Tennessee Smokies Preview – Looking for an Elusive Title

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By Todd Johnson

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2016 in Review
Last year was a huge disappointment for the Tennessee Smokies. Their team was stacked with players who won back to back championships at Kane County and Myrtle Beach. Aside from a few individual performances, the Smokies and Manager Mark Johnson limped to a 58-81 record.

Infielder Chesney Young and outfielders Mark Zagunis and Bijan Radmacher were the highlights of the season. Zagunis and Rademacher both were promoted to 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.

On the mound, injuries decimated the starting staff and a midseason trade of top pitcher Paul Blackburn to the Mariners did not help. However, there were a few things that went right that including the second halves of starter Zach Hedges and relievers James Faris and Jose Rosario.

2017 Preview
For Manager Mark Johnson, he has to be excited about the 2017 campaign. He is getting an influx of players coming off a championship of their own from Myrtle Beach. Combined with some holdovers, Tennessee could make a run at that championship that eluded them in 2016.

Pitching
Zach Hedges will start the year at Tennessee, but if he pitches like he did last year in the second half, he won’t be in Kodak very long. 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 2 starting spots next year in Chicago if they can get to Iowa by August this year.

Duane Underwood will be returning to Tennessee after an injury-riddled 2016. However, it is unclear if he will be a starter or a reliever. I am hoping for a starter. 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, either, to see Preston Morrison do well at Tennessee with his whiffle ball repertoire. For Jake Stinnett, he 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 (He will be 25 in April). The bullpen 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.

Position Players
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 that Ian Happ would be in Tennessee at least to begin the year. That all changed on Monday night. For the group of position players coming to Tennessee, I think they are used to it. I think they will thrive with that 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 the last two months of the 2016 season. Balaguert hit 19 home runs for the Pelicans in a noted pitcher’s league. Bote hit over .400 in July and August leading 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 and also have a high on-base percentage between South Bend and Myrtle Beach last year. This spring, Rice spent more time at honing his catching skills and hopefully his bat will produce more home runs in the Southern League. I think he will be the sleeper of the year for the Smokies. His bat has a lot of power as he hit 9 dingers for Myrtle Beach in 39 games and 15 for the year. I think his bat will play better in the Southern League. It would not surprise me to see him 20+ 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. Hopefully, he can improve his bat as he already has major league range and defense in the outfield. Charcer Burks struggled in the first half last year at Myrtle Beach and was very good in the second half from the leadoff spot. 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 you with the ability to hit for average, rather they will capitalize on opportunities to get the job done by doing the little things…and sometimes big things.

The pitching, on the other hand, has the potential to be something special with Clifton, Hedges, Leal, and Morrison anchoring the rotation to go along with an experienced and disciplined bullpen. I think this year Smokies team has a lot of talent whose fruition began last year at Myrtle Beach.

Breakout prospect
Erick Leal – Last year, he had the quietest 10–4 season of any pitcher in the Cubs’ system. He had a 3.23 ERA and struck out 66 batters in a little over 90 innings pitched. He might never be a power picture, but he could be a ground ball machine, which I think he is now. Leal is able to keep hitters off-balance and he works quickly to do so. He might only throw in the low 90s, but he is also able to command the bottom of the zone well. I think this year at AA will be quite the task for him and he should succeed just on pitchability factors.

Probable Lineup
LF – Charcer Burks
CF – Trey Martin
RF – Jeffrey Baez
3B – Jason Vosler
SS – Flete, Ely
2B – Bote
1B – Balaguert
C – Rice, Alberto Mineo

I still think the Smokies are going to need some help on offense. Therefore, when his bone bruise is healed, I would not be surprised to see Eloy Jimenez arrive by the end of May.

First to Be Promoted – It’s going to be a pitcher. If I had to put money on it, I would go with Zach Hedges who already has a half in at AA. If I went with my heart, I would go with Trevor Clifton. Either way, the Iowa Cubs can’t lose.

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