The Iowa Cubs have already have two games under their belt and tonight, the other three full-season affiliates take the field, weather permitting. Today, I take a look at the Cubs’ Double-A affiliate, the Tennessee Smokies.
Most of the 2022 Smokies’ Opening Night roster played for the Smokies last season, at least during the second-half of the year. A few spent the whole season there.
Since 2007, the Tennessee Smokies have been the Cubs’ Double-A affiliate, the level just below the Triple-A Iowa Cubs. They play their games at Smokies Stadium in Sevierville, TN, which is about 20 minutes east of Knoxville.
The Smokies are a part of the Southern League, which reclaimed its traditional name after being called “Double-A South” last season. There are eight teams in the Southern League and the Smokies are in the North Division with the Birmingham Barons (White Sox), Chattanooga Lookouts (Reds) and the Rocket City Trash Pandas (Angels).
Who are the top prospects?
Because this is what most of you care about, I’m putting this section up top. But remember, every minor leaguer is special and unique in his own way. And every one of them will take special joy in sticking it to everyone who didn’t list them as a top prospect if and when they make the majors. I’m fine with that.
The Cubs’ 2019 first-round pick, right-handed pitcher Ryan Jensen, is the top prospect on the Smokies. Last season, the right-hander spent most of the year at High-A South Bend, but he did play four games for the Smokies at the end of the year.
Jensen’s biggest problem last year was inconsistency. Sometimes he took the mound and looked like the future mid-rotation starter that the Cubs were hoping he would be when they drafted him. Other times he looked completely out of sync, couldn’t find the plate and when he did, batters would hit him hard.
Jensen’s got a mid-to-upper 90s fastball and a potentially-plus slider, along with a decent change. He’s just needs to develop some consistency, which is easier said than done.
Righty Riley Thompson showed up on a lot of people’s radar after a terrific season in 2019 at then-Low A South Bend. But he hasn’t pitched since then because the 2020 minor league season was cancelled and he missed all of last season with “shoulder discomfort” that did not require surgery.
Thompson needs to stay healthy. He had Tommy John surgery in college and has struggled with shoulder issues since then. He has (or at least had) a starter’s pitch repertoire and he’s known as one of those “spin-rate” monsters on both his fastball and curve.
Once upon a time, right-handed pitcher Anderson Espinoza was one of the highest-regarded prospects in all of baseball. He could hit triple-digits on radar guns and matched that with a solid curve and change.
That was back in 2016. Since then, Espinoza missed three seasons with two Tommy John surgeries and another one with a pandemic. He pitched for the first time since 2016 last year. He was still throwing that fastball at 95 to 97 miles per hour and he’s got a slider with a nice bite. The Cubs got him from the Padres in the Jake Marisnick trade.
Espinoza is still only 24 years old. While most of his pure stuff is back, his control was all over the place. He needs to stay healthy and throw strikes. His future, if he has one, is as bullpen arm at this point, although both the Padres and Cubs used him as a starter last year in short stints. He finished 2021 with three starts for the Smokies.
Outfielder Nelson Velazquez was a fan favorite last year and for good reason. He was a highly-regarded fifth-round pick in 2017. Velazquez put on great displays of power in batting practice for three seasons and did very little in games. So he rebuilt his swing during the pandemic season and it seems to have paid off. He hit 20 home runs in 103 games between High-A and Double-A. He was named MVP of the Arizona Fall League this past October.
Velazquez just needs to build off of his 2021 season. If he learns to make more contact, he could be a major league corner outfielder, or maybe even a center fielder. Even if he just retains the gains he made last year, a future as a fourth outfielder is certainly possible.
The Cubs are turning Christopher Morel into an all-around utility player in the Ben Zobrist role. He can play any position but catcher and he’s got plus speed and a strong arm. But while he has good power when he connects, Morel really had trouble making enough contact to be productive at the plate last year. He hit .220 in 101 games with the Smokies in 2021. He’ll try to do better this year. If he can, he could be an extremely valuable bench player in the majors one day soon.
There were a lot of high hopes for second baseman Chase Strumpf coming into 2021, but he struggled badly with the Smokies last year, hitting only .211 (albeit with a .335 OBP) and 7 home runs in 62 games after his promotion from High-A. He’ll try again in Double-A this year. There’s a lot of talent there if Strumpf can get to it.
Who is in charge?
The Smokies manager this year is Michael Ryan, who managed South Bend in 2021. Before that, he spent seven years managing in the Pirates organization. He played 149 games in the majors as an outfielder for the Twins and Angels from 2002 to 2010. He also played more than 1400 games in the minors, so he knows what his players are going through.
Jamie Vermilyea returns to Tennessee as the pitching coach. This is his third season as a pitching coach in the Cubs’ system, starting as South Bend’s pitching coach in 2019. Vermilyea pitched two games for the Blue Jays in 2007, which is the extent of his major league career. That’s two more games than you pitched.
Chad Allen returns for his third season as the Smokies hitting coach. Before joining the Cubs organization in 2019, he spent six years as a hitting coach in the Twins organization. Allen was an outfielder for the Twins, Guardians, Marlins and Rangers from 1999 to 2005.
The other hitting coach is Rick Strickland, who joins the Cubs this year after serving as a hitting consultant for the TrainRight Academy.
