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Get to know the Tennessee Smokies

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Shortstop Nico Hoerner highlights the 2018 Smokies team, but there’s real depth in the pitching staff as well.

Nico Hoerner
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

It’s day 3 of our trip through the Cubs full-season minor league affiliates ahead of Thursday’s opener and today we visit the Cubs’ Double-A affiliate, the Tennessee Smokies.

I’m saying this in all of my previews (and be sure to check out the South Bend Cubs preview and the Myrtle Beach Pelicans preview) but I want to encourage you to see one of the minor league affiliates this summer or, barring that, a different minor league team closer to where you live. Minor League Baseball is a terrific value and most teams find something fun for everyone in the family to do. Admittedly, sometimes the actual game can get a little lost among all the promotions and such, but the players take the game very seriously and you can see some terrific ball there every day of the season. (Maybe some not-so-terrific ball too, but that can be entertaining as well.)

I should also mention that these rosters could change before Thursday.

Who? The Tennessee Smokies are the Cubs’ Double-A affiliate in the Southern League. They are the second-highest minor league level in the Cubs system. They play just outside of Sevierville, Tennessee, which is about 30 miles east of Knoxville. The Smokies have been the Cubs’ Double-A affiliate since 2007.

Who are the top prospects? This year I’m listing the top prospects in a separate entry, since that’s the thing that many of you are most interested in.

Do I need to say anything more than Nico Hoerner? The Cubs’ first-round pick last summer had his first season in the minors cut short after just 14 games with an elbow injury. He recovered in time for the Arizona Fall League and competing mostly against players from Double-A and Triple-A, he was named a runner-up on the end-of-the-season All-AFL team. I named him as the top prospect in the Cubs’ system and I wasn’t the only one.

I’ve written a lot about Hoerner on these virtual pages, so I’ll just give a quick reminder. He’s got terrific bat-to-ball skills and the ability to hit line drives to all fields. He’s not a great glove at short, but he’s good and his baseball intelligence helps stretch his average range.

Having Hoerner skip Advanced-A will be a challenge, but the Cubs no doubt think he can handle it after succeeding in the AFL. Also, putting Hoerner in Double-A allows the team to keep Aramis Ademan in Myrtle Beach without the two shortstops competing for playing time at that position. The Cubs front office say that Hoerner could earn a promotion to Triple-A Iowa this summer, but that he will not make the majors until next season at the earliest.

Two starting pitchers are the other two top prospects in Tennessee to start the season. Right-hander Cory Abbott has made a rapid rise through the Cubs system since they took him in the second round out of Loyola Marymount in 2017. Abbott made nine starts in South Bend and that didn’t prove much of a challenge as he went 4-1 with a 2.47 ERA, striking out 57 and walking 13 in 47⅓ innings. That earned him a promotion to High-A Myrtle Beach, which wasn’t much of a challenge either. He made 13 starts and had a 2.53 ERA over 67⅔ innings. He struck out 74 and walked 26. I named him the Cubs’ sixth-best prospect in January. His best pitch is a slider, which he famously copied from watching Noah Syndergaard, although he doesn’t throw it nearly as hard.

Lefty Justin Steele is right there with Abbott and I ranked him as the seventh-best Cubs prospect coming into the year. Steele underwent Tommy John surgery in August of 2017 and was back on the mound in just 11 months. Once he got up to speed, he looked better than ever, throwing a low-90s fastball that touched the mid-90s and a strong slider and curve. Steele started four games in Myrtle Beach last summer before a promotion to Tennessee, where he made two starts. Steele’s goal in 2018 is to stay healthy and to build on the progress he made last year and to earn a promotion to Iowa.

Who are the coaches? Jimmy Gonzalez is the new Smokies manager after spending the past four years managing South Bend. He was named Midwest League Manager of the Year in 2016. He’s been coaching in the Cubs system since 2014. He was a first-round draft pick of the Astros in 1991 and spent 13 years as a catcher in the minors.

