The 2021 season brought mixed blessings for the Tennessee Smokies, who had one of the worst records in the Southern League at 46-63 as they were decimated by injuries to top prospects Miguel Amaya and Brailyn Márquez. But things started cooking when Brennen Davis figured out some things in late June to form a potent one-two punch with Nelson Maldonado.
Third baseman Chase Strumpf also was at Tennessee and became one of the system’s better hitters in August after struggling out of the gate. The Smokies saw Nelson Velázquez explode in August as well, so that was fun. Ben Leeper, Ethan Roberts, and Manuel Rodrìguez were all outstanding in the bullpen, then Cayne Ueckert and Brandon Hughes also showed some potential after they came over from South Bend.
Despite all those individual performances, the team could never really get anything going in terms of wins and losses. More importantly, injuries and a COVID outbreak messed with the development tracks of several players. They’ll be trying to find solid footing behind manager Michael Ryan, who enters his third season in the Cubs system. Originally hired to be the Smokies manager in 2020, Ryan spent last year at South Bend and is now back in Tennessee.
C – Bryce Windham, Tim Susnara, Harrison Wenson
1B – Bryce Ball
2B – Delvin Zinn, Carlos Sepulveda
SS – Luis Vazquez
3B – Strumpf
OF – Velázquez, Darius Hill, Bradlee Beasley, Yonathan Perlaza, DJ Artis
DH – Cam Balego
SP – Anderson Espinoza, Jensen, Chris Clarke, Scott Kobos, Riley Thompson
RP – Brandon Hughes, Burl Carraway, Wyatt Short, Eury Ramos, Ben Hecht, Kyle Johnson, Bryan King, Jack Patterson
The Smokies lineup is really going to depend a lot on how many guys the big league Cubs stash at Iowa for depth. We’re likely to see a lot of players repeat this level for that very reason, and I would not be surprised to see only a few prospects from South Bend come up. Here are a few players to keep an eye on as they look to take the next step.
Velázquez could be one of those who stays at Double-A, which might surprise a lot of folks after his success in the Arizona Fall League. He also put up a slash line of .290/.358/.571/.939 with eight homers and 27 RBI during his month with Tennessee, but it was still just a month. This year is all about proving that late surge wasn’t a fluke.
Strumpf should be one of the most productive hitters at Tennessee this year after COVID pretty much shut down his season after just 213 at-bats there last year. Strumpf showed that he was an excellent defender at third, where his instincts and reaction time make him better than he was at second.
Chase Strumpf with a two run jack pic.twitter.com/mctGZggmio
— Todd ⚾️🐻🦌 (@CubsCentral08) August 6, 2021
Jensen should also be back to anchor the rotation after an outstanding second half that saw him earn Cubs Pitcher of the Month honors in July. He arrived in Tennessee in August and did fairly well over four starts, then went to the Arizona Fall League to work on the slider. That did not go well. so it’ll be interesting to see what he is throwing once the season begins.
Kobos was initially going to be used as a starter but was moved to the bullpen last year after COVID forced him to get a late start. The young lefty who pitched at an unprecedented four levels last summer could be given an opportunity to stretch out again, though that hasn’t been the case in camp to this point.
Hughes is a lefty reliever who developed a slider that turned out to be a vicious pitch for him in the second half. He will probably head to Iowa at some point in May or June if he gets off to a good start.
This is a good development by Brandon Hughes. Nice little slider. The hitter did not stand a chance pic.twitter.com/tdUBFtZoBK
— Todd ⚾️🐻🦌 (@CubsCentral08) July 5, 2021
Chris Morel was great defensively in 2021, but things did not go well at the plate as he basically skipped High-A after being at the alternate site in 2020. A freakish talent, he just needs to figure out how to be a little less aggressive while still maintaining his bat speed. His instincts work well in the field, but they need to improve when hitting.
Carraway had an up-and-down season in 2021, his first as a pro. He was outstanding in July as he did not allow a run and he got promoted to Tennessee in August. He began working on a slider to go with his fastball-curve combo and that’s all he threw in instructs. If he can continue to get good results with the breaking ball, it’s going to be hard to keep down a left-handed reliever that throws in the upper 90s. The only issue is being able to throw strikes.
Burl Carraway breaking out the slider down at instructs
(From Burl’s IG) pic.twitter.com/FbFUEt6HmW
— Greg Huss (@OutOfTheVines) October 10, 2021
Beasley has a little pop, some speed, he can play all three outfield positions, and he knows how to work a count at the plate. Injuries hampered him last year and he’s my sleeper player if he can stay healthy in 2022.
Perlaza broke out to lead the system in RBI as he started to tap into his power quite a bit in the second half. If he can pick up his development where he left off, his development is going to be fun to watch.
Zinn and Vazquez are outstanding defenders and have unique physical talents that separate them from the rest of their prospect brethren. They just need to hit if they want to make it to the next level.
When the rosters are released, I’ll be looking at who all is going to join Jensen in the rotation and who is going to be catching, which remains a concern for me.