Season Preview: Tennessee Smokies

Mesa, AZ, USA; Chicago Cubs pitcher Trey McNutt during spring training workouts at Fitch Park. Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE

I've been doing a lot of writing lately. I think I should have written more in spring training so I'd be ready for the regular season.

Now it's time to turn our attention to the Chicago Cubs Double-A franchise, the Tennessee Smokies of the Southern League. The Smokies have won the Northern Division of the Southern League for the past three years in a row, but have fallen in the Championship Series all three years: twice to Jacksonville and this past season to Mobile. During this time, the Smokies have been the team to watch, as under the Jim Hendry's management team the Cubs tended to put all the top prospects in Tennessee and have them only make a short stop in Iowa or skip Triple-A altogether. The new Jed Hoyer/Jason McLeod approach has put a lot more top prospects in Iowa, but the Smokies pitching staff, at least, remains loaded this season.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention you can listen to the games through the Smokies Radio Network. I'm sure many, maybe most of you got a chance to listen to Mick Gillispie call the Cubs spring training games in Arizona this spring, and he's just one of the many top minor league prospects working their craft for the Smokies. I'd be surprised if he wasn't in the majors sometime in the future. (Probably not for the Cubs because it doesn't work that way for broadcasters.) But in addition to calling the games, he, Cody Chrusciel and Roger Hoover (who's back in Tennessee this year. Yay!) and the rest of the Smokies team also run a great website, which I linked to above. They've got stories, pictures and interviews with all the players for the Smokies. You're really doing yourself a disservice if you don't bookmark it and check it out a few times a week. I will add that the Smokies Radio Team have been friends to this blog in the past and have helped us out when we've needed it.

So after the jump, a look at this year's Tennessee Smokies. Don't forget, the numbers after the players indicate where they fall on my ranking of the top Cubs prospects, with (20+) meaning they're somewhere in the 21-30 range and I don't think it's worth my time to flip coins on those players to decide which one is 22 and which one is 23.

The Tennessee Smokies play outside of Knoxville, Tennessee in Sevier County. They're the Double-A franchise in the Northern Division of the Southern League, which is one step below Triple-A Iowa. They were awarded the John H. Johnson President's Award for 2011, which is given out by Minor League Baseball to the "most complete" minor league franchise.

The Smokies are coached this season by Buddy Bailey, a minor league veteran manger who has won over 1500 games as a minor league manager. He was also the bench coach for the Boston Red Sox in 2000. Bailey has been in the Cub organization since 2006 and he's managed Tennessee, Iowa and Daytona in that time. He led the D-Cubs to the FSL Championship last season, so he'll be following a lot of those players up the ladder to Double-A. His pitching coach this season is former Cub reliever Jeff Fassero and the hitting coach is long-time major league infielder Mariano Duncan.

Pitching:

If you want to see starting pitching prospects, Tennessee is the place to be. Four of the five starting pitchers for the Smokies are among my top 30 prospects and the other one isn't far off the list.

The biggest name is Trey McNutt (#5), who had kind of a lost season last year with a variety of small injuries like blisters and a strained rib cage. But the stuff is still there for McNutt to be a top-of-the-rotation starter. McNutt's fastball sits 92-94 mph and he can crank it up to 96 when he has to. He has a devastating breaking pitch that Baseball America describes as "a curveball [with] slider velocity." He's working on his changeup and he'll need that pitch to reach his full potential. Should he take that step forward this season, he could be in the Cubs starting rotation on Opening Day next season.

Another top prospect on the Smokies is Korean right-hander Dae-Eun Rhee (#11). Rhee was a sensation early in 2008 in Peoria, where he was unhittable until he blew out his arm and underwent Tommy John Surgery. He missed the rest of 2008 and most of 2009 recovering. In 2010, he was struggling to find his feel for pitching again. But last season he looked to be fully back by August, going 3-0 with a 2.84 ERA that month and was the winning pitcher in the decisive game three of the FSL Championship Series. Rhee's best pitch is his changeup which breaks down and gets lots of ground outs. His fastball and breaking pitch are also solid. His upside is that of a mid-rotation starter, assuming he can stay healthy.

The third top 20 prospect in the Smokies rotation is Dallas Beeler. (#14). Drafted out of the 41st round out of Oral Roberts, Beeler had slipped in the draft because he was coming off of Tommy John Surgery. But he looked to be back last season pitching for Peoria and Tennesee with a 3.22 ERA over 95 innings. Beeler has three potential plus pitches with very good control, although he needs to work on getting the ball down in the zone. Last year in 52 innings in Tennessee, he gave up as many home runs (seven) as he did walks. Like Rhee, he's an injury risk who could pay off as a solid mid-rotation starter. Fun Fact: His brother Chase was a second-team All-Pac 10 center and is on the practice squad of the San Francisco 49ers.

