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Cubs minor leagues: Get to know the Tennessee Smokies

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The Cubs Double-A affiliate is headlined by the Cubs top catching prospect in 2021.

Catcher Miguel Amaya is a Smokies player to watch in 2021
Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Tonight is the big night that minor league baseball returns to the field after an absence of more than a year and a half. So I’ve been previewing the four returning Cubs minor league affiliates to get you prepared for the upcoming season.

One thing I should have mentioned in my two previews yesterday is that there’s been a major change to the way the minor league schedules are being run this year. Now teams will be playing six-game series against each other with Mondays off. So there will be no Minor League Wrap on Mondays this season. There will also be no playoffs this year.

These changes were instituted in response to the pandemic. The idea is to limit travel and exposure. However, it does sound like the six-game series with one off day will be permanent, unless MLB finds that teams playing six-game series is leading to on-field fights or something similar. Whether the playoffs return is kind of up in the air. If the 2022 season starts in April like usual, then I’d expect the minor league postseason to return in some reduced form. But if MLB decides that they like the idea of the minor league season starting in May, then the playoffs are probably done for good. I will say that minor league baseball is the one sport where attendance in the playoffs is much worse than regular-season attendance.

Who? The Tennessee Smokies are the Cubs’ Double-A affiliate and they have been since 2007. They play at Smokies Stadium in Kodak, TN, which is part of Sevierville, which just east of Knoxville in eastern Tennessee.

The Smokies play in the new Double-A South League, which like all of the minor leagues is awaiting a corporate sponsor. The Double-A South League consists of eight of the ten teams that played in the Southern League last year. The Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp got boosted to Triple-A. The Jackson Generals were not invited to continue in affiliated ball and their future is very much up in the air at the moment.

The Smokies start play tonight, Tuesday May 4, at home against the Montgomery Biscuits. As far as attendance and social distancing goes, the Smokies are only saying that there will be one empty seat between parties.

WHERE’S BRENNEN DAVIS?

Before I get to everything else about the Smokies, I’m going to answer the question that all of you are going to have about the roster and the lack of my top Cubs prospect on the team.

From what I’ve heard, Davis got hit in the face with a pitch in Extended Spring Training a little over a week ago. It’s not expected to be a big thing and he’s supposed to be playing here in Tennessee as soon as he gets back to playing speed. Davis has the potential to be a special talent and the challenge he’ll face in Double-A, other than staying healthy, is simply adjusting to the greater velocity and breaking stuff that he’ll face at this level. From the reports that we received out of the alternate site in 2020, it doesn’t sound like he’ll have a lot of trouble.

There are also a lot of well-regarded pitchers who are missing from rosters at the moment and I’ll have more on that when I preview Iowa later today. The vast majority of these pitchers have nothing wrong with them. The Cubs just feel like these pitchers need more time in Spring Training to get up to game speed. They’re being more cautious than usual this season after none of them threw any innings in anger in 2020.

Who is in charge? The Smokies new manager, Mark Johnson, is also an old manager, having helmed the team from 2016 to 2018. Johnson has been managing in the Cubs system since 2011. He’s also managed Eugene (now a Giants High-A affiliate), Kane County (now independent) and Myrtle Beach in his time in the Cubs system. Johnson also serves as the Cubs minor league catching coordinator.

You might remember Johnson as a backup catcher for the White Sox from 1998 to 2002. He also played for the Athletics, Brewers and Cardinals. He finished his playing career with the Iowa Cubs in 2009 and 2010.

The pitching coach is Jamie Vermilyea, who joined the Cubs system in 2019 as the pitching coach for South Bend. Before that, he was the pitching coach for Winnipeg in independent ball. Vermilyea pitched in the Blue Jays system from 2003 to 2010, getting into two major league games for Toronto in 2007.

Chad Allen returns as the Smokies hitting coach from 2019. Before joining the Cubs system that year, Allen had been a hitting coach in the Twins system from 2013 to 2018. He was an outfielder who played 267 games in the majors from 1999 to 2005, mostly for the Twins but also for Cleveland and Texas. He also played 13 games for the 2003 Marlins, so he’s got a World Series ring from that.

Will Remillard is the assistant hitting coach and he’s been in the Cubs system since the team drafted him in the 19th round in 2013. He was a catcher in the Cubs system until 2018. He retired from playing and joined the coaching side of the equation in 2019 as the Iowa Cubs assistant hitting coach.

Who are the top prospects?

Catcher Miguel Amaya is the top prospect (at the moment) in Tennessee and my third-ranked Cubs prospect coming into the season. Amaya, 22, got one of those coveted golden tickets to the alternate site in South Bend last season, so he spent much of the year working with the Triple-A players and the top coaches in the Cubs minor league system. From what it sounds like, Amaya spent a lot of time learning to read major league scouting reports and how to work with pitchers and call a game. From all reports, the Cubs are extremely pleased with how well he took to it.

When last we saw Amaya, his defense was ahead of his hitting. In particular, he’s had some trouble making consistent contact at the plate. The good news is that when he did make contact, he sent the ball far with 11 home runs in 99 games at Myrtle Beach in 2019. But along with checking for how he’s progressed defensively, the big issue for Amaya is going to be if he can make more consistent, hard contact and not find himself in so many bad counts.

