Tonight is Opening Night for the minor league system and for the 11th straight season, the Cubs Double-A affiliate is the Tennessee Smokies of the Southern League. The Smokies are the second-highest minor league team in the Cubs system.
The Smokies play at Smokies Park in Kodak, Tennessee, which is just outside of Sevierville and is a part of the Knoxville metropolitan area. The Smokies have won a couple of awards this decade for being one of the most outstanding minor league franchises and is considered to be one of the most fan-friendly teams in the country. I need to get out there one day. Maybe I can even check out Dollywood.
The Smokies open tonight at home against the Mobile BayBears. At the mic, as always, will be Mick Gillispie, who you probably know as the Spring Training voice of the Cubs. All the home games are on milb.tv and most of the road games as well, if you don't mind listening to the opposing team's broadcasters. As always, you can listen to the radio call of Mick, Justin Rocke and Evan Ellis for free at smokiesbaseball.com or milb.com.
If you've missed the first two segments of this series, here are the previews for the South Bend Cubs and the Myrtle Beach Pelicans.
The big question for the Smokies this season is whether this "class" of minor leaguers, who won the Midwest League title with Kane County in 2014 and the Carolina League title with Myrtle Beach last season, can make it three in a row with a Southern League title.
Coaches: Mark Johnson managed both of those championship clubs and will have a chance to three-peat with the Smokies this season. Johnson has been managing in the Cubs system since 2011. He played for the Iowa Cubs in 2009 and 2010, but if you remember him, you probably remember him as a backup catcher for the White Sox from 1998 to 2002.
Pitching coach Terry Clark joins the Cubs organization from the Mariners organization, where he spent the past two seasons as their minor league pitching coordinator. He's spent the past 13 years with the M's, mostly as a minor league pitching coach. He played six seasons in the majors as a reliever, mostly with the Angels and Orioles.
Hitting coach Desi Wilson is in his ninth season with the Cubs and his fourth straight season with the Tennessee Smokies. Wilson played 41 games for the Giants in 1995. Osmin Melendez is the assistant coach, having held the same job last year with South Bend.
Pitchers: Pitching has always been the strength of this "class" of minor leaguers and the staff should have a big test as they move to a much more hitting-friendly environment than they experienced in Kane County or Myrtle Beach. The biggest name currently on the roster is Taiwanese right-hander Jen-Ho Tseng. Tseng relies on control and changing speeds, as his best pitch is his changeup. He had a 3.55 ERA over 22 starts last season, striking out 87 and walking only 30 in 119 innings. Tseng didn't make my Top 20 prospects list but I can tell you he just missed.
I say that Tseng is the best "currently" on the Smokies because Duane Underwood, one of my Top 10 Cubs prospects, is going to start the season in Extended Spring Training with elbow tenderness. I have heard that he is pitching down there and is building up arm strength. When he's ready, he will join the Smokies in all likelihood. (I will say that Underwood's ability to stay healthy is a concern.)
Tyler Skulina is another pitching prospect with some upside. Skulina is a tall right-hander with a four-pitch arsenal. Last season in Myrtle Beach, he pitched 75.1 and struck out 73 and walked 31 as he posted a 3.11 ERA.
Rob Zastryzny is a left-handed pitcher who really relies on changing speeds. The Cubs had high hopes for the 2nd round pick from 2013, but he had a poor 2015 season. Zastryzny spent most of the first half of the season on the disabled list (in two separate stints) and then never got untracked the second half, posting a 6.23 ERA over 14 starts with the Smokies. He'll take a second crack at the Southern League in 2016.
Paul Blackburn has been a mainstay of those past two championship teams. He's not an overly flashy pitcher, but he keeps the ball down, gets ground balls and gets the job done. He had a 3.11 ERA over 18 starts for the Pelicans last season.
The Cubs got Corey Black from the Yankees for Alfonso Soriano a few seasons ago, and before last season it looked like they made a good deal. Black clearly has a brighter future than Fonzie does, but last season was a bit of a disaster for Black. The Cubs moved him to the bullpen and things didn't go well as he posted a 4.92 ERA over 86 innings with the Smokies. He was even worse in the Arizona Fall League (despite making the "Fall Stars" Team) and was left unprotected in the Rule 5 draft. But no one bit, so the Cubs and Black get another season to try to put his career back together. Black still throws hard (94-96 mph) and he did strike out 101 batters in those 86 innings, so the potential is still there.
Right-hander David Garner was one of the better relievers in the Carolina League last season, so the Michigan State alum will get a chance to show what he can do in Double-A. Garner is a fastball/slider guy who struck out 67 and walked only 20 in 55.2 innings between South Bend and Myrtle Beach. He was better in Myrtle Beach than South Bend, which is unusual and encouraging.
Right-hander Michael Jensen was a promising young starter for the Peoria Chiefs (man, that was two affiliate changes ago) in 2012 when he had to undergo Tommy John surgery and he missed the entire 2013 season. Jensen has been a reliever since then and has been pretty successful in that role. He had a 2.23 ERA in 32.1 innings last season with Tennessee. He'll return to the Smokies and hope for a mid-season promotion to Iowa. His out-pitch is his curveball.
