Tennessee Smokies

The 7 Series: Tennessee Smokies Show Some Deep Talent in 2017

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By Todd Johnson

Overall Record – 68-70

I am not quite sure what went down in Kodak, Tennessee this summer. In April and May, they were close to being the best team in the system and were competing for a playoff spot against Chattanooga. Then, in one series, they were swept by Chattanooga and that doused any first half playoff hopes. Several prospects struggled in June and July and yet the Smokies were still in the thick of the playoff hunt again until mid August when the Montgomery Biscuits put some distance between themselves and the Smokies. Pitcher Jake Stinnett, who missed most of the year, returned in late July as a reliever and shined in his new role (0.61 ERA in 9 games). There could be something there.

Still, there was a lot of development that took place in 2017 for a team that was not considered to have a lot of elite prospects. Here are seven things about the Smokies talented roster.

1. Outfielder Charcer Burks was one of the prospects who came out of the gate extremely well in spring training playing with the big league club. That carried over into April and May as Burks made his way onto MLB Pipeline’s top 30 cubs prospect list after hitting .293 and .286 and then .333 in June. Then July happened. He hit .135 for the month but he did rebound some in August. For the year, he hit .270 with a .370 OBP.

2. Trey Martin – He has been around for a while and he has improved at every level. It is not been a rapid ascent, though, but a slow steady climb. Along the way, he’s won two gold gloves and struggled with minor issues like this year’s hamstring strain that caused him to miss two months. Upon his return, his bat showed a marked improvement and I am really excited about what he might be doing at Iowa next year.

3. David Bote exploded in the second half of 2016 and that carried over into April and May 2017. Like Burks, he went down a little bit in the summer but rebounded well in August hitting over .280. I like the fact that he can play multiple positions in the infield. He has shown some power, but I prefer the fact that he is hitting the ball up the middle on a consistent basis.

4. Jason Vosler – He led the Cubs’ system in home runs this year with 21 but he also hit less than .200 in August. He came on like gangbusters this spring and then faded over the course of the rest of the summer. I am looking forward to seeing his batting average/OBP bounce back in 2018. It seems the more home runs he hit in July and August the lower his batting average got. Considering the fact that he never had more than 10 home runs in a season before 2017, it was interesting to see him produce at such a prodigious rate.

5. Yasiel Balaguert – We should just rename him Mr. Second Half. If he ever had a good first half, he would hit over 25 homers and drive in100 every year. That’s basically his second half pace when prorated out to a 162 game schedule. Maybe he’s just one of those guys it does better when it’s warmer. I look forward to him playing first base and the outfield next year for Iowa in a hitter’s league.

6. Ian Rice – You have to be picky when looking at his stats. You can hone in on the on-base percentage, the power numbers, and games played behind the plate that all point to him being one of the most improved prospects the past year. He played in 114 games this year with a .353 OBP and hit 17 homeruns. Considering that he was a last-minute addition to the Tennessee roster, he did an outstanding job transitioning over to catching almost full-time. I am really looking forward to seeing what he can do in Arizona Fall League this October and November.

7 – Which starting pitchers will get promoted to Iowa with Duane Underwood? I don’t know who that’s going to be. I honestly don’t. It should be determined in spring training. I think Zach Hedges will get a crack at Iowa again if I was to make a bet. If Adbert Alzolay and Trevor Clifton shine in spring training, they could also find their way there. I think a lot of it depends on who the Cubs sign, or trade for, in the offseason to replace Arrieta and Lackey. Right now, Alzolay, who is pitching well in relief in Arizona, might have the inside shot. Clifton, who was brilliant in the first half of the year and struggled in the second, could turn his career around quickly with a good spring. I would not be surprised to see all four get a shot in spring training to make a start with the big league club.

Smokies to Watch in 2018
Now 22, Eddy Martinez will be the player to watch in 2018. He’s finally acclimated to playing baseball again and playing baseball in the United States. It’s been a huge cultural shift for him and he is now able to relax and just play. In the second half of 2017, he hit .276 with 7 HRs and an OBP of .333. I imagine that the Eloy trade was tough for him as they were inseparable as teammates. The trade also may have helped him realize he is on his own now. I am looking forward to seeing him do his own thing in AA in 2018.