Pitching coach Ron Villone has spent the past eight years in the Cubs organization, serving as the Cubs minor league rehab pitching coordinator last year. Villone has previously been a pitching coach with Cubs affiliates in Daytona, Kane County and Peoria as well as the rookie league team in Mesa. You probably remember his long major-league career as a journeyman pitcher from 1995 to 2009, mostly out of the bullpen. He pitched for 12 teams in his major league career. None of them were the Cubs.

Chad Allen is the hitting coach and he joins the Cubs organization after coaching the past six seasons in the Twins organization, the last three with the Twins’ Triple-A affiliate in Rochester. Allen played 267 games in the majors as an outfielder from 1999 to 2005, mostly with the Twins.

Finally, the assistant coach is Ben Carhart, who was a fan favorite as a Cubs minor leaguer from 2012 to 2016. He worked as a rehab coach in Mesa last year. He spent the 2016 season in Tennessee as a player.

Who are the pitchers? Pitching is going to be the strength of the Smokies. Beyond Abbott and Steele, Keegan Thompson was the Cubs’ third-round pick in 2017 out of Auburn and he made 13 starts for the Smokies last summer after a June promotion from Myrtle Beach. He’s a right-hander with average stuff that relies on command and smart pitch selection to get outs. Between Myrtle Beach and Tennessee last year, he was 9-6 with a 3.61 ERA. (He was naturally better in Myrtle Beach than Tennessee.) He’s someone who could have a major league future in the back-end of a rotation.

Thomas Hatch is repeating Tennessee after a decent but not great 2018 season. Hatch went 8-6 with a 3.82 ERA over 143⅔ innings. He struck out 117 and walked 61. He’s got a good slider and is likely another back-of-the-rotation right-hander.

Right-hander Tyson Miller was the Cubs’ fourth-round pick out of California Baptist in 2016 and he’s moved up the minor league ladder one year at a time. Last year in Myrtle Beach, he made 23 starts and went 9-9 with a 3.54 ERA. Miller fanned 126 and walked 35 in 126 innings.

Ian Clarkin was stuck in waiver-wire hell this off-season as the Cubs and White Sox kept claiming him from the other one and then tried to sneak him through waivers. The Cubs finally ended up with the left-hander. Clarkin was a first-round pick of the Yankees in 2013 and he has a promising curve ball. However, his career has been mostly derailed by a series of injuries. No Tommy John surgery as of yet though. His health issues mean he’s probably ticketed for the bullpen.

The Cubs got Manuel Rondon from the Angels way back in 2015 in exchange for catcher Rafael Lopez. The Cubs moved the Venezuelan left-hander out the rotation and into the bullpen last season and it paid off. Rondon pitched effectively out of the pen both in South Bend and Myrtle Beach last season. He’ll try to do the same in Tennessee this year. He’s got a mid-90s fastball and a solid curve. If he can walk fewer batters (He walked 28 in 51 innings last year), he could have a long future as a left-handed reliever.

The only other pitcher making his Double-A debut is big right-hander Bailey Clark. The Cubs drafted him out of Duke in the fifth round of the 2016 draft, but much of his 2017 and 2018 season were interrupted by injury. He was fully healthy and was one of the Cubs players in the Arizona Fall League at the end of last season where he pitched 12 innings over nine relief appearances. Bailey is probably a full-time reliever now. Last year he pitched in Mesa, for South Bend and in Myrtle Beach and between the pen and the rotation, Bailey went 4-2 with a 1.89 ERA over 57 innings. He struck out 63 and walked 18.

Right-handers Zach Hedges, Scott Effross and Michael Rucker return to Tennessee after pitching there last season. Hedges was particularly effective for the Smokies last year but he struggled in a brief promotion to Iowa.

Left-handers Wyatt Short and Jordan Minch also return to the Smokies bullpen.

