Tennessee Smokies Preview – Lots of Solid Prospects with Breakout or Bounceback Potential

The Tennessee Smokies will have a lot of big names looking to make big moves in 2018. There will be several prospects who were at one time ranked in the top 10 on many lists and have since faded. While most of them are pitchers, there are still a few position players who could make some noise this summer in AA.

Here is a look at some of the individual prospects who will be moving through Kodak, TN this summer.

Adbert Alzolay got his first invite to spring training after being placed on the 40-man roster at the end of last year. 2017 was a massive breakout year as the young right-hander showed he could maintain mid-90’s velocity through six or seven innings. This year, he is trying to make his way to Iowa and possibly Chicago by mid-to-late summer, perhaps in a relief role.

Trevor Clifton had a brilliant first half but fell off the tracks and had a disastrous second half last year at AA. He will be back and motivated. The key is to stay within himself and not to overthrow. When he does that, he comes across his body a bit too much and the ball tends to tail and rise.

Card made from a photo by Jen Nevius

Thomas Hatch also spent the first couple weeks of spring training with the majorleague team picking up on how they do everything. The 2016 third round pick looks to be fully recovered from the UCL sprain he suffered in 2015, but the Cubs have handled him with kid gloves to an extent. I expect those gloves to come off this year and we can see what Hatch is capable of.

Eddy Martinez is my pick to explode this year. I think it just took a couple years for him to acclimate to American baseball. Once Eloy Jimenez left, Martinez was on his own and he had an outstanding second half at Myrtle Beach in 2017. I think he picks up where he left off and, like Ian Happ, Martinez might get better as he continues to move up each level as pitchers work more and more around the plate.

Zack Short is armed with an outstanding approach at the plate and a bat that has some pop to it, which made him of the pleasant surprises last summer at both South Bend and Myrtle Beach. He should do the same this year Tennessee, as I expect him to be there all year.

Jesse Hodges is an unsung bat who has a great approach, can hit for power, and can play his position well. He just does it quietly. Through most of June and July last year, he was one of the best hitters in the system and yet very few people speak of his ability. That may change in 2018.

Ian Rice is ready for AAA. The problem is there isn’t really a spot for him at Iowa yet. As a result, he’s probably going to play some first base and a little bit of third at Tennessee to begin the year. He played both in the Arizona Fall League, where he showed he can hit for average in addition to power (17 home runs in AA).

PJ Higgins is the best defensive catcher in the system and would be fine as a backup at the major league level. In his first year as part of the Cubs organization, he showed a solid approach at the plate. That disappeared last year but his defense did not. I think his bat will rebound in the Southern League, which is a little bit more hitter friendly.

Dakota Mekkes didn’t allow a run for almost two months, so I was a bit stunned that he was not promoted from Myrtle Beach to Tennessee in July. He dominated hitters at South Bend and Myrtle Beach with an ERA under 1.00 for most of the year. With a deceptive delivery, the 6-foot-7 right-hander is one arm I could see in Chicago later this summer.

Michael Rucker and Duncan Robinson – They’re not really tied together, but the two right-handers from the 2016 draft have shown some versatility in their first four years as Cubs. Both started the year as relievers in South Bend and both dominated as starters in the second half at Myrtle Beach. Both are strike-throwing machines who also can adapt quickly when faced with new challenges.

I’m looking forward to see how these players do the first couple months of the year. While technically not stars, they have enough cachet to draw a little attention from those who aren’t necessarily the more hardcore prospect hounds.

The jump to AA is generally viewed as the most difficult in the minors, so if these players can make it at Tennessee the odds are good for them to make it in AAA.

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