Feature photo of PCA and ONKC by Rich Biesterfeld
Last year’s version of the Smokies finished with a regular season record of 71-66, clinching the Southern League North Division in the second half of the season thanks to the Rocket City Trash Pandas finishing with the best record in both the first and second half of the year. Tennessee then beat those foul-smelling raccoons in the semifinals of the playoffs before falling in the Southern League championship series to the Pensacola Blue Wahoos.
I’ve said it all offseason. This Double-A starting rotation is the best collection of opening day arms that I’ve seen in the system since I began covering the Cubs minor leagues a decade ago. Ryan Jensen and Ben Brown are already 40-man roster members and have some of the nastiest stuff in the minors. With each of them, but Jensen especially, it is only a matter of if they are starters long-term. From the perspective of watchability this season, you should enjoy every last second of them taking the mound every 5th or 6th day.
Speaking of dudes with nasty stuff, how about the presumptive 5th starter in this rotation having the consensus grossest offerings in the entire system? Daniel Palencia’s riding four-seam fastball and wipeout slider should translate perfectly as he continues to climb the ladder. If he can continue to hone in on his command and control then watch out, we could be looking at a Cubs minor league pitcher of the year award from Danny P.
So who is left? How about Jordan Wicks, my highest ranked pitching prospect and a guy that very well could begin next year in the Chicago rotation and DJ Herz, the former Cubs MiLB pitcher of the year? The rotation is truly loaded from 1 to 5 and that’s not to mention Luis Devers who looks to be destined for the IL to begin the year and Walker Powell, who will find himself in a piggyback role after leading the organization in WHIP a year ago.
If it werent’t for a combination of a stacked Tennessee rotation and a loaded Iowa bullpen, we would probably be talking more about these Smokie relievers. The crew is led by the man with the sweet hair and even better slider, Jake Reindl. He’ll likely be closing games down with lefty Bailey Horn logging the other important innings late in the game. Each of those guys along with former D2 stadnout Riley Martin and another slider-throwing extraordinaire Zac Leigh got plenty of love in our reliever predictions article here at NSB and will be the quartet leading the charge.
A few other names worth pointing out in this strong relief group are Michael McAvene, a guy who has been successful when healthy, Carlos Guzman who was recently acquired for Zack McKinstry, and Danis Correa who would have been one of the better relievers in Iowa had he been assigned there.
I’ll lump the catchers into this group here and lead off with them so I can mention how exciting the catching tandem of Miguel Amaya and Pablo Aliendo will be. We’ve been waiting a long time for a healthy Miggy to take the field and show off his defensive skills and newly refined and pretty swing. I can’t imagine he will be here long if he hits the ground running as smoothly as we all expect. Aliendo, along with being in a heated competition with Ethan Hearn for most fun player in the system, reminds me quite a bit of a younger Amaya, with developing receiving skills to go along with a strong throwing arm. He continues to show off more pop at the plate as he fills out.
Elsewhere on the infield, you have a bunch of dudes that will be shifted around quite a bit. Bryce Ball will only be playing first base and DH but the other five guys will play multiple positions fairly frequently. BJ Murray will see time at first base and third base. Chase Strumpf will be at third and second base. Luis Verdugo might get some serious run at shortstop this year in addition to his stellar defense at third. Luis Vazquez is arguably the best infield defender in the organization outside of guys named Dansby and Nico and he’ll get most of his playing time at shortstop in addition to some second base work if the Cubs want to see more of Verdugo at short. The final guy is the most utility-like of them all with Andy Weber playing second, short, and third.
Pete Crow-Armstrong… ever heard of him? The Cubs top prospect will be manning CF in Tennessee on a daily basis and surely will have us out of our seats every single night at some miraculous feat. But interestingly enough, he won’t be the youngest prospect in the Kodak outfield. That distinction is held by Owen Caissie, a guy I really like to break out this year. ONKC’s experience with Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic was super valuable and everyone you talk to loves the way he approaches the game. If that isn’t enough for your outfield needs, how about we throw in another stud with breakout potential in Jordan Nwogu? Keep a close eye on how Nwogu performs in the early going as his previous two seasons got stronger and stronger as the summer wore on. If he gets off to a hot start, who knows what kind of numbers he could put up by season’s end.
That insane trio will be given off days by the sweetest swing in the system: Cole Roederer. This is a big year ahead for The California Kid. He had a “normal” offseason for the first time in a while, is back healthy and ready for a full season, and should get fairly consistent playing time this year in tennessee.
OUTLOOK FOR 2023
I’ve been criticized plenty for being unapologetically positive in regards to Cubs prospects and if you feel I give the system the benefit of the doubt too often, please ignore those feelings for this one time. Truly, this has potential to be a special team in 2023 and while wins and losses in the minor leagues don’t always match up with assignments of top prospects, this team feels different where there are top prospects and an intruiging level of depth and good-to-great prospects in every part of this Tennessee Smokies team. Enjoy this squad, folks.
Love all your work over here at North Side Bound guys. The Tennessee roster, especially starting pitching and outfield is absolutely loaded. Keep up the great work!
Thanks for supporting, Kevin! Tennessee is gonna be worth tuning in for nearly every single night!