Who are the catchers? The Smokies have three catcher this season, all three of which could be termed as “interesting” but not top prospects. Two of them, P.J. Higgins and Jhonny Pereda, played in the Arizona Fall League this past year. The other one, Ian Rice, played in the AFL the year before.

Pereda had a strong season in Myrtle Beach last summer, hitting .272/.347/.363 with 8 home runs over 122 games. (Only 83 of those were behind the plate. He’s tough but he’s not that tough.) Defensively, he’s drawn praise for his strong arm. Pereda is probably the most “interesting” in terms of being a prospect of the three catchers.

Higgins returns to Double-A after hitting .241/.306/.310 in 41 games for the Smokies in 2018. He’s considered to be a promising defensive catcher, but his bat likely limits his ceiling to being a backup in the majors.

Rice returns for his third-straight year with the Smokies. He’s a “bat-first” catcher who hit .250/.386/.401 with eight home runs in 88 games last year. Rice had 17 home runs for the Smokies in 2017. He’s going to have to hit his way to Iowa, which is his goal this year.

Who are the infielders? Other than Hoerner, the player that everyone will have their eyes on is first baseman Jared Young, who joins the Smokies after hitting .300/.357/.485 with 16 home runs between South Bend and Myrtle Beach. He also hit a pair of home runs in Spring Training this year. First basemen have to hit a ton to make the majors, although being left-handed helps Young a bit in that regard. He’s unlikely to supplant Anthony Rizzo at Wrigley Field, but a strong season in Tennessee could make him a valuable trade chit at the deadline. The Cubs have also had Young play some left field, and I’d expect that experiment to continue in 2019.

Second baseman Christian Donahue was signed as an undrafted free agent before last season and was a pleasant surprise for the South Bend Cubs, hitting .287/.352/.379 in 80 games over his first professional season. That got him a brief promotion to Myrtle Beach where he was just as good. Now he’ll try to repeat that success at Double-A.

Utility player Vimael Machin returns to the Smokies for a second season. He’s played every infield position and left field. He’s also pitched twice.

I don’t know what the story behind switch-hitting shortstop Robel Garcia is, but I’m dying to find out. Garcia was in the Indians system from 2010 until they released him in Spring Training in 2014. He then apparently took his skills to Italy, where he’s been playing in the Italian professional league the past three years. I’ve also found one report of him playing for the Italian National Team, so I’m curious how the Dominican-born Garcia pulled that off, assuming the report is true. More organizational depth than prospect, but he sounds like he’s probably got some good stories to tell.

Who are the outfielders? All four outfielders have played in Tennessee before. Eddy Martinez, Charcer Burks and Connor Myers return from last year and Roberto Caro played for the Smokies in 2017 before spending last year in South Bend and Myrtle Beach.

Myers is probably the best of the bunch, although he’s already 25 years old. He’s a terrific defensive center fielder and a threat on the basepaths. He was promoted from Myrtle Beach to Tennessee at mid-season after hitting .259/.312/.356 for the Pelicans. Myers struggled in Tennessee in the second half but he was also injured. He’ll try to stay healthy this year and continue to make terrific highlight-reel catches in the outfield.

Martinez got a lot of attention when the Cubs signed him out of Cuba for a $3 million bonus. Since then, he’s done little to show that he was worth the money. Martinez repeats Double-A after hitting .221/.276/.375 with 12 home runs in 119 games last year. He’s too good of an athlete to give up on, but he may end up being little more than expensive organizational depth.

Burks returns for his third season in Tennessee. Last year Burks hit .229/.330/.325 with six home runs and 14 steals. Caro has been in the Cubs system since the 2012 season and is a solid org player. Every year he plays for whatever team needs the extra outfielder. He’s played for every affiliate in the Cubs system except Eugene ver the course of his career.

When does the season start? The Smokies are at home against the Mississippi Braves tomorrow night, Thursday April 4 for a five-game series. The Southern League has affiliates in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Northern Florida, so you can see them on the road there if you aren’t in Eastern Tennessee.