Final Record: 58-81
I don’t think there’s any question that the word “disappointment” sums up the 2016 Tennessee Smokies season. More than two-thirds (17 of 25) of the opening day roster was part of back-to-back championships at Kane County and Myrtle Beach. Needless to say, history was not repeated in Tennessee this year. After a quick start, the Smokies’ pitching began to crumble. First, it was the bullpen, then it was the rotation.
Starters Duane Underwood and Jen-Ho Tseng were injured early and Tyler Skulina did not get it going until August. Paul Blackburn, who was later traded to Seattle, held things down for a little while with a 0.29 ERA in April. He was having his best season is a Cub before the trade.
The only consistent forces when it came to pitching were Brad Markey and Zach Hedges. Markey was with the Smokies all year long, posting a first-half ERA just under 3.00 and a second half mark that was just over 4.00. I don’t think he projects as a starter in the big leagues, but he might be more effective coming out of the pen. Hedges, meanwhile, transformed himself last winter and was promoted from Myrtle Beach mid-season. He was outstanding throughout August at Tennessee and I don’t think he needs to return. He’s earned his way to Iowa with a plus slider and low-to-mid-90’s fastball. A ground ball machine, Hedges had success when he kept his pitches down in the zone.
There were many games in May and June where the Smokies handed a lead to the bullpen only to see them squander it. Relievers Josh Conway and David Garner both had horrible Aprils and Mays. James Farris and Stephen Perakslis were two relievers who were very good in the second half of the season and should be in Iowa in 2017.
The hitting, meanwhile, wasn’t that bad. For most of the first half, the Smokies’ cumulative average was fourth in the league. The hit parade was led by would-be Southern League batting champion Chesney Young, along with Victor Caratini, Bijan Rademacher, Jeimer Candelario, and Mark Zagunis. While the quintet did not hit a lot of home runs, they sure could hit for average. At the All-Star break towards the end of June, Zagunis and Candelario were promoted to AAA Iowa while Rademacher was promoted in early August.
In their place, Ian Happ came aboard from Myrtle Beach. He hit over .600 in his first 10 days at Tennessee before cooling off in July and August. While he did hit .262 for the second half, most of that came in his first 10 days. He did wind up with eight home runs in the half, yet he only batted .222 in July and .232 in August. Even as the Cubs’ number one prospect, I think Happ returns to start at Tennessee in 2017. He needs to find a way to be more consistent at the plate. His approach is solid and he does take his walks, but he seems to have trouble squaring up the ball on a daily basis at AA. His streakiness can carry a team at times, but I think the Cubs want something that they can depend on every day.
Outfielder Billy McKinney was traded to the Yankees while outfielder Trey Martin had his best month in July hitting almost .290 before plummeting back to earth in August.
Looking Ahead to 2017:
Making room for the new guys
Last year, I proposed that the Iowa Cubs clean house after the 2015 season. For the most part, they did. I think the same is true of Tennessee after the 2016 season. With only about 6 or 7 prospects heading to Iowa, the Smokies probably should not retain those players who have spent 5, 6, or 7 years in the system. Getting to Chicago is probably not going to happen for them. However, I do think Ben Carhart and Stephan Bruno will and should remain in player/coach/mentor roles. Bruno might be one of those players who is given one more shot at making it to the show at Tennessee or Iowa. He needs to stay healthy to do it, though.
Tennessee will have a huge influx of pitching next year as the Carolina League team leaders in ERA will likely be promoted. Trevor Clifton, Preston Morrison, Jeremy Null, Erick Leal, Jake Stinnett, Ryan McNeil, Daury Torrez, Tommy Thorpe, James Pugliese, Daniel Lewis, and Jordan Minch will make the big jump to AA. It is the biggest and most difficult leap for a prospect to make in their MiLB career. As we have seen this year, some were able to make the adjustments, some were not. For many, it might take two seasons at this level before they figure it out. I personally cannot wait to see Trevor Clifton attack hitters in this league and how Preston Morrison’s wiffleball arsenal plays at this level.
Position Players Donnie Dewees, Jeffrey Baez, Daniel Spingola, Yasiel Balaguert, David Bote, Ian Rice, and maybe Charcer Burks will be on board to make the jump as well. Balaguert might be the most interesting player to watch in the bunch as he has impressive power and led the entire Cubs minor-league system in home runs (19) and RBIs (96) in 2016 while hitting exactly .300 in the second half. The problem is he has trouble with the curve. In August, this group put on hitting display as the Pelicans surged to a second-half division title.
Of course, not all of the current roster will be churned. Among the holdovers from 2016 should be Duane Underwood, Ian Happ, Dave Berg, Jason Vosler, Trey Martin, David Garner, Jonathan Martinez, Tyler Skulina, and Jake Hannemann.
Underwood and Hannemann are particularly interesting because their advancement is almost entirely dependent upon health. If they come back at full strength to start 2017, they will not be at Tennessee very long. I think Underwood can right his ship quickly. Hanneman, on the other hand, still has a lot of issues to work out. He is a plus defender and a great athlete, but he’s never really put it together at the plate at any level the past three years.
Sleeper Prospect for 2017
Jeffrey Baez is an intriguing prospect who can hit for power, has speed, and is an excellent defender. The issue thus far has been that he is also a warm weather player. He hit almost .400 in the second half at South Bend in 2015 and he waited until August 2016 to get it going at Myrtle Beach. I think if he can come out and get off to a good start in 2017, he might become a special player.
After Eloy Jimenez had such a dominant year at South Bend, I can see the Cubs taking the reins off of him next year. He will turn 20 over the winter and I think that’s a good time to just let him loose. If all goes well, he should be in Tennessee by June 1. He could be joined by guys like Oscar de la Cruz, Matt Rose, Carlos Sepulveda, Eddy Martinez, and Ryan Kellogg if things break the right way
I don’t know if any of the other players listed above have a shot of making it, but to be honest they really shouldn’t be needed right away. Sepulveda has the best chance because he has the best bat after Jimenez.
While 2016 may not have worked out the way the Smokies wanted or expected, they will have a nice foundation for 2017 with some returning players looking to improve their skills and an influx of pitching. To me, the 2016 season was about missed opportunities for the Smokies. For some of those top prospects, all is not lost. The times were tough, but one can always grow from such opportunities.