The Cubs signed lefty Gerardo Concepcion to a five-year, $6 million deal out of Cuba in 2012 in a move that was criticized as an overpay at the time. It doesn't look any better today. This is the last year of that contract and Concepcion is repeating Double-A. He's probably run out of chances and will have to pitch well to keep his job. The ability to throw strikes has always been a big problem for Concepcion. He is, however, the only left-hander in the Smokies bullpen.
Andury Acevedo is new to the Cubs organization, and he's had an interesting career. He started out as a middle infielder in the Pirates system and after he washed out at that, he joined the Yankees system who turned him into a pitcher. I don't know much about what he throws, but he had a pretty decent season at three different levels (High-A, Double-A and Triple-A) for the Yankees last season. But he earned his minor league free agent status because of his extensive time in the minors, and he signed with the Cubs. (For those of you wondering, after seven years in the minors, a player can elect free agency and sign with any team they want, just like major league free agents.)
Catchers: Victor Caratini was among those who just missed my Top 20 prospects list, and he moves up the system to Double-A last season. He's not going to match last year's Smokies catchers (Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras) at the plate, but he's the best defensive catcher of the three of them. He doesn't have much power with just four home runs last season, but he did get on base at a .342 clip last year. He pretty much fits the textbook definition of a major league backup catcher, so let's hope he continues to make progress in the system this year.
Taylor Davis has got to be wondering what he has to do to make the majors. (Manage, probably) The 26 year-old Davis hit .309/.361/.444 in 83 games at Triple-A Iowa last season and his reward was a trip back down to Tennessee. This will be his fourth straight season with the Smokies.
The third catcher is David Freitas, whom the Cubs claimed off of waivers from the Orioles this past winter. Freitas appears to have some pop. He hit 8 home runs in 71 games last year.
Infielders: The big name here is the guy that made a big impression in Spring Training, third baseman Jeimer Candelario. Candelario was my 10th best prospect in the Cubs system coming into the season and impressed Joe Maddon in Cubs camp. When Candy got sent down to the minors, Maddon told him: "How can we possibly send you out? You're the best hitter in the Valley right now." (Well for one, he's not taking Kris Bryant's job.) But Candelario is a switch-hitter with a line-drive stroke and some pop. He had 35 doubles and 10 home runs last season between Myrtle Beach and Tennessee. He starts the season where he left off with the Smokies, but if he keeps hitting the way he has been, he'll be in Iowa soon.
I did succumb to my weakness for middle infielders with a plus hit tool and ranked second baseman Chesny Young as the Cubs 20th best prospect. Young won the Carolina League batting title, hitting .321. Second-place hit .297. He set a Carolina League record when he reached base in 44 consecutive games. He walked more than he struck out last year. Young doesn't have much power (he only hit one home run last year) but he does have speed, stealing 21 bases. He's not a great glove, but he's good enough that he played every position but center field, catcher and pitcher last season.
Stephen Bruno is kind of like last-year's model of Young. Less speed, not as good of a hit tool, but he's not bad and he can get on base as well. He's spent the last two seasons in Tennessee and he hasn't done poorly at all, but not well enough to get promoted. (.263/.335/.336 last year) He's pretty exclusively a second baseman, so I look for him to get a lot of playing time there and for Young to move around.
Shortstop Carlos Penalver has drawn raves for his glove everywhere he's gone. Unfortunately, his bat isn't nearly as good, hitting only .197 with Myrtle Beach last year. It will be a challenge for him to hit in Double-A, but his pitchers will be very happy that he's playing behind them.
Outfielders: There's a lot of talent in the Smokies outfield, led by top 10 prospect Billy McKinney. McKinney returns to Tennessee in 2016 after missing the last month of the season after breaking his kneecap with a foul ball. McKinney can hit for average and can draw a walk, but his swing may be more suited to doubles than home runs. McKinney hit .285/.346/.420 in 77 games in Double-A before getting injured.
Mark Zagunis will be competing for playing time with McKinney in the corners. Zagunis was my 11th best prospect coming into this season after hitting .271/.406/.412 with 8 home runs with 12 steals in Myrtle Beach. Zagunis is the type of hitter the current Cubs management loves: He's a patient hitter who looks for his pitch to drive and will gladly take a walk if he doesn't see it. Zagunis walked 80 times in 115 games last season while striking out 86 times.
Jacob Hannemann will play center field for the Smokies, just as he did last season when Albert Almora wasn't playing it. Everyone raves about Hannemann's athleticism, but he struggled after his promotion to Double-A last year. He only hit .233/.291/.362 for the Smokies. He does have great speed and he's a smart baserunner, stealing 24 bases in 26 attempts last year. He's an older prospect who turns 25 this month, so he's running out of time to turn it around.
Bijan Rademacher made top Cubs several prospect lists (including my own) after a terrific 2014 season with High-A Daytona, but he failed to build on those gains last year in Tennessee, hitting only .267. He did draw a lot of walks, so his OBP was still a respectable .379, but his slugging percentage dropped down to .370. If he can regain his power stroke without losing his plate discipline, he'll be an interesting prospect again. Rademacher has a cannon for an outfield arm, so run on him at your own risk.
Finally, Anthony Giansanti isn't much of a prospect, but he's beloved by his teammates and is known for his sense of humor and his leaving tickets for UFC fighter Ronda Rousey at every game. (She's never showed up to claim them, although she has been asked about them.) Giansanti is also the "roommate whisperer," as he's had many roommates called up to the majors over the past two seasons.
Next: The Iowa Cubs