Who are the other pitchers?
Right-handed starter Javier Assad had a rough season with the Smokies last year after a solid season with the Pelicans in 2019. He a ground ball pitcher who needs a strong defense behind him, so that might have been some of the problem. He will try Double-A again this year.
Right-hander Cam Sanders struck out a lot of hitters as a starter for the Smokies last year. Unfortunately, he also walked a lot of hitters and gave up a lot of home runs, which is why he’s back here in 2022.
Starter Peyton Remy looked good in South Bend in 2021, but the right hander struggled after a late promotion to Double-A. That may have been related to the injury that ended his season last July.
If the name of lefty Brandon Leibrandt sounds familiar, that’s because Brandon is the son of Charlie Leibrandt, who pitched 14 seasons in the majors, including with the 1985 World Series champion Kansas City Royals. Brandon also pitched five games for the Marlins in 2020. The Cubs signed him as a free agent this winter after eight years in Miami’s system.
The Cubs had high hopes for lefty reliever Burl Carraway when the took him out of Dallas Baptist in the second round of the 2020 draft. No one could hit Carraway last year as he held opposing hitters to a .144 batting average. He also walked 46 batters in 35⅔ innings. That tells you all you need to know about what Carraway needs to work on.
The Cubs took Brandon Hughes in the 16th-round of the 2017 draft as an outfielder. He didn’t hit so they converted him to pitching. He was very good as a left-handed reliever for South Bend and Tennessee last year.
Dauris Valdez was the return from the Padres in the James Norwood trade. The right-handed reliever was injured most of 2021.
Right-handed reliever Eury Ramos was good for South Bend last year, which earned him a late-season promotion to Tennessee. He wasn’t overmatched in Double-A, although he only threw ten innings for the Smokies in 2021.
At 6’8” tall, lefty Bryan Hudson is an imposing figure on the mound. Unfortunately, his arsenal is not nearly as intimidating. His fastball is fringy and his best pitch is his curveball. But he had more success last season when the Cubs moved him to the bullpen. He’s repeating Double-A this year.
Lefty Scott Kobos and righty Graham Lawson are both pitchers the Cubs signed as undrafted free agents after the five-round draft in 2020. Lawson is another one of those pitchers who looked good in South Bend but not so good in Tennessee. Kobos jumped around the system last year, filling in where he could. Kobos pitched for all four affiliates in 2021.
Blake Whitney was a 24th-round pick of the Cubs in 2018.
Who are the catchers?
Bryce Windham is new to Double-A this year after putting up some solid offensive numbers for South Bend last year. A 32nd-round pick in 2019, Windham has done nothing but outperform expectations since joining the Cubs. He’ll try to keep doing that this year.
Cam Balego and Harrison Wenson return from the 2021 Smokies team. The Cubs signed Wenson after he was released from the Angels in June. Balego is a converted infielder still learning the position.
Who are the infielders?
Shortstop Delvin Zinn is a good glove with terrific speed. He stole 44 bases last year, 42 in South Bend and two with the Smokies. He also a guy who plays with such joy that it’s obvious even over an internet video feed. He’s fun to watch. If he can improve his hitting (he only hit .215 last year between South Bend and Tennessee), he could have a future as a utility infielder.
Second baseman Christian Donahue looked good in South Bend in 2018, but he struggled to hit with the Smokies in 2019. He was injured for almost all of 2021, getting in only 13 games.
Shortstop Luis Vazquez is a glove-first infielder who got hurt after four games in South Bend last year and then missed three months. But he hit well when he returned in August and got a cup of coffee with Tennessee late last season.
The Cubs got first baseman Bryce Ball from Atlanta for Joc Pederson last summer. He’s very much a three-true-outcomes guy as he hit .206/.351/.387 with 13 home runs and 121 strikeouts in 107 games in High-A for the Cubs and Braves last year. He’ll be tested in Double-A.
First baseman Nelson Maldonado was the Smokies’ second-best hitter (after Brennen Davis) for much of 2021. He hit .303/.371/.467 in 67 games.
Who are the outfielders?
The Smokies just have three listed outfielders to start the season, so I’d imagine that Zinn and Morel will get a lot of games out there.
Yonathan Perlaza is a switch-hitting corner outfielder who was impressive for South Bend last year, hitting .280/.350/.479 with 15 home runs in 99 games. That earned him a promotion to Double-A this year.
Darius Hill isn’t a true center fielder, but he can play there. I’d expect him to split the time in center with Morel until someone better shows up in Tennessee. He’s mostly a singles hitter, but he did hit five home runs in 60 games for the Smokies last year.
How do I see them?
The Smokies play games in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and northern Florida, so you can always go see them in person if you’re in that area. If not, you can sign up for milb.tv and get every home game. Mick Gillispie has been the lead broadcaster for the Smokies since 2007 and has called many Cubs Spring Training games throughout his career.
Last year, the Lookouts did not broadcast their home games, so those Smokies games were not available on milb.tv. We will see if Chattanooga has a video feed this year. All minor league teams are required to get one eventually.
The Marquee Network broadcast a few Smokies games last year and I expect that they will do so again in 2022.
Coming up: The South Bend Cubs and Myrtle Beach Pelicans