SS Zack Short, Pitchers Dakota Mekkes, Michael Rucker, Duncan Robinson, Thomas Hatch, Pedro Araujo, C Tyler Alamo, and 3B Jesse Hodges also bear watching in Tennessee. All will be at critical junctures in their development.

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2017 Cards of the Year Have Several Classics

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By Todd Johnson

There was a lot of stiff competition to make this year’s Top 10 baseball card list. Two cards of the month didn’t make it. Some cards aged well over time. Others did not. I still think I could have argued for five cards to be the top card of the year. In fact, I changed the number one card five times over the past two days for a variety of reasons. As soon as I click publish, I will probably wish I could have changed it.

Honorable Mention

I just like this picture. I took this picture of Joe in Beloit. It was taken just before he eliminated his giant leg kick. Shortly thereafter, he began to hit much better in August.   

10-8

  

At number 10 for the year, Larry Kave took this excellent shot of Justin Steele. In addition to the colors and the action, I really like the sunlight illuminating the top half of the card. Rikk Carlson captured a series of lines and angles in a great picture of DJ Wilson at number 9. The Eugene Emeralds nailed this action shot of pitcher Ben Hecht in a great picture as he warmed up between innings.

7-5

 

Taken off his Instagram account, I just love the colors of Eddy Martinez as he jogs to wherever he is going. Number six is by the Eugene Register Guard and has infielder Jhonny Bethencourt leaping up in the air to grab a throw down to second base from the catcher. Needless to say, the runner was safe. September’s number one picture comes in at number five for the year. I love the color of the lettering on the Emeralds’ Friday night jerseys and the expression on Jose’s face as well as how everything meshes with the woodgrain texture..    

4-2 – Any of these could have been number one.

 

I think the Tennessee Smokies Charcer Burks’ card has aged very well over the year. What I like most about it is the smattering of blue throughout the card. In at number three, Minor League Baseball (@MiLB) nailed this photograph of DJ Wilson flying through the air with the greatest of ease. At number two, this card of Duane Underwood is another card that has aged well and I thought for a while it might be the best picture of the year as I just love the twilight experience in the card as well as how the red of Underwood’s hat matches the piping on the bottom of the card along with the trim on his uniform.    

#1

I hemmed and hawed in my own mind about the qualities of this card and the Underwood card above. I was actually smitten with this Albertos card caught by the Eugene Register Guard for several reasons. First, the action taking place in the cartoon is top notch. Second, the photograph encapsulates both objects in focus and out of focus which I think it adds to its enjoyment. Finally, the fact that this is a picture of Jose Alberto’s wearing Eugene’s throwback uniforms tops it off in my book. To be honest, I think it matters that it’s in a 1986 frame as that allows for the picture to be more of the star of the card then hiding behind the outline features of the card.

Over the next six months, there will be more cards made. Between now and the beginning of the spring training, I always tend to find just as many pictures in the off-season as I do in the regular season from the local newspapers of the prospects as they do write-ups and profiles. I won’t be having any special post for the winter cards, but I will add them to the Facebook account with its own photo album if you would like to see some of them. I will get started on them next weekend as I have about 10-15 pics waiting to be turned into cards.

The August Cards of the Month – Collages of Color and Action

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By Todd Johnson

Like July, I made a lot of cards and very quickly in early August. Then, when I started getting ready to teach, the pace of cards slowed way down. I think it gets more challenging every month  to pick just 10 cards because each month I keep adding more and more sources to make those cards.

Next year, I’m going to continue putting the cards in monthly albums on Facebook. It worked out better than I thought it could. It didn’t start out like that but once July got here, a lot of the loading issues were resolved by the monthly selections.

The top cards for this month don’t really have a theme. As I started to narrow them down, I began to also think where they would fit among the top 10 cards of the year. I think we may see two or three of them at the end of September when I do the cards of the year post.

  

10 to 8
Much of a good baseball card comes down to to action, light, and color. At Number 10, Dylan Heuer’s capture of Dillon Maples is accentuated by the sunlight that when combined with shadows really brings out the action. At number 9, Rikk Carlson encapsulates all the athleticism of DJ Wilson in one shot. Yasiel Balaguert is captured by the Tennessee Smokies with the red stripes on the jersey and on his compression stocking making the picture and the card.    

