There were times when the Tennessee Smokies (68-70) looked like world-beaters who would let nothing stand in their way. At too many other times, however, they looked flaccid and lifeless. They had stretches of brilliance and inconsistency throughout the season, which kind of sounds like the big-league club.
In the first half, they competed for a playoff spot right up to the last week before they were beaten down in a head-to-head series clash with first place Chattanooga. In the second half, they hung around for a while again until a series against Montgomery blew them out of the playoff picture in mid-August.
Still, there was a lot to write home about.
Charcer Burks, David Bote, Jason Vosler, and Ian Rice set the Southern League on fire with their bats in the first half of the season. Starting pitchers Trevor Clifton and Jen-Ho Tseng were brilliant, and Zach Hedges earned a promotion to AAA Iowa. Daury Torrez and James Pugliese were almost unhittable out of the bullpen.
The bats went quiet for most of June and July before some of them rebounded in August. However, first baseman/outfielder Yasiel Balaguert was one of the best hitters in the Cubs’ system the second half of the year., hitting .285 with 10 dingers and 37 RBI.
The bullpen was dominant in July and kept the Smokies in the race, but the starting pitching was an issue as Trevor Clifton had his worst half as a pro. Preston Morrison also struggled and Mark Johnson had trouble putting together a starting staff. Rainouts led to double-headers and lots of relievers wound up having to start games, which further taxed the bullpen.
Hedges put together a beautiful August, posting a 2.67 ERA in 6 starts after returning from Iowa when Tseng was promoted. Jake Stinnett was injured most of the year but returned in August and was brilliant in relief, going 14.2 innings with 14 strikeouts and a 0.61 ERA for the month..
Avg – David Bote .271
HR – Jason Vosler – 21
RBI – Jason Vosler – 81
OBP – Charcer Burks – .370
SBs – Charcer Burks – 16
ERA – Jen-Ho Tseng – 2.99
IP – Duane Underwood – 138
WHIP – Jen-Ho Tseng – 2.99
Ks – Duane Underwood – 98
Saves – Craig Brooks – 7
Going to the next level
While it may have been a disappointing season if you measured it by the record, there were several prospects who showed glimpses of serious potential moving forward. Most of the position players should move on to AAA in 2018. Along with Ian Rice, I think Trey Martin is one prospect to keep an eye on in Iowa. He is like a deer in the outfield and can track down almost anything and his bat was much improved as well. He was off to an extremely hot start before a hamstring injury set him back two months.
When it comes to pitching, I think Hedges will get a second chance at Iowa. And depending upon his spring training performance, Clifton could either return to Tennessee or he could earn a promotion to Iowa. Morrison might be destined for the bullpen. Duane Underwood pitched healthy this year and the Cubs have to be encouraged that he got in over 130+ innings of work. Adbert Alzolay seemed to run out of juice in August after a dominant run the first four months of the year, making only three starts on the month. I tend to think his assignment for 2018 also depends on his spring training.
One Smokie to know for 2018
Eddy Martinez had a decent second half for Myrtle Beach, hitting .274 with 7 homers, and finished second in RBI on the Pelicans. I don’t think we can underestimate the effect of missing two years and leaving Cuba took on his game play. Now, with two seasons under his belt, I think he will do well against the elite competition of the Southern League. I have always thought AA was the biggest test of a prospect’s ability and talent, so I’m very interested to see how Martinez handles the jump.