The Smokies have been the surprise affiliate of the year. They are much better than I thought they would be. And to be honest, there’s still lots of room for them to get better fairly easily.

Current record: 12-11

As a team, the Smokies are currently third in OPS in the Southern League and also third when it comes to team ERA, which I found surprising 

Early on, the strength of the team has been the top of the lineup with Darius Hill, Chris Morel, Nelson Velasquez, and Bryce Ball: Now Chase Strumpf and Andy Weber seem to be warming up a little bit. That’s a pretty long and deep lineup and that doesn’t include Nelson Maldonado who was already promoted to Iowa.

What I like most about this offense is that I can put a lot of crooked numbers on the board in a hurry. I also like the fact that Morel is off to a good start and that sort of takes the pressure off of him for the first half of the year. I also like the fact that Velazquez is just hitting bombs still. The fact that he had eight in April in just three weeks is astounding. Ball looks to be much improved with two strikes now and Darius Hill picked up where he left off last year and that’s just spraying the ball all over the ballpark and getting on base anyway he can.

As for the rest of this lineup, I’ll be interested to see if Luis Vazquez and Bryce Windham can get it going at the plate along with Yonathan Perlaza. One who has is Levi Jordan who is hitting .400 since coming down from Iowa and is now seeing regular ABs.

As for the pitching…

Aside from one start, Cam Sanders has been outstanding on the mound and so has Riley Thompson, albeit in a limited starting role. Anderson Espinoza and Ryan Jensen have been serviceable so far but haven’t been throwing as well as they can or should be. Maybe that will come when things warm up and they get stretched out a little bit.

The biggest surprise of the rotation has been the blossoming of Javier Assad as a starter. He made the North Side Bound’s April All-Star team with the ERA of 2.29. We will see how he does in May as he looks to be in much better physical shape than in years past.

When it comes to the bullpen, reliever Brandon Hughes was a shutdown arm who has since been promoted to Iowa. The rest of the pen has had its ups and downs. Blake Whitney has had a roller coaster season so far and is in an upswing right now. Scott Kobos went on the seven day IL and Danis Correa had a bumpy first couple of weeks but seems to be settling in because he’s been throwing up or 90s heat. Eury Ramos seems to be the most reliable right-handed arm in the pen that they have right now with a 1.13 ERA so far.

Lefty Bryan Hudson has looked good for most of the year except for one outing and he’s been closing out games with regularity for a few weeks now. In addition, he is missing a lot of bats with 18 Ks in 13 innings. 

Newcomer Kyle Johnson got off to a rough start but seems to have found his groove as well. The same is true for newcomer Dalton Stambaugh.

For manager Michael Ryan and pitching coach Jamie Vermilyea, developing this pitching staff is figuring out what everyone’s role is going to be and how their stuff plays at this level.

As for the rest of this month, Velazquez, Hill, Morel, Sanders, and Hudson will be making their case to get to Iowa by June. They are not far off. The question is if there are any spots waiting for them in Des Moines this month?