Here's the second installment of my trip around the Cubs minor leagues. I'm doing them in the order that the teams announced their opening day roster, so Tennessee goes next. Tomorrow I'll take on the Iowa Cubs and I'll finish on Wednesday with Daytona.
For the past couple of seasons, the Tennessee Smokies have been the team to watch in the Cubs minor league system. They are back-to-back Southern League Northern Division champions, having lost to Jacksonville in the Championship series both seasons. Once again, Tennessee is the place to be in the Cubs farm system, as six of the current top ten Cubs prospects according to Baseball America will start the season in Kodak.
Also, don't forget to visit our friends at the Smokies Radio Network from time to time. They run a good website and they're good people. Many of you listened to Mick Gillespie work with Len Kasper during spring training.
The Smokies at the start of this season are a lot like the Smokies at the end of last season, as 20 players on the opening day roster are returning from last season.
After the jump, a look at the roster.
Coaching Staff: The new manager of the Tennessee Smokies is former major league catcher Brian Harper, best known for his time with the Twins in the early 90s. He comes over from the Giants system, where he led San Jose to the California League Championship last season. He's previously managed the Triple-A Salt Lake Bees in the Angels system.
The new pitching coach is Marty Mason, who's spent the last 11 years in enemy territory as the Cardinals major league bullpen coach. Mason has spent the past 25 seasons in the Cardinal organization, coaching at pretty much every level.
The hitting coach is former infielder Mariano Duncan, who you most likely remember from his time playing for the Dodgers, Reds and Phillies. It's his first season with the Cubs after eight seasons with the Dodgers, including having been their major league first base coach since 2006.
Pitching: The ace of the Cubs staff is right-hander Trey McNutt, who shot up the prospect charts last season by going a combined 10-1 with a 2.48 ERA and 132 strikeouts in 116 innings (with only 37 walks) for three different teams. He's got a 93-95 mph fastball (although some say it's rather "flat") and a hard breaking curve. His changeup is promising, although he needs to use it more. A 32nd round pick out of junior college in 2009, McNutt is the Cubs number one pitching prospect right now and has been compared to Andrew Cashner. McNutt made three starts last season for Tennessee in the regular season and struggled, although he pitched quite well for them in the playoffs.
The next pitcher to know is right-hander Rafael Dolis, another top ten Cubs prospect according to Baseball America. Dolis is a converted infielder who missed two seasons to Tommy John surgery, but since returning in 2009, he's consistently hit mid-90s with his fastball. He's also got a power slider and has been working on developing a change. Dolis struggles with his control, so watch his walk totals and how deep he can go into games this year.
The power arms in the Smokies rotation continue with Alberto Cabrera, another BA top ten prospect, at least since the Garza trade. Right now, Cabrera is mostly heat, as he throws 93-95 and can touch 97 at times. He has a couple of breaking pitches, but they're still "under construction" so to speak. Like Dolis, he needs to work on his control. Cabrera pitched for Tennesse last season, but struggled and was sent down to Daytona where he seemed to right himself. He probably profiles as a reliever in the majors, but there is no reason to give up on him starting yet.
The rotation rounds out with a couple of lefties that I like a lot, Brooks Raley and Chris Rusin. Neither one of them throws hard, but they do throw strikes. Raley has an effective sinker and Rusin throws a nasty curve. As left-handers with excellent control, both profile as back-of-the-rotation starters.
There are several candidates to close for the Smokies, but one to watch is Kyle Smit, who came over from the Dodgers in the Ted Lilly trade. Smit throws mid-90s with a hard slider and a decent split-fingered fastball. He pitched extremely well in relief for the Smokies after the trade, going 5-1 with a 1.96 ERA in twelve relief appearances. He struck out 16 and walked only four in 18 innings with the Smokies. Smit could be a quality major league reliever and don't be shocked if he ends up in Wrigley before the season is over.
Catchers: Steve Clevenger is back for his third season catching for the Smokies. He's a converted infielder who has always had good OBP skills, but his lack of power combined with still learning the position have kept him stuck at AA. I've always been a fan, but his odds are growing long. He'll share duties with Mario Mercedes, who is your typical backup catcher with a good glove and a questionable bat.
Infielders: The big name among the infielders is still third baseman Josh Vitters. Vitters is still young, but this season is considered to be a kind of make-or-break year for him. He's got a tremendous eye and potentially tremendous power, but he needs to be more selective at the plate. His problem has not that he swings at pitches out of the strike zone so much as it is laying off good pitches and not waiting for the pitcher to give him something to drive. If Vitters has a big year, he could be the Cubs third baseman next season. If he doesn't, it might be time to write him off as a bust.
Second baseman DJ LeMahieu is perhaps the best pure hitter in the Cubs system. He hit .314 for Daytona last year, his first full season in the minors. There are a couple of big question marks on him, however. The first is whether or not he'll hit for power, as he only hit two home runs in High-A last year. He did famously have that walk-off homer in spring training, so that's a good sign. The other question is whether or not his glove will be able to stick at second base.
Third baseman Ryan Flaherty has shown good power in the minors, but like LeMahieu, there are questions as to where he can play defensively. He doesn't have the quickness to play up the middle and his arm has been too erratic for third base. While he will likely see some time at third, he may end up playing more left field than in the infield. Flaherty is a good hitter, but his defensive troubles may mean limit his ceiling to that of a utility player in the majors.
First baseman Rebel Ridling has decent power and a cool name. His upside is probably a right-handed Micah Hoffpauir.
Outfield: The Cubs top prospect right now is center fielder Brett Jackson. He's potentially a solid center fielder who hits 20 home runs and steals 20 bases in the majors. He's got all five tools, although none of them are truly outstanding. He strikes out too much, but so far it hasn't impacted his power or OBP skills. The Cubs expect him to be in their opening day lineup a year from now.
James Adduci has good speed, but he struggled at Iowa last year and is back with Tennessee. Matthew Spencer is a big left-hander with good power. Neither are really prospects at this point, although Spencer's power potential leaves me with some hope.
Next up will be the Iowa Cubs. You're likely familiar with most of the players there. Then I'll finish up with the Daytona Cubs on Wednesday.