When I saw the opening day roster for the Tennessee Smokies, I thought the one thing they won’t have to worry about is the offense. They have Chesney Young, Mark Zagunis, Jake Hanneman, Billy McKinney, Jeimer Candelario, and Taylor Davis. After two weeks I was wondering what was happening as half the team was hitting over .300 while the other half of the team was sitting around .200. The pitching was inconsistent from the starting staff through the relievers to the back end of the bullpen. Conversely, things are righting themselves in this five game win streak.
Team record: 11-9
Last 10 Games: 7-3
Stars so far
No longer is it just a few players carrying the team, it’s a whole team playing together. Paul Blackburn is off to his best start of his career. In 4 starts, he has an ERA of 0.35 in 26 innings. He has only struck out 9, but his 0.48 WHIP is amazing as Blackburn has been using all of his pitches to keep hitters off balance to get ground ball after ground ball out. He has 39 groundouts and only 16 outs are by fly balls.
Chesny Young has been pretty hot the last 10 games. He is hitting .500 over that span along with taking 11 walks. Young’s stats for the month have been impressive.- .382 avg with a .506 OBP. He also has 2 HRs. His performance has dispelled any myth about his ability to hit at this level. I see Young being able to move to AAA sometime in June.
Joining Young heading to AAA will likely be outfielder Bijan Rademacher. Bijan tore it up in April hitting .385 with a .515 OBP along with a team highs in HRs, with 4, and RBIs with 13.
Rob Zastryzny may finally be breaking out after three years in the organization. He’s had three quality starts out of four and an ERA shrinking every start. It’s currently at 3.52 and he’s struck out an impressive 19 in his 23 innings. Reliever Gerardo Concepcion has yet to allow a run in 10 innings. Juan Paniagua has also been excellent with a 1.15 ERA in his 7 appearances. Corey Black is better as a reliever this year and looks to be gaining confidence in that role. Take away one outing, he could have made the organizational All-Star team for the month (Coming Saturday).
Starting to get hot
Jeimer Candelario is starting to power up the last five games. His average was under .200 a week ago but his OBP was well over .300. That was good news as it showed his approach was solid. Jake Hanneman and Victor Caratini have been heating up. Both have crossed the Mendoza line with Caratini hitting .290 in his last ten games. Hannemann, meanwhile, has hit .289 over his last ten.
Two players are still struggling at the plate. Billy McKinney is slowly coming back off knee surgery and is not able to use his lower half properly. Walk machine Mark Zagunis is struggling a bit, hitting .237,but he is still seeing the ball well as he has 14 walks for an OBP of .366.
Starter Tyler Skulina has yet to find some consistency along with Jen-Ho Tseng. Relievers David Garner and Josh Conway each had one bad outing that has skewed their ERAs.
The Smokies arguably have the most talented team in the Cubs’ system. With Young and Hannemann at the top of the order, it has been up to Candelario and Caratini to drive them in. The Smokies have a series of starting pitchers who’ve had a track record of success at every level, and by success I mean championships. Manager Mark Johnson looks to have his team on the right track now.
To me, Candelario and Zagunis are going to be the key to really lengthening the lineup and to make it difficult for Southern League pitchers to get through any innings. Taylor Davis, to me, is a player who just plain rakes. He’s done it at every level. He’s not overwhelmingly athletic but he can put a bat on a ball and drive it someplace. The sad thing is, I think somebody’s going to come calling for him this summer.
I’m interested to see where Johnson will take this team this year, especially in the next month before promotions come. I am sure that the pressure to win a third title in three years with a core group of players, has to be daunting.
Then again, Duane Underwood has not pitched one inning yet. That will change this weekend. The Cubs top pitching prospect’s insertion into the rotation will stabilize a young group of pitchers who are struggling to make the jump to AA. I think May is going to be a very good month in Tennessee.