Third baseman Christopher Morel, 21, is also a guy who got an invite to the alternate site in 2020 and he reportedly benefitted from the experience. The first thing that sticks out about Morel is that he’s got a cannon for an arm at third base and it’s fun to watch when someone hits a slow grounder to third base. His range at third is good (he used to play shortstop) and his hands should be more steady as he gains more experience. His speed is above-average.

Morel is a right-handed hitter with excellent bat speed who tends to pull the ball hard. The biggest thing fans should be on the lookout for Morel is his plate discipline. He swings hard and at nearly everything. He would be an excellent prospect if he’d walk more and strike out less.

Morel was my ninth-ranked Cubs prospect heading into the year.

Switch-hitting outfielder Zach Davis (not to be confused with Zach Davies) has plus-plus speed. In 2019 between Myrtle Beach and Tennessee, he stole 40 bases while being caught 11 times. Defensively, he’s good for at least one highlight catch a week. Davis, 26, has no power to speak of, but his bigger problem is making contact. A guy with his speed needs to strike out less, walk more and put the ball in play more often. So that’s something to look for.

Smokies pitchers are going to love this outfield, especially when Brennen Davis arrives. Outfielder Connor Myers, 27, is not quite as fast as Davis, but he’s also fast and is good for robbing a few hits each series from opposing hitters. Myers is back in Double-A after spending all of 2019 in Tennessee where he hit .263/.319/.388 with three home runs and 16 steals in 118 games. Myers has the same issues as Davis — he needs to walk more and make more contact at the plate.

The pitching staff will be much better after more players get into game shape and report from Mesa. Right-handed reliever Manuel Rodriguez, 24, made my “others of note” list before the year. Rodriguez throws a 95-97 mph fastball and combines it with a good curve. He just needs to throw more strikes to make the majors, although you could say that about a lot of guys.

The Cubs got RHP Dauris Valdez from the Padres last month for James Norwood. Dauris is a huge man (6’8”, listed at 254 but likely higher) and he throws hard, often touching 102 back in 2019. He’s also got a sharp slider and a 90 mph change with good sink. He’d be a top prospect if he could throw more strikes. He’s a max-effort relief-only guy.

Tall lefty Bryan Hudson, 23, is a curveball specialist who gets lots of ground balls. It’s been a running joke on the Minor League Wrap that Hudson never pitches well when I tune in to watch him and he pitches well when I don’t. I think he’s destined for the bullpen if he reaches the majors, but he’s likely to start in Tennessee this year.

Right-hander Javier Assad, 23, doesn’t have great stuff but he knows how to locate it and he can eat a lot of innings. He might have a career bouncing between Triple-A and the back-end of a major league rotation. Short right-hander Ethan Roberts, 23, doesn’t have great velocity but he’s a spin monster who gets very good movement on what he does have.

Who are the rest of the pitchers?

RHP Bailey Clark. 26. 5th-round/2016. Duke.

RHP Scott Effross. 27. 15th-round/2015. Indiana

RHP Juan Gámez. 27. FA/2019. North Dakota State.

LHP Ryan Lawlor. 27. FA/2018. Georgia.

LHP Luis Lugo. 27. Claimed off waivers/2018. Venezuela.

RHP Cam Sanders. 24. 12th-round/2018. Louisiana State.

LHP Wyatt Short. 26. 13th-round/2016. Mississippi.

Sanders is probably the most interesting of these pitchers and will probably be in the Smokies rotation. He’s got an average fastball and generally keeps all of his pitches down. The others have all been around a while and need to pitch well or they may find themselves back in Mesa or worse when the better-known names are ready.

Who are the rest of the hitters?

C Eric Castillo. 28. Venezuela/2010.

C Tyler Payne. 28. 30th-round/2015. West Virginia State.

2B Christian Donahue. 25. NDFA/2017. Oregon State.

2B Levi Jordan. 25. 29th-round/2018. Washington.

SS Jake Slaughter. 24. 18th-round/2018. Louisiana State.

SS Andy Weber. 23. 5th-round/2018. Virginia.

1B/OF Jared Young. 25. 15th-round. Old Dominion.

OF Vance Vizcaino. 26. claimed on waivers/2019. Stetson.

I suppose I could have put Weber among the top prospects, but he’s more of a bat-first shortstop which means he’s likely to move to second base eventually which reduces his value. But he’s a left-handed hitter who put up a solid .275/.338/.400 line for South Bend in 2019. He will have to get to the majors with his bat, which means he’ll probably have to either cut down on the strikeouts, hit for more power or both.

It’s interesting that the Smokies have Slaughter listed as a shortstop as he’s never played there professionally. I don’t know if that’s an error or if it’s something he’s been working on in the missing year. But Slaughter hit .296/.355/.408 between Eugene and South Bend in 2019 and if he’s playing short competently, he becomes a much more interesting player as a possible major league super-utility guy.

Up next: The Iowa Cubs!