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Get to know the Tennessee Smokies

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Top pitchers and some possible breakout hitters highlight the Opening Day roster of the Cubs’ Double-A affiliate.

Oscar De La Cruz
Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

Part three of our tour of the four Cubs full-season minor league affiliates brings us to the Double-A Tennessee Smokies, who are celebrating their 12th season in the Cubs system. Only the Cubs affiliation with Triple-A Iowa is longer.

I’ve already written a piece on why you should go see a Cubs minor league game and how to do it. The Smokies are one of the best values in the minor leagues so if you live anywhere near there (I don’t, unfortunately), you should check them out this season.

Who’s in charge? Manager Mark Johnson will lead the Smokies for the third straight season and his eighth season in the Cubs system. You might remember him as a backup catcher for the White Sox in the late-nineties, early-aughts. He finished his playing career with the Iowa Cubs in 2010 and has been coaching in the system ever since.

For the third straight season, Johnson will be paired with pitching coach Terry Clark. Prior to coming to the Cubs system, Clark spent 13 years as a pitching coach or coordinator in the Mariners system. If you have a good memory or a lot of old baseball cards, you might remember him as a journeyman reliever from 1988 to 1997.

The new hitting coach is Jesus Feliciano, who joins the Smokies after managing the Emeralds the past two seasons, including leading them to their first undisputed Northwest League title since 1975 in 2016. I wonder if the Smokies will buy up the Emeralds remaining stock of “Jesus is my homeboy” t-shirts. (Let’s just say Feliciano was a popular manager among his players.) Feliciano played 54 games with the Mets in 2010 and played in the minor leagues from 1998 to 2012.

Regular readers of the Minor League Wrap will recognize the new assistant coach, Ben Carhart. Carhart was a minor leaguer in the Cubs system from 2012 to 2016, finishing up with the Smokies. He was a rehab coach in Mesa last year after retiring. Now he’s back in Tennessee.

Pitching: The entire pitching staff is right-handed. No need to worry about matchups!

The top pitching prospect is Oscar De La Cruz, a 6’4” Dominican who has as much upside as any pitcher in the Cubs system. BA ranked De La Cruz as the No. 6 prospect in the Cubs system and I had him at No. 5. He’s got a low-to-mid-90s fastball with very good sinking movement on it. His curve rates as above average and his changeup is at least average. He also throws strikes and keeps walks to a minimum. A package like that grades out to a future No. 3 or maybe even a No. 2 starter in the major leagues.

The only problem is that De La Cruz has never been able to stay healthy. He’s never had a major injury like Tommy John surgery or a rotator cuff, but year after year he picks up a pulled groin, a sore forearm, an oblique strain or whatever you can think of. He’s never thrown more than 73 innings in a US-based minor league season, and only managed 54⅔ innings last season. De La Cruz has only one task this year: keep doing what he’s been doing, only do it over 110 innings or so.

The second pitcher to watch is Thomas Hatch, whom Baseball America listed as the Cubs’ No. 8 prospect and I had at No. 6. Hatch’s first professional season at Myrtle Beach last year doesn’t look that great at first glance as he went 5-11 with 4.04 ERA over 26 starts. But I was very impressed with him anyway. For one, he threw 124⅔ innings, struck out 126 and allowed just two home runs. His best pitch is a nasty low-90s sinker, but the Cubs have encouraged him to throw his mid-90s four-seam fastball more to give batters a different look. He’s also got a solid slider and changeup. He needs to be more consistent to be a major league starter, but he could certainly be a No. 3 starter in the majors, perhaps as early as next season.

Trevor Clifton was a top-ten prospect in the Cubs system coming into the 2017 season, but his return to his native Tennessee did not go well. He’ll look to regain his prospect status in 2018 and could be a solid No. 4 starter in the majors if he can regain his 2016 form.

Duncan Robinson made 25 appearances and 20 starts between South Bend and Myrtle Beach last year. He went 9-9 with a 2.21 ERA. That earned him a promotion to Double-A.

Zach Hedges also returns to Tennessee after a pretty strong 2017 season in Double-A: 9-9 with a 3.49 ERA over 22 starts and 129.1 innings. However, a mid-season promotion to Iowa went pretty disastrously and he was sent back to the Smokies after three starts. His plan is generally to get hitters to pound pitch after pitch into the dirt for groundouts. Right-hander Preston Morrison returns to Tennessee after making 19 starts and going 1-10 with a 5.51 ERA. He was much better in 2016.

