Good morning to everyone! Today is the next installment previewing the 2016 minor league season. Please note that the previews are based on current roster assignments and anticipated spring training success. All assignments, both as to position and level, are subject to change pending the completion of spring training.
Double-A – Tennessee Smokies
Last season was nothing short of a train wreck in eastern Tennessee, as the Smokies finished last in the first half, second to last in the remaining part of the season, and with the second worst record overall in the Southern League. This seemed to be incredulous for a core that won two straight league championships and played in the league championship three years ago.
But from the onset of the 2016 season, it appeared as if the front office was dead set on breaking up that core of players. They released the player considered the clubhouse leader, left the team’s two best starting pitchers back in Advanced-A, essentially demoted two top prospects having monster springs, and added a bunch of over-aged prospects that never seemed to mesh. Even manager Mark Johnson, who stayed with this bunch through their incredible run, seemed at a loss for what could be done.
This season, it looks like it will be a make-up year for Tennessee, as the roster will be stocked with the most talent the Smokies’ fans have seen since 2011.
Outfield – One of the biggest questions in spring training this year is “will he or won’t he?” concerning last year’s Minor League Player of the Year Eloy Jimenez. For now, we are going with Jimenez being assigned to Advanced-A Myrtle Beach, but that can always change. However, that does not mean that the Smokies will be lacking in this area. Patrolling left field will be 2016 minor league Gold Glover Charcer Burks. The 22 year old Burks saw a 64 point bump in his second half batting average last year, and he has an interesting blend of power and speed. This past off-season, the Cubs signed Todd Glaesmann to a minor league contract. The former third round pick was selected by the Rays and has battled injuries recently. At 6-foot-4 and 225-pounds, the 25 year old has power to spare and is also considered an above average defender. Holding down right field most likely will be Jeffrey Baez. In a similar fashion to Burks, Baez came on late last season and stole 38 bases. Built like an NFL running back, the 23 year old has one of the most feared throwing arms in minor league baseball. Backing all three starters will be another minor league Gold Glove winner, Trey Martin. The 24 year old Martin is as smooth as silk in the outfield but is still developing offensively. The Cubs have also signed speedy 25 year old Brandon Cummins from the Frontier League.
First Base – If anyone has seen any of the broadcasts from spring training, they will know that Yasiel Balaguert is one massive human being. Following a couple of midseason moves last year that took some high profile players away from the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, the 24 year old stepped up and became a leader on the squad. Balaguert put the team on his broad shoulders and help carry them to their second straight Carolina League title by finishing second in RBI and fourth in home runs. A former outfielder, Balaguert is still a work in progress at first base but getting better defensively.
Second Base – Perhaps it may be only temporary, but it looks as if top prospect Ian Happ will be returning to Tennessee. While the former first round pick is having a great spring, the 22 year old struggled both in his call-up to Double-A last season and in the Arizona Fall League. Happ also needs to smooth out his defense at second base, where he has to climb over several people in order to get his shot there in the majors. David Bote is a great player to have behind Happ, as he is capable of playing all four infield positions as well as outfield and even pitch in emergencies. The 23 year old was another player that stepped up as a leader for Myrtle Beach in the second half, batting .351 during that stretch.
Shortstop – Carlos Penalver is one of those players that seem to have been with the Cubs “forever”, which happens when you play your first professional season at age 17. Now 22 years old, Penalver seemed more affected by the chaos that was the Smokies’ 2016 season than others. Penalver had career lows in RBI, stolen bases, and walks while seeing his fielding percentage dip. With a stronger line-up surrounding him, expect Penalver’s numbers to increase as he will be sure to play less than his 118 games. Giving Penalver a breather will be Andrew Ely. Similar to Chesny Young in that Ely was a college third baseman that now also plays shortstop and second base. However, although Ely was a Midwest League All-Star last season, he struggled a bit at the plate in the Carolina League. Because of that, the 24 year old may also see time back at Myrtle Beach depending on the middle infield situation for the Pelicans.
Third Base – A very under the radar prospect, Jason Vosler should return to Tennessee after a midseason promotion last year. The left handed hitter saw a steady increase in his offensive numbers across the board, except for home runs. A former shortstop, the 23 year old is a work in progress, but getting better, at third base. The Cubs selected Kevin Cornelius in the Rule 5 draft from the Yankees, and he comes to the system with power potential. However, the 24 year old has been nothing short of a disaster defensively at third base, so expect Cornelius to see a lot of reps at first base and DH.
