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Getting to know the Tennessee Smokies

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Today our tour of the minor leagues takes us to Kodak, TN, about 20 miles east of Knoxville, where the Tennessee Smokies play. The Smokies are the Cubs AA affiliate in the Southern League. They went all the way to the Southern League Championship series last year and hope to repeat their success this season.

The Smokies welcome a new manager this season, Bill Dancy. Dancy is a baseball lifer who has now spent 31 years either managing or coaching, mostly in the Phillies organization. He served as the Phillies third base coach for two seasons in 2005 and 2006. He spent last season in the Royals organization and now moves over to the Cubs for the first time. However, Dancy has some Cub ties. He started his coaching career as a coach for the 1979 Reading Phillies under manager Lee Elia. Incidentally, he was there the next season when the shortstop for Reading was Ryne Sandberg, who managed the Smokies last season. Sanderg had a long major league career that you might have heard about.

The Smokies hitting and pitching coaches both return from last season. Hitting coach Tom Beyers is in his second season in Tennessee. Previously he had been the manager of the Boise Hawks and he's been in the Cub organization since 2000. Pitching coach Dennis Lewallyn returns for his fourth season with the Smokies. He's been known to teach a cut fastball to some prospects with good results.

If you liked last year's North Division Champion Tennessee Smokies, you're going to love this year's team. That's because 18 of the players on this year's roster spent at least some time on the Smokies last season. (20 players if you count players starting the season on the disabled list.) That's not to say that none of them are progressing. Some only played half a season in AA and others are simply blocked from moving up. Additionally, the Cubs have no problem promoting straight from AA to the majors, so there simply isn't the need to move some of these players up to AAA.

So if I had to try to sum up this year's Smokies team in one word, I'd say "experienced."

The minor league season starts tomorrow night, so I'll have a minor league wrap of all the action. I also hope to have a preview of the Iowa Cubs, but it's going to depend a little bit on when my daughter goes to bed, since I do these after she does. She's two years old and already she thinks she doesn't need a bedtime. The I-Cubs preview might not get done tomorrow, but it will get done.

The Smokies roster after the jump.

I'm sure you've heard of the top prospect on the Smokies this season, shortstop Starlin Castro. I'm not going to rehash everything that's been said about him. I may not be as high on him as some people around here but even so, I think at worst he's going to have a career like Edgar Renteria's. That may not sound like much, but Renteria has gone to five All-Star Games and has won two gold gloves. We often talk about a prospect's high ceiling--Castro has a high floor. It seems difficult to believe that he's not going to be a productive major leaguer.

Castro's double-play partner is going to be second baseman Ryan Flaherty, who is skipping Daytona after an impressive second half in Peoria last year. After struggling in the first half, Flaherty went from being a pull-hitter to hitting to all field, and it resulted in a .309 second half batting average and increased power. He hit 20 home runs total last season. The big question on Flaherty is whether he can play second base. He's rather tall (6'3") and not all that fast for a position that tends to favor quick, shorter ballplayers. The Cubs are gong to give Flaherty a shot at it though. But even if he can't stick at second permanently, a lot of scouts think he could end up as a left-handed Mark DeRosa. Flaherty is Baseball America's #9 prospect for the Cubs coming in to this season.

Tony Thomas is a second baseman who's going to be fighting Flaherty for playing time. Thomas is a streaky hitter who can carry a team when he's hot. Unfortunately over the past two seasons, the cold streaks have outnumbered the hot ones. He can draw a walk and steal a base, so he's a potential leadoff hitter if he ever puts it together. He's back in Tennessee for a second season.

Third base will be Jake Opitz, who might also see a start or two at first and second base. The left-handed hitting infielder hit .272 with 21 doubles for Daytona last season. He showed decent plate discipline and if he can start turning some of those doubles into home runs, he might be a prospect worth watching.

Several players will likely see time at first base for the Smokies. The best might be Matt Spencer, who came over from Oakland in the Jake Fox trade. Spencer is a good left-handed hitter with power who hit .289 with 19 home runs between two teams in the Athletics organization. Spencer will probably also see some time as a corner outfielder. Unfortunately, Spencer broke his toe in spring training with a foul ball and is going to start the season on the disabled list. He's expected to miss the first two weeks.

Russ Canzler will see time at first while Spencer is out. He's a right-handed hitter who hit .258 with a .346 OBP and six home runs for Tennessee last season.