 

7 to 5
There’s just something about the blue of the Tennessee Smokies uni that gets my attention. I might be crazy, but I just love that shade. Steve Perakslis’ jersey and hat show it off in the small shadows. I normally don’t have large pictures turned sideways for cards. I couldn’t resist with Emerald Media’s shot of Rafael Narea and a shot of Duane Underwood by the Smokies.

  

4-2
For Duane Underwood’s second card by MLB Pipeline, you might think it’s the blue that make it but I think it’s the red in the background that really sets up the blue. The Eugene Emeralds’ capture of Jesus Camargo’s face really makes his picture. At number three, Rikk Carlson is back and gets to number two (which seems to be a theme the past few months) on Ademan’s second night at South Bend.

#1. Minor-league baseball (@MiLB) captured the number one spot this month with their publication of a picture of DJ Wilson laying out in a road game. Right now, that picture is in the top two or three for the year.

I will be back in late September with a monthly post. There are still a lot of baseball pics to come in this weekend and in the playoffs. In October, I will have the top 10 cards of the year on in it.  I will be back with “The Weekly” tomorrow where hopefully three teams will have clinched playoff spots and a fourth affiliate will still be alive for one.

Cubs’ August MiLB All-Star Team Has 16 New Faces

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By Todd Johnson

What a difference the last two months had on the look of the Cubs’ system. A lot of familiar names are gone and new ones have taken their place. You would think that this month’s All-Star team would be pitching centric but it’s not. Instead, there are a plethora of hitters who rose to the occasion in August.

Surprisingly, the position of catcher saw the greatest highlights out of all Cubs prospects. Five years ago that was a huge pit of emptiness and now has become a position of strength at every level. Outfield play was also outstanding along with the reliever corps.

While there were several hitters over .300, only a few displayed any kind of power and only one power prospect made the team. The great thing about that is he’s only 18 years old.

As for starting pitching, most MiLB pitchers tend to get run down in August but several arms had a very good month with four outstanding hurlers putting up ERAs under 2.00. This month’s team is structured a little different as it has more than one player at a few everyday positions.

Team Breakdown
Myrtle Beach, South Bend, and Eugene each have 6 reps.
Tennessee, Iowa, and Mesa each have 5. The DSL has 1.

Upcoming posts
Saturday – Cards of the Month
Sunday – The Weekly
Monday – Prospect Profile: Jared Young

Arizona Fall League Roster Answers Questions About Who Cubs Value

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By Todd Johnson

The Arizona Fall League released rosters today and 8 Cub prospects will be playing for the Mesa Solar Sox. The Cubs are sending three pitchers who were injured most of the year and will be taking a good look at a fourth reliever. In addition, 4 Tennessee Smokies position players will also get a deeper look this fall in Arizona.

Here are this year’s fall players.

Alec Mills – He only made two starts for AAA Iowa this spring before going on the disabled list. Acquired in a trade for Donnie Dewees, Mills returned two weeks ago and has been pitching short starts for the Cubs rookie league team with great success. He was promoted today to Myrtle Beach as part of his rehab.

Oscar de la Cruz – After having missed most of the summer, again, one of the Cubs top pitching prospects will get some extended innings in Mesa. He did have a delayed beginning to the year at Myrtle Beach this year and then went on the DL in late May. He returned to pitch two weeks ago where he made one start for Mesa and one for Myrtle Beach so far. He is at 52.1 IP heading into Tuesday the 29th.

Pedro Araujo – The reliever has been up quite a bit this year with a 1.84 ERA and 83 Ks in 63.2 IP. He’s been outstanding as the closer for Myrtle Beach and he did make a short stint at AA Tennessee. I expect the Cubs want to take a look to see how his stuff matches up against elite competition in a relief role. At 24 years-old, he could be taken in the Rule V draft this fall.

Jake Stinnett – He didn’t get much work in this year because of injury and just recently return to action. He has been outstanding in August with a 0.77 ERA in relief at AA Tennessee. At 25 years of age, time is beginning to run short for him. He turns 26 at the start of next season. I think this is the perfect opportunity to see if the Cubs want to continue with him in a relief capacity.

Ian Rice – Rice displayed excellent power and on-base percentage skills the last two years at South Bend, Myrtle Beach, and Tennessee. This year, he caught much more (46 games) than he did playing first base (10 games) and I think he is in the Arizona Fall League to work on his defensive skills behind the plate.

