Every year when I do these team previews, the Tennessee Smokies are the highlight of the system. This year is a little different, because while the Tennessee Smokies are loaded with talent, the other teams in the system have a little talent too. Last year's Smokies team went 76-62 and made the playoffs, so most of those players are off to Iowa this year. (This is a bit of a change under Theo Epstein from what went on under Jim Hendry, who preferred to promote talent directly from Tennessee and use Iowa as a taxi squad of veterans who could be injury replacements without disrupting their development.)
The Tennessee Smokies are likely still the belle of the ball, however. Although that Baez kid has left Tennessee for Iowa, the Smokies do boast two of the "Core Four" prospects that the front office has placed their hopes and dreams in. Beyond that, the Smokies boast some of the most impressive collection of pitching talent that I have seen in my years of doing these lists. (A low bar, admittedly.) That impressive Daytona team that steamrolled its way to the Florida State League title last year? Most of those guys are here this year.
The Tennessee Smokies are managed by baseball lifer Buddy Bailey, who is now in his fourth season as the Smokies manager. Bailey has won over 1800 games as a minor league manager. Desi Wilson is back for his second season as the Smokies hitting coach and his seventh season in the Cubs system. The new pitching coach is Storm Davis, who received rave reviews for the job he did as the Daytona Cubs pitching coach last season. He's staying with most of the same pitchers and the hope is that they will continue to thrive under Davis.
For now, and a bit more on this later, the star of this pitching staff is C.J. Edwards, the star prospect that Cubs got from Texas in the Matt Garza trade. Edwards' stuff is electric. His fastball sits 93-95 with good movement. He's got a nasty curve and a slider that he can use to keep hitters from sitting on the other two pitches, as well as a changeup that he's still working on. That's top of the rotation stuff. Not only does he miss bats (striking out 155 batters in 116 innings last year), he keeps the ball in the park. He's only allowed one home run as a professional. His combined ERA between Hickory and Daytona last season was 1.86. Kudos to the Rangers scouting team who found him in the 48th round of the 2011 draft.
If there's anything wrong with Edwards, it's in his nickname and what it represents. He's called "The String Bean Slinger" because he is so thin and lanky. Last season he asked Daytona manager Dave Keller "What's up, skip?" and Keller shot back "Your weight, hopefully." There are durability concerns about Edwards. His size and build have led to a lot of comparisons to Oil Can Boyd.
Corey Black is the pitcher the Cubs got from the Yankees for Alfonso Soriano, and GM Brian Cashman said he really didn't want to part with Black. Black throws even harder than Edwards, although his off-speed stuff isn't nearly as good. Since he was mostly just a fastball guy when the Cubs got him, most of us thought he was ticketed for the bullpen. But he's worked hard with Storm Davis on his curve and change and he now has a good chance to remain a starter. He certainly looked like a starter in the Florida State League playoffs last year. Between Tampa and Daytona, Black led the FSL with 116 strikeouts last season. With improved control, he could be a mid-rotation starter. More likely, he ends up in the back of the rotation or as a set-up man out of the pen.
The Cubs got Ivan Pineyro from the Nationals for Scott Hairston last year, and you can be forgiven for thinking that any pitcher gotten in trade for Scott Hairston would be a non-prospect, but you'd be wrong. Pineyro has a plus fastball and a changeup that's getting there. If he can develop his change a little more, he could be a no. 3 or 4 starter. He had a 3.40 ERA in eight starts for the D-Cubs last year, striking out 38 and walking only nine in 45 innings. The Nationals praised his toughness after he was hit in the jaw with a line drive in 2012.
The fourth musketeer of this group, the d'Artagnan so to speak, is Pierce Johnson. Like d'Artagnan, he's going to have to join the Smokies later as the Cubs are keeping him in extended spring training for now. But there are those who think he's an even better prospect than Edwards because while his stuff isn't quite as good, it's good enough and no one questions that his 6'3" body can withstand the rigors of starting.
These are the four pitchers who absolutely humiliated Dunedin and Ft. Myers in the Florida State League playoffs last year. Now they'll try to do the same to the Southern League.
Matt Loosen will also start for the Smokies this year, and he was pretty good in Daytona last season, throwing a nine-inning no-hitter last July for the D-Cubs. The issue for Loosen is that his success in the FSL came after he had been demoted from the Smokies. His success in Florida then got him promoted to Tennessee again, where once again he struggled. Control is Loosen's big issue. If he can throw strikes in his second year in the Southern League, he's potentially got a major league future as well, perhaps as a back-end starter.
Dae-Eun Rhee is a changeup specialist who has been in the Cubs system since 2008. Once upon a time he was a top prospect, but he's never been quite the same after Tommy John surgery in 2009. This will be his third season with the Smokies and he'll likely be the fifth starter until Johnson arrives.