Blake Lalli will also play some first base. He's a professional hitter who hit .314 with a .372 OBP last year in Tennessee. Unfortunately, he doesn't have a lot of power and as a first baseman, he's a DH playing out of position. He's also turns 27 years old this year.

Nate Samson is a scrappy utility infielder who's waiting for Castro to get called up to Chicago so he can play shortstop regularly.

Outfielder Tony Campana is going to be the Smokies leadoff hitter this year. Campana is really fast--he stole 66 bases last year between Peoria and Daytona.

Campana will probably split time in center and left field with Brandon Guyer, who's back in Tennessee this year. Guyer struggled badly in AA last year and got demoted to Daytona, where he hit well but without the power he had in Peoria. Back in 2008 he was looking like an Aaron Rowand clone, but he's going to have to find his power stroke to regain the comparison.

The final outfielder is Ty Wright, who's also repeating Tennessee this year. He's a decent right-handed bat and corner outfielder, but his power is a bit limited for a corner outfielder.

Both catchers are back for a second season in Tennessee. Both are also converted middle infielders. Steve Clevenger is someone I've been pulling for for a while, but even my enthusiasm for him has dimmed after he struggled with a .635 OPS in half a season with Iowa last year. Robinson Chirinos is now starting his tenth season in the Cubs minor league system. Despite that, he only turns 26 in June. He can hit a little and draw a walk, so becoming a catcher is his last shot at making the majors as a player. I get the sense that Chirinos is going to be around the Cubs organization in some capacity for a long time after his playing career is over. (Hey, he's been here ten years already. Might as well make it thirty.)

The opening night pitcher for the Smokies is also the top pitching prospect in the system, Andrew Cashner. You've probably heard a lot about Cashner already. Most scouts think he's best suited as a major league closer, but the Cubs think he's a starter. He's got a 95 mph fastball and a nasty slider. He almost never gives up home runs. He's going to have to work on his changeup if he's going to start in the majors. Otherwise, he could be the closer in Chicago as early as this season if given the chance.

Chris Carpenter has got a great name and he might be the second-best pitching prospect in the system. (It's him or Jay Jackson.) However, Carpenter is going to start the season on the disabled list.

If you read the Minor League Wraps last season, you know there is no one in the Cubs system I want to see make the majors more than Austin Bibens-Dirkx. Not because I'm a fan or because I think he's a great prospect. I just want him to make the majors so Al has to type his name and not me. Bibens-Dirkx was signed out of the independent leagues mid-season last year after having been released by Seattle. He was awesome for Peoria down the stretch going 7-2 with a 2.04 ERA. He was a major reason the Chiefs made the playoffs.

Hung-Wen Chen is back for his second season in Tennessee. He's a groundball pitcher who went 8-11 with a 4.48 ERA last year. Somebody told me last season that Marco Mateo was the only player on the Cubs 40 man roster last season who didn't see time in the majors. I'm sure that was true at one point. The Cubs must like him to keep him protected like that. He seems like a decent prospect who throws hard (mid 90s), but he really doesn't miss as many bats as you'd like for someone who throws that hard. He went 3-6 with a 4.07 ERA for Tennessee last season and split time between starting and relieving.

Left-hander Casey Lambert is a pitch-to-contact guy who had good success as a starter for Tennessee last season, but he's also going to start the year on the DL. Right-hander Craig Muschko pitched for Daytona last year and will likely fill-in as a starter when necessary.

I'm not sure who's going to get the saves opportunities for the Smokies. Most likely Dancy will give several guys a shot until one pitcher establishes himself. One guy who might do that is Jeremy Papelbon. He's got the name to be a closer, but he really doesn't share much with his older brother other than a last name. He's left-handed and relies on good control and breaking pitches instead of velocity.

Other candidates for saves include lefty Ryan Buchter, who's struck out 79 in 61 innings at Peoria last year and right-handed Chicagoan David Cales, who had 43 Ks in 46 innings at Dayona last year. So be sure to get all three of them if you're looking for saves in your Southern League-only Rotisserie League.

Right-hander Jake Muyco's first name is "Dionisio" and, like Randy Wells, is a converted catcher. Right-handers Marco Carillo and Alex Maestri are back from last year's squad, as is lefty Dustin Sasser, who got a late-season promotion from Daytona last year.