Nick Struck (20+) gets the opening night start for the Smokies tonight. Struck was very good in six starts for Tennessee last year before struggling after a promotion to Iowa. He's back in Tennessee this season and at only 22, he's still young. Struck is not going to blow anyone away and he suffers from "Short Right-hander" disease. But he does throw in the low 90s and has four pitches, although none of them are really special right now. He could be a back of the rotation starter or a bullpen piece.

The final starter is Brooks Raley, who isn't in my Top 30 but whom I like nonetheless. Raley is left-handed curve-ball specialist. He has to keep the ball down to be effective because he doesn't get a ton of strikeouts. His fastball is good enough. It's possible that Raley is a back-of-the-rotation starter, but I think his skill set projects better as a LOOGY. But he could be pretty good at that.

The bullpen isn't quite as talented as the rotation, but there are a few names to know. Kevin Rhoderick is a right-hander who throws a fastball and a hard slider. He was a 9th round pick in 2010 and has been moving quickly through the system. He misses a lot of bats with 77 strikeouts in 71 innings last year. The downside is that he misses the strike zone a lot as well and he issued 43 walks last season.

I gave Frank Batista the nickname "Fireman Frank" after he recorded 26 saves for Daytona last year. He's a ground ball specialist. Alberto Cabrera throws hard, but he walks too many and doesn't strike out enough batters for my tastes. He struggled as a starter with Tennessee and Iowa last season, going 9-8 with a 6.16 ERA. He fanned 101 and walked 74 in 137 innings. It sounds like he'll pitch out of the pen this season. Jeffry Antigua is a left-handed reliever who struck out 81 and walked only 18 in 81 innings in Daytona. Casey Weathers used to be a top prospect for the Rockies that the Cubs got in the Ian Stewart/Tyler Colvin trade.

Hitters:

There aren't as many interesting bats in Tennessee as there are pitchers. But I do love Jae-Hoon Ha (#10) who became a folk hero down in Daytona last season where the fans chanted "Hoon! Ha!" when he came to bat. I admit that I like Ha a lot more than others do, but I think he can stay in center field and I believe that he will eventually develop better than average power. Ha is still young (21) and I think there is still some growth to come. He's got a rocket arm and enough quickness to cover center, although some think he projects more as a right fielder. He doesn't walk much, but he doesn't strike out much either. He's reasonably fast, but needs to learn how to run the bases better. Right now he's a minor league TOOTBLAN expert. He's behind Brett Jackson and Matt Szczur on the depth charts so he might end up as trade bait. Last season he hit .279/.315/.413 between Daytona and Tennessee.

The rest of the outfielders are minor league veteran Jim Adduci and Michael Burgess, who has tremendous power but a whole lot of swing and miss in his game. Burgess hit 20 bombs last year for Daytona last season (and believe me, they were bombs) but he also struck out 111 times and batted .225. He did walk 60 times, so I suppose that's something. He's a lottery ticket the Cubs got from Washington last season.

Utility man Logan Watkins (#19) can play any spot on the diamond but pitcher and catcher. He's very athletic and can give you a good glove pretty much anywhere. Although second base is his best position defensively, he won't hurt you at shortstop or third. He sprays the ball to all fields and hit .281 with a .352 OBP for Daytona last season, and that's after an April where he hit .138. He can draw a walk and has good speed as he stole 21 bases last season. He also bats left-handed, which is a big plus for a middle infielder. The one red flag I see is that he strikes out too much for someone with his limited power.

No one can draw a walk in the Cubs system better than third baseman Matt Cerda (20+). Cerda is a little guy with a makeup and determination tool that's an 80. His hit tool is not bad either. Last year in Daytona he hit .283 with a .394 OBP. The downside of him is that he doesn't have much power or speed and his best defensive position is third base, where his bat doesn't really meet the standards of a starting major league third baseman. The Cubs tried to make him a catcher after they drafted him, but unfortunately that didn't take. Cerda is going to have to keep getting on-base at around a .400 clip if he wants to stay a prospect.

"Big Bad" Justin Bour is a left-handed first baseman who hit 23 home runs for Daytona last year en route to folk hero status here. He hit .277/.335/.478 for the D-Cubs. The downside is that he turns 24 this May and the minimum hitting requirements for a major league first baseman are really, really high. He'll split first base duties with Rebel Ridling, who I assume will also see some time in the outfield. Ridling is back in Tennessee after hitting .309 with 20 home runs and a .372 OBP. He's also got one of the all-time greatest names and probably has a career as the sheriff in Dodge City if this baseball thing doesn't work out for him.

Jonathan Mota, Nate Samson and Elliot Soto will be the middle infielders for the Smokies.

The Smokies starting catcher is Michael Brenly. I have absolutely no idea who that is. He'll be joined by off-season acquisition Juan Apodaca.

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