The Quiet Competence of the Tennessee Smokies

Deep in the off-season, there was a murmur of anticipation for the Tennessee Smokies in 2017. The core of the team had unexpectedly won the Mills Cup, the Carolina League championship the previous year. There was also some uncertainty over whether top prospect Ian Happ would be back following a less than stellar second half to 2016, along with the added firepower of corner infielder Kevin Cornelius and outfielder Todd Glaesmann.

However, that glimmer seemed to die as winter progressed to spring. Outfielder and offensive catalyst Donnie Dewees was traded, Happ put things together in spring training and was assigned to Triple-A Iowa, and injuries took Cornelius and Glaesmann away from the Smokies. Suddenly, a potent looking offense to support a very promising pitching appeared to evaporate. As Tennessee entered the 2017 minor league season, optimism retreated into concern over the prospect of some trying times for Smokies fans.

But a funny thing happened while some started counting the Smokies out for 2017, they started winning. Currently, Tennessee has the second best record in the Southern League, one and a half games out of first place in the North Division. This is despite ranking third to last in team ERA (3.71) and dead last in strikeouts (195). On the other side, the Smokies’ pitching staff is third in WHIP (1.21). The biggest surprise so far has been the performance of the offense. Tennessee is third in on-base percentage (.338), batting average (.252), slugging (.394), and OPS (.731) while being the toughest team to strike out (only 208 in 30 games).

Mick Gillispie, voice of the Tennessee Smokies, was contacted by this reporter to get some of his insights as to the team’s success.

“They are winning the old fashioned way, pitching and defense” said Gillispie. “This is a fun bunch to watch because they are smart and baseball savvy” Gillispie stated, “they have excellent fundamentals and make the opposition earn their runs”. Some further statistics bear that notion out, as Tennessee has the second fewest errors (18) in the league, and are third in team fielding (.981) and caught stealing percentage (38%). “(Manager) Mark Johnson also learned well last year. He now knows what it takes to win at this level.”

This is in stark contrast to the 2016 Smokies that had some star power in Jeimer Candelario, Victor Caratini, Ian Happ, Billy McKinney, Chesny Young, Mark Zagunis, and Rob Zastryzny. According to Gillispie “Tennessee did not play like a team last year…they were not able to execute in the field and were not cohesive in the clubhouse”. Another point that Gillispie conceded about last year was first base, where Tennessee has eleven players lining up over the course of the season. “They now have a big target (in Yasiel Balaguert), and having someone consistently helps. I have never seen (shortstop) Carlos Penalver play more relaxed.”

Gillispie somewhat discounted the championship the previous season, saying “we have seen championship teams here before and it hasn’t translated to this level. Hopefully, that will change with this bunch.” What Gillispie thinks could be different is how the team plays together, competes and makes things tough for their opponents, and mostly, they know how to win. “It’s all about how seriously you take your job” said Gillispe “this team plays the type of game that they need to play in the majors.”

When asked about the individual players that have impressed him, Gillispie did not hesitate in mentioning outfielder Charcer Burks foremost. “He’s a top defender, is very intelligent, and sets the table for the offense” Gillispie stated. Gillispie also likes what infielder David Bote brings to the team. “Bote makes all the plays, he is great in the clubhouse and is a leader, he can be a starter in the majors.” Gillispie also feels that starting pitcher Trevor Clifton is a “big time prospect who will be a starter for the Cubs in the future”. Other players that have impress Gillispie are infielder Andrew Ely, third baseman Jason Vosler, and Penalver. “I like the way they show up to work” stated Gillispie.

As for the rest of the season, Gillispie sees the Smokies having difficulty in scoring runs and needing to rely on timely hitting to offset a lack of power.

With time for one last question, this reporter had to ask Gillispie about something all Cubs fans are curious about: What’s up with Brad Markey’s sideburns? After the laughter subsided, Gillispie said that Markey is like “a fish in water” coming out of the bullpen. “A scout told me that Markey is a big league reliever. He’s got a great slider, and he knows what he wants to do with it. Last year, Markey was an All-Star for the first time, so he’s really proving himself.”

But, the sideburns Mick?

“Like me, Markey is a Baltimore guy” explained Gillispie, “so I have to stick up for him”.

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  • Once again, thanks to Mick Gillispie for taking the time to talk Smokies baseball!

  • Forgot to mention Daury Torrez with the 0.52 ERA.

  • In reply to Hagsag:

    We talked a little about the bullpen, especially in contrast to the shut-down one the Smokies had in 2013. Mick likes Markey, as stated, along with Torres and McNeil. I just couldn't find a way to fit it in the story.

  • The comment about a lack of cohesion in the clubhouse last year surprised me. Doesn't seem like the "Cubs Way." Can you elaborate on that at all...is it just a result of a changing roster due to promotions and demotions? Or clubhouse cancers?

  • In reply to KRS1334:

    As far as what Mick had to say, there was a lack of cohesion among the group, and they didn't work well as a team. This can be considered somewhat of a surprise because the core of that team played in three straight league championships, winning the last two in that run. As the Kane County Cougars in 2014, they had the best record in minor league baseball.

    There are a lot of things I have heard through my sources, but nothing "on the record". John does not like to delve into that, so I will pass on elaborating. The one thing I will say, they were a lot of unhappy campers when roster assignments were handed out last spring.

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    Tom, tell us about Ian Rice if you can. Not the bat, but rather his defense. Will it play in the majors? Because if he can't stick at catcher, he probably isn't a prospect.....right?

  • In reply to Zonk:

    Not Tom, but I've been watching as many Smokies games as I can on MiLB.com. He's good enough receiver, but his footwork and arm are well below average. In fact, Gillespie commented on the same thing about 3 games ago.

    The Cubs developmental staff consistently surprises me with what they're able to accomplish so I wouldn't put it passed them to improve him in this area (assuming Rice's work ethic is strong enough and I have no reason to believe it's not).

    His offensive production could be enough to justify him at first base. But that's the only other position he could play. He lacks the speed, arm and athleticism for any other spot on the field.

  • In reply to Zonk:

    Zonk, thank you for your patience, and Quedub made a very good summary.

    The only things I can add are the staff at South Bend last year told me that they believed in rice as a catcher. They were a little boxed in because Rice had a shoulder injury that limited him defensively, but he was still able to bat. That's why he spent most of his time at DH. Whether that is continuing to bother him, or he is still recovering, is uncertain.

    If Rice cannot continue to improve defensively, that may hurt his stock within the Cubs organization, but he can still be considered a prospect by others. It all depends on what a team expects out of a player. A good example is Welington Castillo. The Cubs didn't like his defense, but Castillo has earned a pretty good living as a starting catcher in the major leagues.

  • In reply to Zonk:

    By the way, Ian Rice was named Southern League Player of the Week.

  • Mark's comment about Bote having starter's ability at the major league level is breaking news.

    Good job, Tom.

  • In reply to Quedub:

    Thank you!

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