David Bote – I was glad to see his name on today’s list. He had a great second half of 2016 and first half of 2017. He seems to have an even-odd thing going as in April, June, and August, he has been near .300 and in May and July, he hovers around .250 . I am looking forward to seeing how he does in Arizona and just exactly where he is going to play. Between Kane County, Myrtle Beach, and Tennessee, I’ve seen him play all over the field.

Jason Vosler – He leads the Cubs system in homeruns this year with 21. He was outstanding in April and May, but has not been since. Even though he hit six homeruns in August, his average has not creeped above 200 but his OBP is above .300 for the month. I am pretty sure the Cubs will be checking out his power stroke.as he never hit more than HRs in a season before 2017.

Charcer Burks – His 2017 season is pretty similar to David Bote’s. He got off to a great start (301 on July 1) and then slumped in July (.158) followed by a great finish. Throw in the fact that he played a lot with the big league club in spring training and it’s pretty easy to understand why the Cubs put him in the Fall League. With double digit homers and speed, his athleticism is something the Cubs lack at the major league level.

Earlier, I thought the Cubs might leave one spot open for Willson Contreras to rehab if he came back in the playoffs. Instead, that door was shut today. Still, I like who they are sending. It gives a good glimpse into they value at the upper levels and who will probably make it to Iowa next year at the beginning of the season. Hopefully, some of the players can use this as a springboard to success at Iowa. With the Rule V Draft looming a few weeks after the Fall League ends, some could us this experience to earn a spot on the 40 man roster.

Prospect Profile: Tyler Alamo Quietly Doing His Business

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By Todd Johnson

Strange things happen some days.

Last Saturday afternoon, I put out this tweet about Tyler Alamo:

I also sent Myrtle Beach Pelicans announcer Scott Kornberg a message about how impressed I have been at Alamo’s production this summer. I asked Scott a question about what he thought was the key to Alamo’s success. Scott said,

“Seems like he’s tried to cut down on his swing. Because he’s not hitting for much power at all. But he’s been hitting the ball harder, and therefore having it land in for hits. And I think on that note, in terms of trying not to do too much, swinging at much better pitches instead of getting himself out. That’s what he’s talked about a lot to me.”

Lo and behold, that afternoon during a doubleheader, Tyler Alamo cranked out 3 HRs and 5 RBI en route to being named the Carolina League Player of the Week. That gave him 12 dingers for the year. Over his last ten games, Alamo has hit .333 and is at .284 for the year. He has done so quietly, very quietly.

The Long Slow Climb
Drafted out of high school in the 24th round of the 2013 MLB Draft, Alamo is at high A Myrtle Beach this season playing 1B, C, and seeing some time at DH. In the wake of the Eloy Jimenez trade, Alamo has stepped up to be an integral middle of the order bat.

The Cubs are known for drafting mostly college players. Rarely will Jason McLeod select a high school player, let alone a catcher. Alamo’s pedigree of playing USA baseball with future Cubs Trevor Clifton and Keegan Thompson helped as did his 6’4” 200 lb. frame which had the potential to add weight and mature physically.

Alamo toiled for two seasons in the Arizona Rookie League in 2013 and 2014. He did not hit for a high average. However, he worked on his defense and strengthened his body. In 2015, he spent the summer in Eugene hitting .261 with a .338 OBP, a marked improvement for a 20 year old.

In the winter of 2015, Alamo went about adding more muscle to his 200 lb. frame. He now looks to be somewhere between 215-225 and the kind of guy I would want to be behind in a dark alley.

I had a brief conversation with Tyler in 2016 when South Bend was in Clinton, Iowa. He was in the on deck circle and I was taking pictures in a makeshift camera well. He was very polite and courteous. Alamo continued working hard in 2016, even if the results didn’t show up on a stat sheet. He only hit .243, but he also hit his first 5 HRs as a pro and drove in 50.

All that hard work is paying off this summer.

He’s not a flashy player, but he does get the job done He’s played 49 games at first, caught 28 behind the plate, and was the DH in 27 others. His wRC+ is 120 and his is driving the ball. According to Fangraphs, he has increased the number of line drives he has hit this year from 16 to 24% while his ground ball rate has decreased by 5%. His approach this year has allowed him to see 300 more pitches in just 10 more games than he did last year.