The top prospect and most intriguing member of the Smokies bullpen is Dakota Mekkes, Baseball America ranked him as the Cubs’ No. 21 prospect and I had him as an honorable mention to my top 20 prospect list. Despite being a big guy, Mekkes doesn’t throw hard, but he has a funky delivery that makes the ball move and hides the ball from the hitter well. Between South Bend and Myrtle Beach last season, Mekkes went 8-2 with 7 saves and a 0.98 ERA in 73⅓ innings over 42 starts. I could see him as a closer one day, but a more likely (and possibly more valuable) role would be as a multi-inning middle reliever. Double-A will be a test for him. If he does well, you could see him in Chicago next year.

Jake Stinnett was a second-round draft pick in 2014 and was once a top-15 prospect in the Cubs system when the system was really loaded. But he’s struggled with control in his time as a starter and he missed the first four months of last season with shoulder issues. But when he arrived in Tennessee last season, it was as a reliever and he looked pretty darn good in nine appearances. He allowed just one run over 14⅔ innings and struck out 14 and walked six. BA still has him as the No. 30 prospect in the system.

Relievers Scott Effross and Michael Rucker make the jump from Myrtle Beach. Rucker also made 15 starts last season and struck out 114 and walked just 21 over 106 innings.

Reliever Tommy Nance missed all of last season with an injury, but he’ll make his Double-A debut this spring. James Norwood, James Pugliese and Daury Torrez round out the bullpen. All of them are returning to the Smokies from last season.

Catchers: Ian Rice and Erick Castillo return to Double-A again this year. Rice can mash, posting a .230/.353/.423 with 17 home runs in 331 at-bats last year. He is a bit of a “three-true-outcomes” guy as he struck out 90 times and walked 60. Defensively, he might be better suited to first base. Castillo hit .245/.316/.309 last year.

The third catcher, Will Remillard, is an interesting case. After a successful professional debut with Kane County in 2014, he missed all of 2015 with a back injury. Then he missed all of 2016 and most of 2017 after Tommy John surgery. He’s only played eight games since 2014, but he was considered to be a promising catching prospect back then.

Infielders: Shortstop Zack Short had a breakout season last year. Between South Bend and Myrtle Beach, Short hit .250/.383/.419 with 13 home runs and 18 steals in 468 at-bats. Short goes deep into counts, which means that he had 104 strikeouts to his 94 walks. I ranked him as the No. 16 prospect in the Cubs system. He will have to build on last season and cut down on his strikeouts for my faith in him to be rewarded.

Third baseman Jason Vosler hit three home runs in 2016 and 21 in 2017. His overall line with the Smokies last season was .241/.343/.429 over 452 at-bats. Vosler will go as far as his power will take him as the rest of his game is average at best. But if you hit enough home runs, the majors will take notice. I ranked him as the Cubs No. 17 prospect and BA ranked him as the 25th-best prospect.

Third baseman Jesse Hodges moves up from Myrtle Beach after hitting .268/.345/.427 with 13 home runs in 124 games.

Shortstop Carlos Penalver is a defensive wizard who is going to start his third-straight season in Double-A. (And he even played three games for the Smokies in 2015.) He still doesn’t turn 24 until May, however. He hit .254/.295/.327 last year, which was an improvement over 2016.

First baseman Yasiel Balaguert and second baseman Trent Giambrone are also returning to Tennessee from last season.

Outfielders: Much of the shine is off outfielder Eddy Martinez, who hit .244/.297/.366 with 14 home runs in 464 at-bats last year in Myrtle Beach. At least he was much improved in the second-half, which gives him something to build on. The potential is still there, but it’s getting harder to see in the rearview mirror. I ranked him as the No. 20 prospect in the Cubs system, mostly based on the hope that Martinez’s second half was the start of a turnaround.

Left fielder Charcer Burks returns to Tennessee after a strong season that saw him hit .270/.370/.395 with ten home runs and 16 steals in 456 at-bats. That got him ranked as the No. 24 prospect in the Cubs system according to Baseball America. His weak arm limits him mostly to left field, although he does have the range to play in center when necessary. If he continues to hit for power and draw walks, he could be a fourth outfielder.

Center fielder Trey Martin and right fielder Jeffrey Baez all return to Tennessee from 2017.

When?: The Smokies season starts Thursday night at the Mississippi Braves. Their home opener is an 11:30 am Eastern matinee next Wednesday against the Jackson Generals. All of their home games and most of their road games are available on milb.tv. If you listened to Cubs spring training games on mlb.com, broadcaster Mick Gillispie is the voice of the Smokies. You can listen to his radio call for free at smokiesbaseball.com.