Nestled just east of Knoxville, Tennessee is the small town of Kodak. It is home to the Tennessee Smokies and named for the Mountains to the southeast along the North Carolina and Tennessee border. The team itself has been in one league or another for the better part of one hundred years. Since 1972, the team has been in the AA Southern League.
From 1980 to 2002, the then-Knoxville based team was a part of the Blue Jays organization and called itself the Knoxville Jays. In 1993 the team changed its name to the Smokies and took the Tennessee moniker. After the Jays ended their affiliation in 2002, the town hosted Cardinals and Diamondbacks AA teams.
Since 2007, Kodak, Tennessee has been affiliated with the Chicago Cubs as their AA franchise. The partnership has been beneficial to both sides. The franchise installed a new playing service at Smokies Park in 2014 and extended their affiliation with the Cubs through 2018. Both parties come across as extremely happy with the facilities, and, most importantly, how the players develop.
Managed by Buddy Bailey, the Smokies currently have 9 of the Cubs’ top 30 prospects on their roster. It was 10 until Carl Edwards, Jr. was promoted earlier this week. At 27-23, the Smokies are in second place in the Southern League’s North Division, right behind the Chattanooga Lookouts.
Top 30 Hitting Prospects: Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora, Jake Hannemann, Bijan Rademacher, Billy McKinney, and Dan Vogelbach
Top 30 Pitching Prospects: Pierce Johnson, Corey Black, and Rob Zastryzny
The Rest of the Team
The great thing about this team is that even though not everyone is a top prospect, there are plenty of very good ballplayers in Kodak. Many of them are ready for the next level, some even more so than the top prospects in the organization.
Wilson Contreras, a catcher and sometimes 3B, is having his best year in the organization. He is hitting .315 with 4 HRs, 25 RBIs, and an OPS of .885 – third to Schwarber and Vogelbach. He uses his quick hands at the plate to get through the zone and his athleticism behind the plate to help aid the pitcher.
Stephen Bruno just hits. I was surprised to see him back in Tennessee, but Baez and Alcantara block his way in Iowa. After a .295 April, he batted only .174 in May and his average has slipped to .243. But when the weather gets a little warmer, he gets a little hotter.
Ivan Pineyro, Frank Batista, and Felix Pena are 3/5 of the starting rotation patched together this year to pick up the slack when Black, Johnson, and Zastryzny went on the DL all at the same time. Pena, who was very good at Daytona in 2014, continues to rise through the system one year at a time. His 3.57 ERA doesn’t show how well he has pitched this year. He has struck out 60 in 58 innings while averaging 6 innings a start.
Batista has a small frame and is a converted closer and his year has been amazing. In 9 starts, the 5’10” and 170 pound righty has a 1.51 ERA with 43 K’s. Opponents are only hitting .186 against him while he has a WHIP of 0.93. Ivan Pineyro has a 3.36 ERA in 52.1 innings and 9 starts has the Cubs thinking that last year’s injury plagued campaign is a thing of the past. Lefty Jeffery Antigua threw six spot starts and will head back to the pen when Johnson returns. He has put up a solid 2.92 ERA after struggling at Iowa in small stints.
Michael Jensen and the stellar PJ Francescon headline the bullpen with help from Starling Peralta, though relief corps on the whole has been an area of concern. Myrtle Beach’s Tayler Scott joined the Smokies Saturday, pitching three innings of relief and picking up the win. Meanwhile, Fernando Cruz went down to Myrtle Beach to join former teammate Zach Cates who was sent down earlier in the year.
If this team can get healthy, it can go on a run. They just need to get their bats in order, the starters healthy, and the bullpen solidified. They are only 3 games out of first place now and have around 20+ games to make up that deficit before the first half ends.
Promotions and Predicaments
The ultimate goal of every prospect is to get to the majors and I can see several players from Tennessee getting promoted in the second half very easily.
It all starts with Schwarber. The dilemma for the organization is that the bat is ready for AAA. In fact, it could be ready for the majors this year. The problem lies in the position Schwarber is going to play in Iowa or the big leagues – C or LF? They can’t keep him in AA to work on his catching if it retards the bat, which needs to be challenged. Then again, the defense also has to be there. It is an interesting dilemma.
Vogelbach’s bat is ready for the next level too, and there is a spot at Iowa he could slide ride into at 1B. Contreras is also possibly ready, but if Schwarber goes to Iowa, Contreras gets to catch more at Tennessee and the Cubs aren’t sending two catchers to Iowa. Billy McKinney, at only 20, is not in any rush to get to AAA. Almora’s, Rademacher’s, and Hannemann’s bats just are not ready for AAA; not one of them is hitting above .250.
With the poor starting pitching at Iowa, Pierce Johnson should not spend much time at Tennessee after having logged 91.2 innings at AA last year. He will be coming off the DL sometime in the next two weeks and 3-4 good starts should be enough to get him to Des Moines by the Fourth of July. Ivan Pineyro is in the same boat as Johnson since he already has been in AA a year now.
The paradox with Corey Black is not whether he is ready for AAA. He is close. I can see him in Des Moines in the middle of July. But will it be as a reliever or a starter? The reason I ask this question is that Black is a bit undersized yet he has not shown any signs of elbow or shoulder trouble in his Cubs tenure. Long term, I envision him as a reliever because he has the fastball and peripherals to advance and do well as a reliever, just not sure the Cubs should remove him as a starter unless there is a reason to do so (eg: an injury).
PJ Francescon is the wild card; an ERA of 0.89 as a reliever is quite eye-catching. With the need for relievers in the organization, Francescon and Jensen (1.31 ERA) might get a look at Iowa to make their case for Chicago. If both players leave, it would decimate the pen at Tennessee. Then again, there are plenty of arms at Myrtle Beach who would love to move to AA.
The Rule 5 Catch-22
When the 2015 season ends, several players at Tennessee will be in a quandary due to their eligibility for the Rule 5 Draft. In order to avoid that, the big league Cubs would have to place them on the 40-man roster. Here are the eligible players:
There is no way all of them get a spot on the 40-man. I could see 5 of them getting a spot – Black, Johnson, and Pineyro for sure. Maybe Francescon and Jensen get a spot, too, or end up drafted like former Smokie Andrew McKirahan, now in the majors with the Braves.
For Vogelbach, if he is available in the Rule 5 draft, he is getting picked. Either he will be added to the 40-man or he will be traded this summer rather than let him slip away for nothing in the Rule 5. If the National League votes to add the DH at the winter meetings, Vogelbach’s future as a Cub becomes much brighter and he will be one step closer to Chicago.
Over the last ten years, I have always thought than when a prospect reaches AA, it’s just a matter of time. The way the minors are now configured, AAA has just become an extension of the 40-man roster, essentially making it an unofficial 50-man squad. While the lower levels may be a test of a player’s abilities, AA has become the proving ground for whether or not the prospect is truly ready.