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Get To Know The Tennessee Smokies

The Smokies boast of a strong pitching staff this spring, headed by Tennessee native Trevor Clifton.

Trevor Clifton
Trevor Clifton
Larry Kave/Myrtle Beach Pelicans

Our tour of the Cubs minor league system comes to Sevierville, Tennessee with the Double-A Tennessee Smokies. The Smokies have been the Cubs Double-A affiliate since 2007. Double-A is usually where the most interesting prospects play and while the Cubs prospects may be a bit more spread out between the affiliates than usual this season, there is still plenty to see in Eastern Tennessee.

The Smokies open in Pensacola on Thursday, and after a five-game series there they will return home for their home opener against Mississippi this coming Wednesday.

Who? Mark Johnson starts his second season as the Smokies skipper and his seventh in the Cubs organization. He led Kane County and Myrtle Beach to league titles in 2014 and 2015, respectively. You may remember him as a catcher for the White Sox in the early aughts.

The pitching coach is Terry Clark, who is new to the Cubs organization but has spent the past 13 seasons as a pitching coach or coordinator for the Mariners. Clark pitched for seven different clubs in his major league career between 1988 and 1997.

Hitting coach Jacob Cruz is also new to the Cubs organization, but he’s spent the past six seasons as a hitting coach for in the Diamondbacks system. He played for five different teams between 1996 and 2005, most notably for the Reds. Assistant Richardo Medina is new to the Smokies, but not to the Cubs system. He’s spent the past 19 years as a Cubs coach, most recently with South Bend last year. He also played in the Cubs system from 1989 to 1994.

If you enjoyed listening to Mick Gillispie call the Cubs Spring Training games, this is where you can listen to him calling games for the rest of the season.

The Pitchers: The strength of this Smokies team is on the mound, and the ace of this staff is Trevor Clifton, who I ranked as the 8th-best prospect in the Cubs system this past offseason. Clifton doesn’t wow you with anything, but he’s got three solid average to above-average pitches which he mixes up well. He’s a potential future #3/#4 major league starter. He’s also playing a short drive from his home in Maryville, TN, so that’s nice for him and his family. He just needs to work on being more consistent with his control and he’ll be ready for The Show.

Duane Underwood Jr. is a pitcher of whom much has been expected, but he hasn’t always delivered. The stuff is there to be a major league starter, with a mid-90s fastball that can touch higher, but Underwood has not been able to stay healthy and he’s struggled with his control. He’s repeating Double-A after going 0-5 with a 4.91 ERA in 13 starts here last season. But it’s important to remember that Underwood is still only 22 and it could all still click for him one day. Hopefully this season.

Right-hander Preston Morrison was ranked as the 29th-best prospect in the Cubs system by MLB Pipeline. His velocity is below-average, with a fastball in the 85-89 range, but it has good movement and he controls it well. Morrison survives on changing speeds and keeping the ball down. He dominated in both South Bend and Myrtle Beach last year.

Right-handers Brad Markey and Zach Hedges are both interesting under-the-radar prospects. Markey pitched all of last season in Tennessee and went 8-7 with a 3.17 ERA in 23 starts and three relief appearances. He doesn’t strike out a lot of batters, but he always limited walks before last season. (Even last year, his control wasn’t bad, just average) Markey is probably destined for the bullpen if he makes the majors.

Hedges started the season in Myrtle Beach and went 3-3 with a 2.47 ERA in 8 starts after his promotion. He also has very good control and survives on inducing ground balls. He’s got a better chance of staying as a starter than Markey does.

The bullpen has two intriguing arms in Ryan McNeil and David Berg. The right-handed McNeil has thrived in a relief role since his return from Tommy John surgery in 2013. Last year he recorded 22 saves in 24 chances for the Pelicans, not including the two he got in the playoffs, including the title-clinching game 4 against Lynchburg. Side-arming righty Berg struggled in his first taste of Double-A last year, although he was very good in Myrtle Beach before his promotion.

Cuban left-hander Gerardo Concepcion returns to Tennessee after struggling most of last season in Iowa. He did get to pitch three games in the majors last June and was good in two of them, however. Daury Torrez gets his first taste of Double-A after spending the past two season in Myrtle Beach.

Jen-Ho Tseng, Stephen Perakslis and James Pugliese return to the Smokies from last season. Two minor league free agent signings, Daniel Corcino and Jhondaniel Medina, round out the bullpen.

The Outfielders: Left fielder Charcer Burks only hit .247 in Myrtle Beach last summer, but his on-base percentage was .356. He also hit 11 home runs and stole 23 bases. Other than his weak arm, which limits him to left field (or center in a pinch), he has a good, all-around skill set. He bats right-handed.

With Albert Almora Jr. in the majors, Trey Martin takes over as the best defensive center fielder in the Cubs minors. Unfortunately, he really struggled to hit last year with the Smokies.

It’s just the opposite with the Cuban-born Yasiel Balaguert, who mashed 19 home runs in Myrtle Beach last year, alongside a .263 batting average and a .316 OBP. That’s quite good for the pitching-friendly Carolina League. He’ll likely continue to get starts at first base and as a DH in addition to playing left and right field. But the ball does make a really nice sound off his bat.

Al has already covered Jeffrey Baez’s assignment in Tennessee.

Switch-hitting Roberto Caro rounds out the outfield.

The Infielders: Three-quarters of the infield returns from last season, although only shortstop Carlos Penalver spent all of last year in Double-A. Penalver is a terrific glove, but his bat has struggled at pretty much every level he’s played. His path to the majors is simple: hit better. OK, not that simple.

Second baseman David Bote tore up the Carolina League with a .337/.410/.518 line in 72 games there last season. He did play seven games with the Smokies and 12 with Iowa last year as he filled in a lot where there were vacancies. Third baseman Jason Vosler hit .254/.323/.359 between Myrtle Beach and Tennessee.

Andrew Ely can play all over the infield. He split time between South Bend, where he was very good, and Myrtle Beach, where he struggled a bit.

The Catchers: Ian Rice made my list of “honorable mentions” in by preseason rankings because he can really hit. He had 15 home runs in 97 games between South Bend and Myrtle Beach last year. Unfortunately, he’s probably destined to be a 1B/DH rather than a catcher.

Cael Brockmeyer is huge for a catcher (6’5”) and can also hit, although not nearly as well as Rice. He’s a guy who gets moved around the Cubs system a lot when they need someone to fill in, but he’s starting in Tennessee. Erick Castillo is probably the best defensive catcher here by default, but he’s struggled at the plate.

Next up: The Iowa Cubs