See the fanpost on the Iowa Cubs for an introduction to this series. Again, I humbly ask that you recommend this as I spend hours working on them and I really want them to be read.
Additionally, the rosters are the best guesses for the team that will take the field on Friday. The rosters on the official websites have don't match up with the rosters printed in the local papers, so some guesses were made. The roster will probably also change up until the first pitch.
The Tennessee Smokies
The Smokies are the Cubs AA franchise in the Southern League. They play in Kodak, Tennessee, which is just east of Knoxville.
The Cubs have traditionally used their AA franchise as the home to their top prospects and often call players up to the majors directly from AA. This year should be no exception (although Daytona may give them a run for their money), as the Smokies boast an especially strong pitching staff that could see several major league call-up this season to fill in for injured pitchers. No fewer than sixteen Smokies are repeating AA this season, so there will be little reason to keep those players in Tennessee if they get off to a strong start.
Who's in Charge? Buddy Bailey is the new Smokies manager, having switched jobs with new I-Cub manager Pat Listach. Bailey isn't being demoted, he actually left the Cub organization for a week last October to become a bench coach for the Dodgers under Grady Little. Oops. After Little was ousted in Los Angeles, the Cubs offered to take him back in the organization, but Listach had already been offered Bailey's job in Iowa.
Bailey is a nineteen-year minor league veteran manager who joined the Cub organization in 2006.
The pitching coach is former Dodgers, Rangers and Indians pitcher Dennis Lewallyn, who has spent 26 years coaching in the minor leagues, the last two in the Cub organization. He's the coach who taught Kevin Hart the cut fastball last year, thus transforming a guy who was traded for Freddie Bynum into a major league pitcher. The hitting coach is former Tiger Barbaro Garbey.
Fun Fact: Garbey came to America along with 125,000 other Cuban refugees in the 1980 Mariel boatlift. He was the first ballplayer to defect from Cuba after Castro instituted his "no exit" policy in the early sixties.
Who will pitch? The Smokies rotation is headlined by a pair of highly-touted prospects in right-hander Jeff Samardzija and left-hander Donnie Veal.
Samardzija is the Notre Dame wide receiver who the Cubs paid ten million dollars to give up football and pitch. He's 6'5" tall and is a great athlete. He has a fastball that can hit 98 mph on occasion, and is consistently in the low to mid-nineties. His off-speed stiff is good but inconsistent. Last season Samardzija pitched poorly in High A Daytona, got promoted anyway and pitched better in Tennessee. Still, as the scouts say, his stuff is better than his results. This season Samardzija will have to show that he's adapting to the mound and that he can use that athleticism and great stuff to miss more bats.
Veal is a hard-throwing left-hander with a funky delivery that has caused him problems last year as he had trouble repeating his motion and finding the plate. He's got three strong pitches but has trouble with control. In 2006 he was almost unhittable, but in 2007 at Tennessee he struggled. He's got the stuff to be a #2 starter in the major leagues. This season should tell if he's got any chance to live up to that.
Sinkerballer Justin Berg, Mitch Atkins and Tanner Watson make up the rest of the Smokies rotation. The 22 year-old Atkins appears to be going the Kevin Hart route and is learning a cut fastball from Lewallyn to compliment his "heavy" two-seamer that sits in the low 90s. His control of that pitch will be one of the stories to watch in 2008.
The bullpen doesn't have quite so many interesting storylines, but Rocky Roquet should be the most interesting name and not just as a by-product of alliteration. The hard-throwing right hander has been moving quickly through the organization and got a good long look in spring training.
Lefty Ed Campusano will also throw his heat in AA, as will left-handers Chris Shaver and right-handers Greg Reinhard and Michael Cooper.
Fun Facts: After washing out of the Mariners organization in 2005, Tanner Watson pitched the next two and a half seasons for Rockford in the Frontier League. The Cubs signed him this off-season after a 11-3 season with a 2.17 ERA. Justin Berg was acquired from the Yankees in 2005 for Matt Lawton.
Who will hit? Tyler Colvin is the big name for the Smokies this season, as he seeks to build on a mostly successful 2007 season. If you've read Wrigley Season Ticket, you know the two things that Colvin has to work on this season is his range in center field and, most importantly, his pitch selection. Colvin is smart enough to realize this, and has made striking out less and walking more his top priority this season. He'll never lead any league in walks, but just adding one extra walk a week would do wonders. Fans in Southern League cities should watch his pitch selection carefully.
Next to Colvin in right field is Ryan Harvey, the other former first round draft choice. While it certainly looks like the only thing major league about Ryan Harvey is that he's a major league bust, he still has tremendous power and is probably on his last chance to prove he can do something with it. If he fails to hit, however, look for the Cubs to convert him to pitching and give him a shot to make it to the majors that way.
Left field will be manned by 26 year-old Corey Coles, who was acquired from the Mets for Angel Pagan, and Matt Camp. Camp is a potential major league utility guy who will play all over the diamond, has excellent speed, good on-base skills, and has the "scrappy fan-favorite white guy" routine down pat.
The infield is lead by 27 year-old switch-hitting third baseman/first baseman Matt Craig, who returns to Tennessee this year despite hitting .326 with a .414 OBP and ten home runs in 87 games in AA last season. He did finish the season in Iowa, where he hit .273 with four homers in 31 games. Such is the fate of 27 year-old corner infielders in the Southern League. Nate Spears, 23, returns to play second base. Spears has mad on-base skills but no power to speak of at all. He doesn't have great speed, which will probably prevent him from having a Luis Castillo-like career.
Third baseman Kyle Reynolds, 24, has shown good power in the minors and decent on-base skills. Consider him a sleeper prospect. Glovemen Joe Simokaitis and Robinson Chirinos will battle for playing time at shortstop and second base with Spears.
The catching duties will be handled by 24 year-old Chris Robinson, who was acquired from Detroit for Neifi Perez. He could have a career as a major league backup. His backup is Jake Muyco, who won't.
Fun Facts: Kyle Reynolds is the son of former Astro shortstop Craig Reynolds. Tyler Colvin is not related to singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin, as far as I know.
What to watch for in Tennessee: Clearly, the biggest stories for the Cubs in AA this year is the development of their starting pitching and how much Colvin is able to adjust his approach at the plate. High A Daytona may have the more interesting prospects this season, but the team most likely to have an immediate impact on the Cubs is the team in Tennessee. With the number of prospects repeating AA this year, Smokie fans should expect many, many wins this season, at least in the first half.