A while back, we looked at the Iowa Cubs as a team that could help the Cubs a lot more in 2012 than they had in the past. The next level down, the class AA Tennessee Smokes, looks to have some interesting prospects as well. It doesn't have the top end talent that Iowa does, but there are quite a few players from this team that project as major league ballplayers. However, many will need to prove themselves at this level and make progress this season. Let's take a quick glance at their probable roster...
C: Blake Lalli - Not really a prospect as he'll be 28 in May, Lalli is a solid hitter who will likely be blocked by Welington Castillo in the short term. Michael Brenly is also a candidate after spending the last two years at Daytona, although he really struggled last season. Both players have invites to spring training this year.
1B: Justin Bour - A fringe prospect, Bour's hopes had to take a hit with the acquistion of the younger, more highly regarded Anthony Rizzo. He'll be 24 in May, which is a tad old for a AA player, but he has good power. He his 23 HRs in the FSL, historically a tough pitcher's league.
2B: Logan Watkins -A great athlete with excellent mental makeup, Watkins is still refining his skills on the field. He's fast and he'll take a walk, making him a sleeper leadoff candidate down the road. He hit .281/.352/.404 as a 22 year old in Daytona. He is rated the 23rd best Cubs prospect by Baseball America.
SS: Junior Lake - The AZL star will probably repeat AA where he played half a season there and put up a .248/.300/.380 line. He held his own as one of the youngest players in the league, but this year he'll have to improve on his approach if he is to hit the advanced pitchers at this level. Lake is the 8th best prospect in the Cubs organization.
3B: Matt Cerda - One of my favorite sleepers, Cerda is a good athlete with the best plate discipline in the system. Cerda put up a .283/.394/.357. His versatility and OBP skills give him a shot at making it, but his lack of power pegs him as a utility guy.
LF: Evan Crawford - The Cubs AA team will have one of the fastest OFs in organized baseball this year. Crawford stole 32 bases last year and put up a respectable line of .307/.362/.401 at Daytona, but some scouts doubt his plate skills will translate at the upper levels. Crawford will have to prove himself this season.
CF: Matt Szczur - The Cubs top prospect at the AA level at #3 overall, Szczur is still learning the game. Last year he made progress on defense and added some power, but like a lot of players on this list, he still has a lot to improve. Next step for Szczur is improving his plate discipline and utilizing his tremendous speed better.
RF: Jae-Hoon Ha - A great defensive outfielder with one of the best throwing arms in the system, Ha is the 18th best Cubs prospect but draws some mixed reviews as well. His biggest detractors point to his lack of plate discipline and lack of power for a corner OF'er. His supporters like his solid tools across the board. Ha hit .283/.320/.403 at AA, but because he's still just 21, he'll probably repeat the year in AA. Probably a very good 4th outfielder at this point, but if he can improve the power/OBP numbers that could change.
Others: Michael Burgess, OF - a true 3 outcome guy (walk, strikeout, HR) with decent tools, Burgess has spent 3 years at high Class A ball and he needs a break through year. He'll rotate with the other 3 until one of them gets promoted.
SP: Trey McNutt - The Cubs best pitching prospect (#4 overall) with a 98 mph fastball and a sharp breaking ball, McNutt struggled with finger blisters and a lack of command all season. AAA is loaded with veteran pitchers so he'll get a second chance to master AA.
SP: Dae Un Rhee - The Cubs took a calculated risk by leaving Rhee exposed for the Rule 5 Draft but it paid off. They saved themselves a roster spot and still have their 11th best prospect. Rhee looked like a rising star before injuries sidelined him. He looked like his stuff and command was all the way back by late last season -- he's a guy to watch right now.
SP-Dallas Beeler - A favorite sleeper of mine, I was pleased to see that BA also thought highly of him, ranking him as the Cubs #12 prospect. He has a good fastball in the 90-93 mph range with excellent control and command. Now fully healthy from TJ surgery, he's another SP to watch this season.
SP-Eric Jokisch - The lefty had perhaps the best year results-wise of any Cubs pitcher (10-3, 3.09 ERA), Jokisch has 5th starter stuff but is able to use it well. He's a little like AAA pitcher Chris Rusin but he's a couple of years younger.
SP- Brooks Raley - Another lefty, like McNutt he may have to repeat AA. He didn't dominate and the the Cubs acquired some SP depth that they will probably stash at AAA. He's a great athlete (he led off and played CF in college) who likely projects as a bottom of the rotation type at best.
Robert Whitenack - He'd obviously make the rotation if he were healthy but that may not happen until the 2nd half of this season at the earliest. He ranks as the Cubs 19th best prospect.
Zach Rosscup - Another finesse lefty, he was acquired in the Matt Garza swap.
Jeffry Antigua - A lefty who's fallen off the prospect charts, he finished strong last season and bears watching. Both he and Rosscup could repeat Daytona so they can continue starting.
Kevin Rhoderick - An intriguing arm with perhaps the best slider in the system. That's saying a lot when you have guys like Rafael Dolis and John Gaub in the picture. He'd be a lock to start in AAA, but command issues might cause him to repeat AA.
Marcus Hatley - The Cubs thought enough of him to send him to the AZ Fall League where he promptly got shelled. He excelled at Daytona with a 1.76 ERA but struggled on a promotion to Tennessee with a 4.66 ERA. Like Rhoderick, he averaged a strikeout per inning, but control needs work.
Aaron Kurcz - A slightly built pitcher at 6'0, 175 lbs, he has swung back and forth from SP to RP, but his destiny is as a bullpen arm. He has good velocity, able to hit the mid 90s and his control is better than the first two on this list. He had a 3.28 ERA and struck out 91 batters in just 82 innings at Daytona.