Expectations for the Tennessee Smokies were very, very high coming into this season. The roster was filled with 17 players who had won back-to-back titles at Kane County and Myrtle Beach, including top pitching prospects Duane Underwood, Corey Black, Josh Conway, Brad Markey, and Jen-Ho Tseng. In addition, there were several position players on MLB.com’s Top 30 prospect list: Jeimer Candelario, Billy McKinney, Victor Caratini, Jacob Hannemann, and Mark Zagunis. Manager Mark Johnson, who guided both teams to the championships, also came to Tennessee with the players.
Heading into the last week of the first half, the Smokies were in fourth place at 27-36 and had been eliminated from the playoff race. They are 4-6 in their last ten and have been free-falling since the middle of May. How can a team with so much talent drop so much?
If you look at the stats, it’s really hard to understand. The Smokies are in second place in the Southern League in hitting with a team average of .255. They’ve scored 255 runs and given up 255 runs, yet they are over nine games under .500. They are fifth out of ten in team ERA at 3.69. This should be, at worst, a .500 team. Sure, they have suffered through some injuries, but what team hasn’t. They have also lost Zagunis, Black, and Candelario to promotion, but that’s part of being a minor league affiliate.
So what needs to happen in the second half in order for the Smokies to make another playoff run?
1. Blackburn, Markey, Tseng, and Skulina need to maintain the excellence they displayed in the first half. Blackburn was a breakout performer, making 12 starts with a 2.40 ERA. Markey was a bit better at 2.33 but also has the propensity to give up home runs. Tseng looked very good in his return to action this week, going 5 IP with no runs and 1 walk with 4 K’s.
2. The bullpen needs to step up. They lost Gerardo Concepcion to Iowa and Andury Acevedo to injury. Stephen Perakslis was used a starter at Iowa. Michael Jensen was released and Starling Peralta was off a bit. David Garner (6.59) and Josh Conway (6.17) could not have had worse ERA’s in May. However, things look like they are beginning to stabilize. Jose Rosario, Dave Berg, and James Farris came up from Myrtle Beach and have improved the pen with stalwart Jose Paniagua (1.05 ERA). Now that Corey Black and his 8 saves have gone to Iowa, others will have to fill in. As a staff, they only had 14 saves in the first half.
3. This team is filled with potential MLB hitters, but they should be scoring more runs. Looking at the box scores, they often get as many hits as their opposition lately, yet they are losing. Some more timely production could make a big difference.
Key Players to Make These Things Happen
Cael Brockmeyer is a great defensive catcher who handles the staff well. At 6-5, he gives a very low target and calls a good game. Not only will Brockmeyer help the starting rotation, but he could help ease the transition of Farris and Rosario to AA. He’ll likely push Victory Caratini (see below) to 1B more often.
Duane Underwood needs to get it together. Yes, he is throwing 95-97, but his ERA is well over 5 and climbing. Conversely, his changeup is much improved. Yet, he has given up 51 hits and 22 walks in just 41.2 innings. He’s leaving the ball up in the zone and a WHIP of 1.75 is not sustainable no matter how fast he throws. Whether the issue is pitch selection or command, he has what it takes and just needs to figure it out.
Chesny Young had a great April by hitting .402, which led to him being named the Cubs Minor League Player of the Month. May, however, was not been so kind. He hit .241 for the month and is currently at .205 for the June. He has been the top hitter in the organization the last year and a half and just needs to get back to that.
Billy McKinney is recovering nicely from his broken kneecap and his batting average has gone .206/.287/.278 on a monthly basis this season. Hopefully the power will develop soon.
Bijan Rademacher was on fire in April, but, like Young, he has not hit much since. The April/May/June batting average has gone .351/.222/.131. Ouch!
Victor Caratini has had somewhat of a breakout year. Currently at .293 for the year, he had an outstanding May (.313) and he’s having a better June at (.333). If there’s a concern, it’s that the switch-hitting catcher has yet to hit a homer this year.
Stephen Bruno, Jacob Hannemann, and Carlos Penalver are all under .250. Hannemann has shown flashes of what he can do at the plate, he just is not consistent. Trey Martin, Daniel Lockhart, David Bote, and Cael Brockmeyer have all come up from Myrtle Beach within the past two weeks. They provide more defense than offense at this point, but it’ll be interesting to see whether they’re able to duplicate success at the new level.
I think the Smokies have the starting pitching to make a run in the second half for the Southern League playoffs. The defense is very solid and the bullpen looks to be much improved, even Garner and Conway have yet to allow a run June. Farris, Rosario, and Berg should complement Paniagua. I think the pen’s reconstruction can get them several more wins in the second half. It might end up being the biggest key to the second half.
McKinney and Caratini are primed for big campaigns, but the Smokies are going to need more runs driven from the rest of the roster. Minor league teams always have a lot of moving parts, and that’s at least as true of the Smokies as for teams that have come before them. If they can get all the disparate pieces of this team moving in concert, however, they could really make some noise.