Cuban hurler Armando Rivero signed with the Cubs for $3.1 million last year and he throws hard. In 30 innings for the Cubs in Kane County, Daytona and Tennessee, Rivero struck out 45 batters and walked 12. Rivero's future is definitely in the bullpen, but it's not out of the question that his future in Wrigley Field could start later this season.
Tony Zych is a local kid, a St. Rita graduate who went to Louisville and throws really hard. If you were watching Len and JD this weekend, you got his whole story when they thought he was pitching but it was another pitcher. (I can't remember who was actually pitching. Was it Loosen?) Kaspar was very excited that Zych would be last in the alphabetical list of all-time major leaguers if he reaches the majors. Lucky for him, he's got a chance to make that list, but he's back for this third straight season in Tennessee. His strikeout totals dropped dramatically last season, so that's something to keep an eye on.
PJ Francescon is a right-handed Tennessee native who is pitching his second season for the Smokies. Ryan Searle pitched for Australia in the World Baseball Classic last season. He's bounced between Daytona and Tennessee over the past four seasons. Hunter Cervenka and Jeff Lorick will be the lefties out of the pen. The Cubs got Lorick from Atlanta for Derrek Lee.
Hey look Al! There's Lendy Castillo!
I don't think I need to tell you much about Kris Bryant. He's starting his first full season in the minors for the Smokies and could be on a fast track to the majors. I once said about Bryant that he hits the ball just as far as Javier Baez but not quite so violently. I also think he's going to end up as a right fielder once everything is said and done, but he could be a really, really good one.
Jorge Soler is the current right fielder for the Tennessee Smokies and when he was actually on the field last season, he was pretty good, hitting .281/.343/.467 in 55 games for Daytona. But he missed time with a suspension and a leg injury. Soler is a big man, listed at 6'4", 215 lbs., and he's a prototypical right field power hitter. His power projects to be an 80, and no other franchise in baseball has four prospects with potential 80 power like the Cubs do in Baez, Bryant, Soler and Vogelbach. The on-field incident that got him suspended was troubling, but the Cubs insist that he's a good kid who just has some growing up and adjusting to America to do. In that and other senses, he's going to get compared to his countryman Yasiel Puig a lot, although Soler doesn't have Puig's speed. Soler's outfield arm is very good.
Soler and Bryant are the two big hitting prospects on the Smokies, but Stephen Bruno could join them if he can stay healthy. Bruno missed most of last season after Tommy John surgery. He's a short guy who doesn't look like a ballplayer, but the one thing he can do is hit. He's only played 86 games as a professional, but his batting average in those games is .361 with a .441 on-base percentage. You can't argue with that.
Dustin Geiger is a guy who doesn't get a lot of respect, and that's understandable because he's a right-handed first baseman without a big pedigree behind him. But he hit 17 home runs in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League as a 21 year old last season. He strikes out a little more than you'd like, but he also walks and posted a .365 OBP last year. Don't ignore him. He's someone bubbling up underneath the prospect lists.
After Bryan and Geiger, the rest of the Smokies infield is filled out by Jonathan Mota, Wes Darvill and Jeudy Valdez. Mota has been around the Cubs organization so long (he signed in 2003) that he's practically an unofficial coach by now. Darvill is a 22 year old Canadian making Double-A for the first time. Valdez was once a well-regarded prospect in the Padres organization and Jed Hoyer signed his former Friars farmhand as a free agent this off-season.
Joining Soler in the outfield is fellow Cuban Rubi Silva, and a lot of observers like Silva's power/speed combination very much. He'd be a better prospect if the Cubs effort to move him to second base worked, but he did hit .284 with 15 home runs and 13 steals last season in Tennessee. A victim of a numbers game that's keeping him out of Iowa (and likely an effort to give Soler another Cuban on the team), Silva will start his third season in Double-A this year.
John Andreoli has a skill set that reminds me a lot of Tony Campana, except that Andreoli is better at drawing a walk. Between Daytona and Tennessee last year, Andreoli stole 40 bases in 45 attempts. He hit .305 with a .379 OBP.
Zeke DeVoss does two things really well. He runs well, having stolen 35 and 39 bases over the past two seasons respectively. The other thing he does well is draw a walk. He walked 82 times for Peoria in 2012 and 80 times last year for Daytona. What he doesn't do well is hit, as he hasn't been able to break .250 in batting average the past two seasons. His OBP is really high and last year it was at .392. But you have to wonder that now he's going to start to face pitchers with better control, whether that inability to get a hit consistently will cause the walks to dry up.