I am interested to see how he performs next year at AA Tennessee. He has earned a promotion for next spring and the chance to make the next step in his journey. His ability to adapt at each level should bode well for his success. While power is not his primary concern right now, I think next year could see even bigger power numbers as he has shown the ability to hit good pitching in the Carolina League this year. In the Southern League, he won’t have the sea breezes keeping the ball in the park.

The Weekly: September Callups and the Playoff Push

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By Todd Johnson

There are just three weeks left in the MiLB season. With the Iowa Cubs out of the running, the Cubs will have some callups once September arrives and rosters expand. I would not expect too many players considering the Cubs are in the midst of a pennant race. Here are five players I think the Cubs will add for the final month. All but one are on the 40 man roster and a space will have to be made to add that one player.

Mark Zagunis – I think he is the only position player who gets added since Caratini arrived to replace Willson.

Jack Leathersich – A lefty, he’s been lights out at Iowa but I doubt he would pitch in Chicago except in a blowout.

Eddie Butler – I like adding him as a long man or backup starter.

Rob Zastryzny – He was just up for a day and should be up all September now that he is healthy.

Dillon Maples – He is the only one who is not on the 40 man roster. Then again, he could be added long before September comes the way he is pitching.

Outside shot of being added – Catcher Taylor Davis – I don’t think Manager Joe Maddon wants to go into the playoffs with a couple of run down catchers. Hopefully Willson will be back in a month. In the meantime, Davis would provide a day off for both catchers or an inning or two of relief in blowouts down the stretch to keep them fresh as well.


A month ago, I published an article about the Arizona Fall League and 40 man roster implications. At first, I thought about revisiting that post in the wake of the trades, but Eloy Jimenez was the only player affected from the post. Instead, the only possible outcome would be that there might be one more 40 man roster spot available. In the article, I predicted who the Cubs might protect from the Rule V Draft by adding them to the 40 man roster. I also suggested some possible prospects who could play in the AFL. The Cubs may want to save a spot for Willson Contreras to rehab considering how  well that worked for someone else last year to come back for the World Series.


In other news this week, Baseball America produced a new top 100 prospect list that includes this year’s draft picks. There are still no Cubs. I don’t think there will be until the middle of next year.


Coming up at Cubs Central.
School starts for me this week. After two days of institute on Wednesday and Thursday, the students arrive on Friday.  I have a couple of posts already in the queue ready to go. One is an interview with Myrtle Beach Pelicans pitcher Duncan Robinson. The other is a post about investing in Cubs prospects. I will also examine possible names of some DSL players who should be headed north for Fall Instructs. That could be the week after. You never know how news flows.


Saying Goodbye
Yesterday morning, my wife and I had to put down one of our dogs. Phoebe was a terrier mix who was almost 13. She lived a good life of walks, treats, and belly rubs. In the past year, she had lost her sight and most of her hearing. We miss her already.


Around the Minors:
Iowa – 4-3: Jen-Ho Tseng continues to roll and reliever David Garner was promoted to AAA.

Tennessee – 3-3: 3.5 GB of a playoff spot – Yasiel Balaguert was named Southern League Hitter of the Week while Duane Underwood might be named Pitcher of the Week tomorrow.

Myrtle Beach – 1-5: It is rough all around in South Carolina. Reliever Pedro Araujo was promoted to AA Tennessee. I hope to see some infusion of talent from South Bend to give the Pelicans a shot at winning back-to-back-to-back titles.

South Bend – 4-2: I am seeing some growth and development from DJ Wilson, Kevonte Mitchell, and Bryan Hudson that is extremely promising. In addition, pitcher Tyler Peyton is on a great streak of pitching well the past three weeks. He has put himself into contention to make the monthly all-star team. Tomorrow’s post will be about how South Bend can help Myrtle Beach win the Mills Cup.

Eugene – 2-5: 1 Defensive woes derailed their week but they are still just one game away from a playoff spot. Brandon Hughes is starting to warm up again.

Mesa – 2-3: The kids are getting experience even if it doesn’t show up in wins. Delvin Zinn seems to be back in a groove hitting over .300 this month.

DSL 1 – 3-4 – OF Luis Hidalgo got the call to Mesa this week.
DSL 2 – 2-4 

Baseball Card of the Week

Players of the Week

My Other Stuff on the Web From This Week
Cubs Insider:
Austin Upshaw Profile
MiLB Pitcher of the Year Discussion
Duane Underwood