Team Update: Tennessee Smokies Still Developing Despite Troubles

Five months ago, Teddy Eley and I profiled all the Cubs affiliates for the 2016 season. Teddy did a wonderful job previewing the Tennessee Smokies, a team that was supposed to contend for a Southern League title with a roster that had won back-to-back championships at Kane County and Myrtle Beach. None of that happened. Between injuries, an bullpen implosion, and players who underperformed, it’s been a disappointing season for Manager Mark Johnson and the Smokies. With a second half record of 17-21 (6 games back) and only 33 games remaining, the odds of making the postseason are not in the Smokies’ favor.

Despite those issues, there are some positives that should help the Cubs strengthen the system in Iowa and possibly Chicago in the next two years. My expectations are that the following players will be going from Tennessee to Iowa in 2017. While most profile as bench or utility players, you never know what can happen when given a chance.

Jen-Ho Tseng looks more like the pitcher he was in 2014 at Kane County than the one at Myrtle Beach  in 2015. He is using his curveball and changeup more this year rather than working on his fastball, which was a focus last year. His off-speed stuff is excellent and it’ll be interesting to see how it plays at Iowa next year. I often wonder if he should add a fourth pitch to enhance his starter profile.

Chesny Young hit over .400 in April before dropping all the way into the .270’s over the next three months. Somewhere in the middle of July he figured it out, adjusted, and is now closing in on .300. He has played all four infield positions the past two years but has been spending most of his time at short and third in 2017.

Bijan Rademacher was just promoted to Iowa on Wednesday. Good for him. He is hitting almost .320 and has been on a tear since the middle of June. He is a good defender who can play all three outfield spots and has an outstanding arm. He has started to show the propensity for power this year with 9 home runs so far. Right now, he profiles as a fourth outfielder.

Victor Caratini has been hitting for a high average for the first time as a part of the Cubs system. The fact that he is a switch hitter and has a potential for power means that he is a valuable asset at a premium position. For the year, he only has 5 homers, but most have come in the second half. I think when Miguel Montero’s contract is up, you should see Caratini in Chicago as a backup to Willson Contreras.

Brad Markey got off to a great start and has been doing his best to maintain an ERA under 3.00 all summer long. I don’t know if he profiles as a back-end starter or a reliever just yet, but he is an intriguing arm who attacks the strike zone. He has given up quite a few home runs this year, though most have been solo shots.

David Garner had a dreadful start to the year and I don’t really know how he stayed at AA. However, patience has been rewarded as he had a great July and is carrying it over into August. I’m pretty sure he’s going to end up in Iowa at the beginning of next year. A 95+ mph fastball will get you a long way in any system. If he can command it, it may get him to Chicago.

Question Marks

Ian Happ hit over .600 over his first week at AA Tennessee. Then in July, he only hit .222. He’s off to a good start in August and that solid plate approach has always there. I don’t know if he begins next year at AAA. He could, but I don’t think he has a number of at-bats the Cubs want him to have at AA. I think the Cubs will err on the side of caution to begin 2017, but Happ should be in Iowa by midseason.

Duane Underwood has had his season derailed by a couple injuries and it looks like he will return to AA Tennessee in 2017. The question for me is, whether he will be a starter or a reliever. If he goes to the pen to avoid the wear and tear of being a starter, the 95-98 mph fastball we saw this year could spike to 100, easily. Imagine the back of the pen with him, Edwards, Rondon, and Strop late next year. The problems are staying healthy and commanding his pitches down in the zone.

Trey Martin had a pretty good July (.286) that really complemented his outstanding defense. I think it if he has another good month in August, we might see him in Des Moines next spring. If he does not close the season on a high note, he will likely be back in Tennessee to start in 2017. I see the former as the most likely scenario.

James Farris has fluctuated from month to month but he is much more aggressive now than he was at the beginning of the year. 2017 will be a big test for him. I can see him being a 6th/7th inning guy in the future.

Promotions won’t leave the cupboard bare in Kodak, as the players moving up from Myrtle Beach — the excellent starting rotation, upgraded bullpen, a few bats that have some pop and speed — should actually make the Smokies more athletic than they have been in 2016.

The reason I picked all of these players to go to Iowa is because of their performance at Tennessee this season. Their talent will help strengthen the AAA roster and may provide relief and depth for the major league club. For me, Happ is the key. Everything revolves around his placement and development.

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