The Tennessee Smokies made the playoffs in 2022 for the first time since 2013. It had been a long drought as the Smokies had the most potent offense in the Southern League leading it in home runs and OPS.
In 2023, they’ll have some nice position players again like PCA and Owen Caissie. Another playoff run should be on the horizon in large part due to a rotation that is going to have some of the Cubs’ best pitchers in the organization. For Smokies fans, it should be a fun year to watch guys pitch in both the first half and the second half.
The Smokies should return three or four starters from last year‘s playoff team. Jordan Wicks, Ben Brown, and DJ Herz are almost sure to start off the year in Tennessee. It is unclear just exactly what the Cubs are going to do with Ryan Jensen. Recently added to the 40-man, depending on the changes Jensen makes this winter, he could start the year in Tennessee or he could make it to Iowa.
One thing that will be intriguing to see is just how much Wicks, Brown, and Herz have changed or adapted from 2022. I would not be surprised to see them each have a new pitch or adjusted their delivery in some form or fashion.
To be quite blunt, the pitcher I am looking forward to seeing the most next year in Tennessee is Daniel Palencia. We’re talking 100 mile an hour fastball and a slider that sits between 92 and 95. He struck out 98 in 75.1 innings and was flat out dominant in August after returning from an ankle injury in Peoria. The Cubs had him on a short leash last summer in order to build up arm strength and maintain said arm strength. He’s not going to have those kinds of pitch counts and Innings limitations he saw last year in South Bend.
The other two guys we could see at Tennessee in the first half include 2022 Pitcher of the Year Luis Devers and Porter Hodge. Devers is almost a sure bet to begin the year in Tennessee. He was dominant in South Bend with a 1.05 ERA in 51.1 second half innings. He does not need to go back there.
As for Hodge, his 2023 assignment is sort of tied to Jensen. If Jensen starts out the year in Iowa, that could open a spot for Hodge in Tennessee. If not, Hodge will probably start the year at South Bend and then make his way up to Tennessee, most likely in the middle of the season. Hodge struck out 51 in 40.1 innings at South Bend. I am not sure he needs much more seasoning back in Indiana.
We could also see Luke Little and Kohl Franklin appear in Double-A at any time. The young power pitchers should start the year out at South Bend and I would not be shocked to see them arrive in Kodak at a moment’s notice. Franklin basically missed two years of time and struggled early in the year but finished strong the last 6 weeks. Little missed most of 2021 and was kept on a short leash last year at Myrtle Beach and South Bend. He only pitched beyond the third inning a handful of times all year.
The second half of the year could also see a couple of guys come up from South Bend that are going to be just as good if not better than whoever is at Tennessee to begin with. I am excited to see Cade Horton pitch at South Bend in the first half along with Brandon Birdsell. Both arms are big arms that have college experience and should do well enough at South Bend in the first half to get a promotion to Tennessee in the second. For Horton, he is already armed with the upper 90s fastball and wipe out slider. He might move quickly if he is as good as advertised. In addition, both guys are getting pro instruction for the first time this winter and they could both come out better than they were in college. That would be amazing!
No matter which half you look at, the starting rotation is going to be stacked. It’s just the nature of the beast right now. From Myrtle Beach to Iowa, the Cubs are just loaded with power arms.