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”.
Tags: Andrew Ely, Billy McKinney, Brad Markey, Carlos Penalver, Charcer Burks, Chesny Young, David Bote, Donnie Dewees, Ian Happ, Jason Vosler, Jeimer Candelario, Kevin Cornelius, Mark Johnson, Mark Zagunis, Mick Gillispie, Rob Zastryzny, Todd Glaesmann, Tom U, Trevor Clifton, Victor Caratini, Yasiel Balaguert