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Cubs Pipeline Alchemy: Smok(i)e(s) signals

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Here’s a look at the Tennessee Smokies rotation and other notes about the Cubs farm system.

Keegan Thompson pitching for the Myrtle Beach Pelicans in 2018
Larry Kave/Myrtle Beach Pelicans

Pipeline Alchemy is where I look at trends in the Cubs pipeline, whatever those trends are. Anything early should be taken with the proverbial grain of sand, but it’s what is available in April. On some occasions, though, early trends bear a degree of weight. My look today starts with a look at the Tennessee Smokies rotation.

Through eight games, the Smokies starters have gone their desired five innings six times. Through those 30⅔ innings, they’ve combined to give up two runs. Cory Abbott has been the “culprit”, and he allowed ten of the 13 hits allowed by the group, with his hits allowed in 10⅔ innings. They’ve combined for five walks and 35 strikeouts, as well. It’s far too early to assess anything with finality, but that’s a nice start.

Toss in the pipelines they were pitching against, and the Braves and White Sox are much more respected systems that the Cubs’ is. That the first-place Smokies are 5-3 is icing on the cake. Tyson Miller’s five-inning, one-hit, one-walk outing was his first start in Double-A. Keegan Thompson has made 14 Double-A starts. Tom Hatch has made 27. Cory Abbott has made two. Since every level presents its own challenges, Hatch is likely the most Triple-A ready. (Fifth starter Justin Steele has three starts for the Smokies.)

Smokies third baseman Robel Garcia was injured in the season opener, but sounds on the verge of return. Catcher PJ Higgins was booted to cover the hot corner, and has been adequate. He’s made a couple of errors, but he hasn’t been a loss-creating sieve, which is what might have been feared. Nico Hoerner has five hits and (five walks) in 25 at-bats. It’s almost like teams scout more aggressively for the regular season.

Along with the starting pitching success, the general perkiness of the offense has surprised me. They’re a close third (as of Sunday morning) in on-base percentage (.353), and second in BA and third in OPS. They’re nine for eleven on the bases, and first in walks drawn, despite being a game short of much of the league. This is the level where the wheels tend to fly off.

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South Bend’s offense is largely their outfield and first baseman. It’s a bit absurd jumping to conclusions when players are attired in hoodies and ski masks, but South Bend had no triples or homers through eight games. Despite being bottom-third in OPS on-base, and slugging, they’re in third in batting average, for what it’s worth. In their ninth game, they added their first two triples of the season. They haven’t homered, yet.

South Bend’s pitching has been a bit sporadic.

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Myrtle Beach has earned their 2-8 start. They’re eighth in ERA and ninth in WHIP. Offensively, they’re eighth or ninth (of ten) in the four major team categories. Their team OPS is at .518 as of Saturday morning.

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6-3 Iowa is in first place, as well. While bottom half offensively in all four regular team stats, that’s better than the 15 or 16 they were last season. Their six homers lag the league, but that’s probably to be expected. They don’t marinate in offensive mashers, yet. Three of the I-Cubs best six season WHIPs are in the current Cubs bullpen.

Dixon Machado has an OPS in four figures and Johnny Field is just below that level. I’m not buying the I-Cubs run producers yet, but the offense is better than last season, initially. That Zack Short will miss some time due to a hit-by-pitch is the sad reality of player development.

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Relievers Xavier Cedeno and Tony Barnette are getting closer to MiLB rehab stints. I hope the Cubs soon get to the point where they lean toward two extended spring training games per day over one. My “biggest picture” desire along those lines is to add a third, as well as a third or fourth Dominican League side.

Do you have any “big picture” questions in the pipeline? The traditional ones are usually “estimated time of arrival” ones. Usually, the ETA questions are answered by the proficiency of the player. For instance, if Cole Roederer hits his current .240 with no homers, he’ll stay in South Bend all season. If his numbers perk, he could be in South Carolina after the All-Star Break. I observe more than I project, with prospects.

Among my concerns remains losing too many one-in-five pitchers on waivers. Pitchers either develop, or they don’t. When they do is beyond my control. With no 40-man spots available, catching questions, and a plethora of players potentially returning in the next three weeks, some talent may be given up on the cheap. As hard as it is to get quality to the upper minors, losing those types for a minimal cash fee is still far from optimal.