Our series looking at this year's Cubs minor-league rosters continues with a look at the Tennessee Smokies, the team's Double-A affiliate since 2007. In a year of upheaval, it's good to know that good ole rocky top is still in the Cubs camp.
This year's Smokies roster looks a lot like last year's Smokies roster, as there are fewer spots to move up to Iowa than there are at other levels. Still, the Smokies did add a few good prospects to a pretty strong roster from last season.
So who is in charge? Buddy Bailey is a baseball lifer and a minor league legend. This is his fourth straight season as the skipper of the Smokies and fifth overall. He's won over 1800 games in the 26 seasons he's been a minor league manager.
Storm Davis stays on as the pitching coach for the Smokies for the second straight season. Many who have worked with him have praised the job he's done as pitching coach. Desi Wilson is entering his third season as the Smokies hitting coach. So not a lot of turnover in the coaching staff either.
Guillermo Martinez joins the staff as an assistant hitting coach after doing the same job in Boise last season.
Are there top prospects to see? Oh yeah. You bet. The Smokies are loaded with prospects, with seven of the Baseball America Cubs Top 30 in Tennessee to start the season and four of the top ten. It might not have the star power of Iowa (who does?) but these Smokies will burn bright this season.
Who are the Smokies pitchers? The Smokies' rotation could have started the season with the same 1-2 punch they had to end last season with C.J. Edwards and Pierce Johnson, the organization's 5th and 9th best prospects respectively, according to BA. Both missed a fair amount of time last season with injuries. Edwards made only 10 starts in Tennessee after dealing with shoulder strain and Johnson started only 17 times there after missing time with hamstring problems. The good news on both is that neither one needed surgery. We've talked a lot about both of them around here, but to recap, Edwards is the really skinny one with electric stuff, whereas Johnson is a horse who could be a solid mid-rotation starter if he can stay healthy.
I say "could have" because neither one will start the season in the Smokies rotation. Johnson will start the season in extended spring training with a strained lat muscle. The Cubs say it's nothing serious, but with Johnson's injury history, they're taking no chances. Edwards will start the season in the bullpen as he builds up arm strength. I do expect both of them to be in the Smokies starting rotation eventually, probably by the end of April.
The Cubs' 16th best prospect, Corey Black, will be in the rotation. The Cubs got Black from the Yankees for Alfonso Soriano in 2013 and he had a 3.47 ERA in 26 appearances for the Smokies last season. Black struck out 119 batters in 124 innings last year. Black throws really hard and while he does have four pitches, a lot of scouts seem to think Black is destined for a major league bullpen where he could really let his fastball go and hit the upper 90s. He could be a back-end starter or an near-elite relief pitcher in the majors. He does need to work on throwing more strikes as he walked 71 batters last season.
Lefthander Rob Zastryzny joins the Smokies rotation after posting a 4.66 ERA in 23 starts in Daytona last year. The ERA might not impress, but the 108 strikeouts and only 33 walks in 110 innings should. Zastryzny doesn't throw hard, but he changes speed with such effectiveness that low-90s fastball looks a lot faster than that to hitters. As the Cubs number 14 prospect, he gives the Smokies four of the Cubs' top 16 prospects in the starting rotation alone.
Felix Peña and Ivan Pineyro, the latter acquired from the Nationals for Scott Hairston, are candidates for the fifth starter spot.
Righty Frank Batista has served as the closer for the Smokies for at least part of the past three seasons, and he's back for more in 2015. Righthander Michael Jensen was a starter before he missed all of the 2013 season with an injury. Last year in the bullpen for Daytona, he posted a 2.85 ERA and struck out 62 batters in 60 innings. His best pitch is his curveball.
Lefthander Hunter Cervenka is starting his third season with the Smokies and lefty Jeffry Antigua will start his fourth. Righty and Tennessee native P.J. Francescon is also repeating Tennessee, but pitched fairly decently last year with a 3.52 ERA in 69 innings.
Righty Zach Cates was impressive in Daytona last season, which earned him a promotion to the Smokies at mid-season where he struggled. Stephen Perakslis makes his Double-A debut after being an important part of the Daytona Cubs pen last season. Fernando Cruz and Andres Santiago are new to the Cubs organization.
Who is going to catch? He's listed on the opening day roster as an outfielder, but all eyes will be on Kyle Schwarber, the Cubs' 4th best prospect according to Baseball America. Schwarber certainly looks like a special hitter who can hit for both average and power. He wants to catch. The Cubs hope he can catch. His bat is pretty close to major-league ready, As a catcher, he's a long way away.
Venezuelan Erick Castillo has gotten some positive reviews for his work behind the plate, although it's a little shocking to see him in Tennessee as he's never played above Boise and then only for 3 games. Fellow Venezuelan Willson Contreras makes his Double-A debut after hitting .248/.320/.359 in 80 games for Daytona last year.
Who are the infielders? The biggest guy, both in reputation and sheer size, is first baseman Dan Vogelbach, the Cubs' 25th best prospect according to Baseball America. Vogelbach hit .268 with a .357 OBP and 16 home runs for Daytona last year which is good, but not really good enough for a guy with his defensive limitations. I want to see what Vogelbach can do in the better hitters' environment of Smokies Park and the Southern League after being in leagues and parks that favor pitchers the past two seasons.
Third baseman Christian Villanueva has the glove, but his bat simply hasn't developed the way the Cubs hoped when the acquired him as part of the Ryan Dempster deal. So he's back in Tennessee for the third straight season. Second baseman Stephen Bruno has shown some real promise in his ability to hit for average, but he's had trouble staying healthy and he's back in Tennessee after hitting .276/.346/.393 last season in 105 games.
Ryan Dent was a minor-league free agent who played for the Red Sox organization previously. He's a utility guy who can play all over the diamond. First baseman Dustin Geiger is back in Tennessee after hitting a disappointing .223 with only 12 home runs last year for the Smokies. Shortstop Elliot Soto is a Cubs minor league veteran starting his fourth season with Tennessee.
Who are the outfielders? The Cubs' seventh-best prospect, center fielder Albert Almora, is looking to put behind a disappointing 2014 season behind him. His glove is major-league ready, but he needs to post a better OBP than the .291 he had last season to show it off there. He looked very good in spring training, so that's a good sign.
Right fielder Bijan Rademacher hit .281 with a .363 OBP and 10 home runs last season for Daytona. That line got him named the Cubs' 21st best prospect according to Baseball America. They think there might be even more power to come for Rademacher.
Taiwanese outfielder Pin-Chieh Chen is a singles and steals guy who struggled in Tennessee last season, so he's back for a second chance. Anthony Giansanti might not have a major league future as a ballplayer, but he's generally considered the funniest man in any clubhouse he enters. Maybe he has a future as a broadcaster.
Of course, Schwarber will likely play some outfield as well.
When can I see them? The Smokies start on the road at Mississippi on Thursday in a game you can watch on milb.tv. Or you can listen to the radio voice of the Smokies and Cubs spring training, Mick Gillispie, anytime for free. The Smokies home opener is Wednesday, April 15 against Pensacola.