Catcher – The Smokies have the makings of a dynamic catching corps, starting with 23 year old Ian Rice. Rice had a combined 15 home runs last season while a shoulder injury limited him defensively. This spring, Rice has seen all of his action at catcher and looks as if he can handle the position. Backing Rice will be veteran system catcher Cael Brockmeyer. The Cubs feel that Brockmeyer is one of the best handlers of pitchers in the organization, and are comfortable in moving him from level to level based on roster needs. At 6-foot-5, Brockmeyer is also an option at first base. With a couple of major league “cups of coffee” as a member of both the Padres and Rays, 29 year old Ali Solis brings a veteran presence to work with Tennessee’s promising pitching.
Starting Pitching – A blending of holdovers from last season’s Tennessee squad and players from league champion Myrtle Beach will give the Smokies one of the deepest pitching staffs in the Southern League, beginning with starting pitching. A good competition is building between 20016 Minor League Pitcher of the Year Trevor Clifton and former top pitching prospect Duane Underwood Jr. for the head spot in the rotation. The 21 year old Clifton is beginning to realize his vast potential and appears to be a future mid-to-top of the rotation starter. Twenty-two year old Underwood has put up some average to below average numbers the past two years after his breakout 2014 season, battling injuries along the way. The only two other pitchers that seem assured of a rotation spot at Zach Hedges and Jonathan Martinez, both returning to the Smokies after late season promotions. At 23 years old, Hedges is a ground ball pitcher that posted a 2.75 ERA between Myrtle Beach and Tennessee. Known for his pinpoint control, the 22 year old Martinez had a down season in 2016 after leading the Carolina League in ERA and WHIP the previous season. The final two spots in the rotation will be hotly contested between Jeremy Null, Preston Morrison, Jake Stinnett, and Jen-Ho Tseng. The 6-foot-7 Null regressed a bit last season after his All-Star MVP season in 2015, not joining Myrtle Beach until June due to a tired arm. Morrison is a player on the rise, as the 23 year old went 12-4 with a 2.11 ERA last season. A former second round pick, the 24 year old Stinnett is said to have a lot of ability, but has yet to put it to good use on the field. The 2014 Minor League Pitcher of the Year, the 22 year old Tseng has since struggled and may be looking at a move to the bullpen.
Relief Pitching – The depth of the starting rotation will have a spill-over effect on the bullpen, as several former starters will now vie for inning in relief. If there ever was such a thing as a “utility pitcher” James Pugliese would be a prime example. A former starter, the 24 year old Pugliese induces weak contact and has been used to close out games in the past. One of the most effective pitchers for the Smokies last season, 25 year old Brad Markey will most likely move to the Tennessee pen with no room for him up at Triple-A Iowa. Although Markey was among the Southern League leaders in ERA, he should benefit from the change. Another pitcher who has swung between starting and relieving, Tommy Thorpe adds a left-handed presence to middle relief. At 24 years old, Thorpe logged 77.2 innings for Myrtle Beach last season. New to the pen, Tyler Skulina will have to settle in and find a role. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound 25 year old has always had the build of an innings-eater, but his two pitch arsenal plays better in relief.
Much like the rotation, the closer role will be a battle between favorite Ryan McNeil and David Berg, David Garner, and Daury Torrez. Several years removed from Tommy John surgery, the 23 year old McNeil led the system in saves last season. The 23 year old side-arming Berg appeared to be rushed up to Double-A last season, and should return with more experience and confidence. Blessed with one of the nastiest breaking pitches in the Cubs minor league system, control has always evaded the 24 year old Garner. With a tailing mid-90’s fastball to accompany it, Garner can be a “lights out” pitcher when at the top of his game. Converted from a starting pitcher last season, Torrez has seen a bump up in his velocity to the mid 90’s and has an aggressive approach on the mound. Providing a left-handed option will be Jordan Minch. The 23 year old former Purdue Boilermaker was effective in limited opportunities for Myrtle Beach last year.
The pitching staff will also have pitchers such as Andury Acevedo, Gerardo Concepcion, Josh Conway, Randy McCurry, Mario Meza, Tommy Nance, Juan Paniagua, Nick Sarianides, and Michael Wagner competing for a slot.
Tags: Ali Solis, Andrew Ely, Andury Acevedo, Brad Markey, Brandon Cummins, Cael Brockmeyer, Carlos Penalver, Charcer Burks, Chesny Young, Daury Torrez, David Berg, David Bote, David Garner, Duane Underwood, Eloy Jimenez, Gerardo Concepcion, Ian Happ, Ian Rice, Jake Stinnett, James Pugliese, Jason Vosler, Jeffery Baez, Jen-Ho Tseng, Jeremy Null, Jonathan Martinez, Jordan Minch, Josh Conway, Juan Paniagua, Kevin Cornelius, Mario Meza, Mark Johnson, Michael Wagner, Nick Sarianides, Preston Morrison, Randy McCurry, Ryan McNeil, Todd Glaesmann, Tom U, Tommy Nance, Tommy Thorpe, Trevor Clifton, Trey Martin, Tyler Skulina, Yasiel Balaguert, Zach Hedges