Tennessee Smokies 2016 Preview: Which Starters will Emerge?

We now jump from Des Moines to Kodak, Tennessee, home of the forestial Smokies Park. Last year’s squad was a fun one for Smokies fans, as the likes of Willson Contreras, Billy McKinney, Kyle Schwarber, Jeimer Candelario and more called Kodak home for much of the season. Fans of the team should be just as excited this year for a roster should include top Cubs prospects such as Duane Underwood Jr., Dan Vogelbach, Chesny Young, Mark Zagunis, and Jen-Ho Tseng, with reinforcements coming mid-way through the season. Ian Happ and Gleyber Torres both have a very good chance of ending up on the Smokies roster come September.

The most intriguing storyline for the coming season is whether Mark Johnson can lead his core group of players to another championship. The former White Sox catcher joined the Cubs organization in 2011 as the manager of the Boise Hawks, and, similar to a prospect rising in rank, he has jumped all the way to Tennessee. Along the way he won the Midwest League title with the Kane County Cougars and the Mills Cup with the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. Is a three-peat in store?

Can Mark Johnson lead the Smokies to a 3-peat?
Can Mark Johnson lead the Smokies to a 3-peat?

With Johnson will be a group of pitchers that have followed him up the ladder, moving up one affiliate each year. This includes Underwood and Tseng in addition to Tyler Skulina, Daury Torrez, Paul Blackburn. These pitchers, along with Brad Markey, Jonathan Martinez, and Rob Zastrysny will be fighting for spots in a loaded rotation. Each of these pitchers has a very good chance of making the majors, and if one of them performs admirably with the Smokies, they should be standing on Wrigley’s doorstep come 2017.

The Smokies will also have a deep and talented bullpen, led by David Berg and David Garner. Both have the chance to help out the Cubs relief corps by the end of the year if they excel at this level. But that’s not all. Corey Black, an enigmatic arm who has the stuff to pitch in the back end of the bullpen, should be at Tennessee as well. The pen will also include James Pugliese, Jasvir Rakkar, Tyler Ihrig, Juan Carlos Paniagua, James Farris, and Josh Conway, all pitchers who performed well with the Pelicans.

On the positional side, the team isn’t as stacked but there is some cause for excitement. Dan Vogelbach should be occupying first base due to some injury troubles, and he definitely has a major league bat. The catcher situation should be a combination between Victor Caratini, Cael Brockmeyer, and Ben Carhart. Although I am the low man on Caratini, he could convert me to a believer if his bat can stay hot like it did at the end of last year. The infield includes some organizational players as well as Chesny Young, who was thought to be one of the same until a breakout season last year. If Young can continue to put the barrel on the ball, he has a real major league future as a utility man in front of him.

The outfield includes athletic specimens such as Trey Martin, Shawon Dunston Jr, Jake Hannemann, and Mark Zagunis, the only one of those players who has proven to possess an advanced plate approach. Dunston could have a real future if can stay healthy for a whole season, but he’s really going to have to acclimate himself well at the plate in the Southern League in order for him to reach that potential.

Once again, the lineup could get a huge boost in offense once Torres and Happ arrive, but until then the depth of the pitching staff is going to have to keep them in the race. It’s certainly going to be an enjoyable team to watch, and if you have the chance you should attend a game down at Smokies Park if just for the unique atmosphere. No matter what day you go, there is a strong chance a major league arm will be starting that game.

Starters prediction: Duane Underwood Jr., Tyler Skulina, Daury Torrez, Jen-Ho Tseng, Brad Markey

Sleeper pick: Tyler Skulina

I believe if fully healthy Skulina will have a breakout year in AA. If healthy, his velocity will sit 91-95 and he’ll show a plus slider when commanding it. If the changeup develops, more a back-end starter could emerge; if not, he should fit in the middle of a bullpen with ease.

Courtesy of Todd, here is his prediction of the Smokies Roster come April:

C: Victor Caratini, Cael Brockmeyer, Ben Carhart

1B: Dan Vogelbach, Jacob Rogers

2B: Danny Lockhart SS: Carlos Penalver, Bryant Flete

3B: Chesny Young, Jason Vosler

OF: Shawon Dunston Jr, Jake Hannemann, Trey Martin, Mark Zagunis, Kevin Brown

SP: Duane Underwood Jr, Tyler Skulina, Jonathan Martinez, Daury Torrez, Jen-Ho Tseng, Paul Blackburn, Brad Markey, and Rob Zastryzny

RP: Corey Black, Jasvir Rakkar, David Berg, James Pugliese, Tyler Ihrig, Juan Carlos Paniagua , David Garner, James Farris, Josh Conway, Cole Brocker, Miguel Mejia, and Jose Rosario

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