The Tennessee Smokies, the Cubs’ Double-A affiliate since 2007, announced their 2023 roster Tuesday. This year’s roster is packed with the top prospects in the Cubs’ system.
It shouldn’t really be a surprise that the Smokies are loaded, since this year’s roster is mostly made up of players who either on the 2022 Midwest League Champions South Bend Cubs or players on last year’s Smokies, who came within one game of winning the Southern League last year.
The Smokies are managed by Michael Ryan, who managed the Smokies last year to the Southern League Championship Series before the team lost the title to the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, 2 games to 1. Ryan managed the South Bend Cubs in 2021. Before that, Ryan managed Altoona in the Pirates system from 2017 to 2019. Ryan was an outfielder with the Twins from 2002 to 2005 and with the Angels in 2010.
The Smokies start their season Thursday night at 6 p.m. Central at home against the Birmingham Barons, the Double-A affiliate of the White Sox.
Hang on, because this section could get long.
The Cubs’ top prospect, center fielder Pete Crow-Armstrong will start the season in Tennessee. I don’t think I need to tell you much about Crow-Armstrong. He could play in the majors right now as a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder, but he will be looking to build upon the progress he made in both power and on-base skills last year in Myrtle Beach and South Bend.
Joining PCA in the outfield is Owen Caissie, who struggled to start last season in South Bend but got hot when the weather got hot. He’s a tall left-handed slugger with plus raw power. Caissie will look to tap into that power more this year now that he’s in a better hitting environment than South Bend. Smokies Park is a good place to hit and a very good place to hit home runs, whereas South Bend is a bad place to hit and Myrtle Beach is an awful place to hit.
The pitching for Tennessee is also full of prospects, even if left-hander DJ Herz is a little behind schedule and is starting the season in Extended Spring Training. (Herz will likely report to the Smokies when he’s ready.) But right-hander Ben Brown is on the Smokies roster and is a top ten prospect in the Cubs system. Brown was having a breakout season last year in High-A with the Phillies when he was traded to the Cubs for David Robertson. With the exception of one bad start versus the Mississippi Braves, he was very impressive for the Smokies in his other six starts after the trade deadline.
Cubs 2021 number-one draft pick, left-hander Jordan Wicks, gives the Smokies rotation a strong 1-2 punch. After an impressive campaign in South Bend, Wicks’ results fell off a little bit after he was promoted to Double-A last year, but not his stuff. He still has as good a changeup as ever. Wicks could be on the fast track to Chicago, but he’ll need a good start this year to keep up last year’s momentum.
Right-hander Ryan Jensen, the Cubs’ first-round pick in 2019, had an up-and-down season in the Smokies rotation last year. But the important thing is that he finished strong, allowing two runs or fewer in each of his final six starts.
Right-hander Daniel Palencia can throw 100 miles per hour and started 20 games last year for South Bend, although he only twice went more than four innings. He’s probably a reliever in the majors and it will be interesting to see if the Cubs keep him in the rotation or move him to the bullpen and a possible fast-track to Chicago.
Big right-hander Porter Hodge isn’t so big anymore after his new dedication to fitness and conditioning. (He’s still 6’4”, however). The results speak for themselves as he added velocity and posted a 2.63 ERA in 24 starts and one relief appearance between Myrtle Beach and South Bend.
Infielder Chase Strumpf put himself back on the prospect map with a 21-home run season (and one more in the playoffs) for the Smokies last year. Unfortunately, a numbers game in Iowa has him returning to Tennessee for the third straight season. But he’ll likely be promoted as soon as there is an opening in Triple-A.
There are two strong catching prospects in Tennessee this year. The first is Miguel Amaya, whom you are likely familiar with. He missed most of 2021 and the first part of 2022 with Tommy John surgery. Even though he returned mid-season, Amaya was relegated to DH duties. But he posted a career-high .864 OPS in the 28 games he played for the Smokies in 2022. He is now fully healthy and is expected to carry a full catching load this year.
But he’ll have to share some time with Pablo Aliendo, who is one of the best defensive catchers in all of the minors and certainly the best in the Cubs’ system. He had a decent season hitting last year, but he does need to work on making more and better contact at the plate.
Really, you want more pitchers? Left-handed reliever Riley Martin is someone who could end up on some of those prospect lists by year’s end. Martin struck out 120 batters in 82.2 innings between Myrtle Beach and South Bend last year. He just needs to cut down the walks a bit.
Right-handed reliever Michael McAvene was solid in the South Bend pen last year after he recovered from Tommy John surgery. Right-hander Jake Reindl battled injuries all last season, but he put up a 1.65 ERA over the 16⅓ innings he did pitch in Myrtle Beach and South Bend. Right-hander Chris Kachmar only managed to pitch 8⅔ innings last year as well.
Right-handers Walker Powell, Hunter Bigge and Ben Hecht return to Tennessee this year along with left-handers Dalton Stambaugh and Bailey Horn. Righty Cayne Ueckert returns to Tennessee after a poor year with Iowa last year.
Most minor league teams carry three catchers and I don’t want to slight Caleb Knight, who had a .376 OBP in 38 games with South Bend last year.
I feel a little bad for not including switch-hitting corner infielder BJ Murray Jr. among the top prospects. Murray hit .286/.410/.429 in 95 games for Myrtle Beach and South Bend last year. He also played in all four games for Great Britain in the recently-completed World Baseball Classic.
Although it is easy to get their names confused, shortstop Luis Vazquez and third baseman Luis Verdugo are quite different. Vazquez was a 14th-round pick of the Cubs back in 2017. He’s one of the best defensive shortstops in the Cubs system, but his lack of hitting means this is the fourth straight season that he’s going to spend some time in Tennessee. (Not counting 2020, of course) Verdugo is more offense than defense. He had a solid .352 OBP in 107 games in South Bend last year, but he needs to show more power (he hit five home runs) if he’s going to make the majors as a third baseman.
Left-handed hitting first baseman Bryce Ball is returning to Tennessee after hitting .265/.357/.405 with 11 home runs in 131 games for the Smokies. He needs to make more contact and hit more home runs. (That’s genius-level analysis.)
Right-handed hitting first baseman Nelson Maldonado tore up Double-A last year, hitting .359 with seven home runs in just 39 games. That got him promoted to Triple-A where he struggled. He’s back and fighting for another crack at Iowa.
Middle infielder Andy Weber is back in Tennessee after hitting .300 here last year, albeit with just four home runs and 17 total extra-base hits in 76 games.
Joining Crow-Armstrong and Cassie in the outfield is Cole Roederer. Roederer was once a reasonably well-regarded prospect, but he’s struggled with injuries in his career. He’s back with Tennessee after hitting just .243 last year, albeit with eight home runs in 53 games.
Jordan Nwogu is someone who always seems on the verge of breaking through and becoming a top prospect. He hit .265 with 15 home runs last year for South Bend in 88 games. Like a lot of power hitters in the minors, making more contact will be the key to his next promotion.
Speedster and defensive specialist Zach Davis is back for his fourth season with the Smokies.