In the first half of the 2023 season, the Tennessee Smokies fell just short of securing a playoff berth for the postseason. They finished two games behind Chattanooga after blowing a lead with a week to go. This half, the Smokies are running away with the division only 20 games into the half. They’re playing a loose and exciting game of baseball under new manager Kevin Garber. As well, they are back to playing with regular baseballs rather than the pre-tacked ones
Heading into the year, the Smokies looked like they were going to be the team to watch in the system this year. They were loaded with talent, including the Cubs’ number one prospect in Pete Crow-Armstrong. They also had Owen Caissie on board as well as top pitching Prospects Jordan Wicks and Ben Brown. Well, Brown didn’t stay too long as he went to Iowa after four starts, and Wicks left at the end of May. Porter Hodge, another starter, has since moved to the bullpen and is thriving in that role. As a result, the Smokies have had to rebuild a rotation in a very short amount of time and it seems to be working just fine.
It’s a weird combination of guys that are now taking the bump every five days. DJ Herz was injured for the first month of the year and he had his up and downs as a starter at Tennessee after returning. Then in June, it was a very good month for him as he made the NSB June All-Star Team.
Walker Powell, who began the year in the bullpen, moved back into the rotation, and has been an innings eater. His ERA could be better, but he’s getting the ball to the bullpen, which has been lights out this summer.
Kohl Franklin has been been outstanding for most of this year. He was near dominant for South Bend to start the year and then struggled a little bit coming to Tennessee but has since taken off. His July ERA in 3 starts is 0.00. He’s gone back to using the change up more and that’s turned into a devastating pitch.
Manny Espinoza missed the last part of 2022 and the first month and a half of 2023. He showed up in South Bend and I saw him pitch one game against Beloit in May. And I had to do double takes the whole night because he was throwing 93 to 95 miles an hour. I was stunned because he used to be an 89 to 91 guy. I talked to South Bend skipper Lance Rymel about how that performance was one of the most dominating games I’ve seen in a couple years at that level. He agreed. However, in Tennessee, he still has some adjusting to do as he’s been a little susceptible to the big inning.
Chris Kachmar spent most of 2021 in South Bend and was injured late in the year and had to undergo Tommy John surgery. He returned a little bit last year at the end of the year. He’s had a lot of success in the bullpen piggybacking and at other times he has struggled. But he’s flashing several pitches from a steep arm angle and he’s not getting hit much. His ERA has been holding pretty steady at 3.5-ish and he’s still getting stretched out since moving from the bullpen to the rotation.
Speaking of the bullpen, half of these guys should be in Iowa. Danis Correa and Blake Whitney have been strong for the most part all year. Luke Little has flashed from time to time that he can be a dominant reliever. Zac Leigh is finally healthy and has gotten over some bumps in returning to said health. I mentioned Porter Hodge above and newcomer Carlos Guzman has been doing much better the past 6 to7 weeks. And Ben Hecht has looked like the Ben Hecht of old times. And, after being near dominant at South Bend all year, Joe Nahas looks to be getting his feet under him after a couple of rough outings.
This has been kind of a topsy-turvy year for the pitching staff, but the squad of hitters never believes it is out of any game. I’ve seen them make several comebacks this year and it’s nothing for them to come back from for five or six runs. Most of these guys like PCA, BJ Murray, Owen Caissie, and Pablo Aliendo were the core of last year’s South Bend championship daily lineup. Add in a robust and reborn Cole Roederer and the highly productive Bradlee Beesley, and this team is getting on base and driving in runs at a crazy pace. This is not the team we thought would be dominant in the first half, this is a new amalgamation of guys that seem to be feeding off each other at all times and it’s extremely fun to watch.
Going forward, the only concern is that not everybody’s going to be around for the playoffs. PCA and Haydn McGeary are at the front of the line to get promoted to Iowa. I could also throw in a couple relievers like Correa or Little. But most of the squad is going to be present to try and win a Southern League championship.. They may have a couple of guys from South Bend come up but it’s unclear just exactly who that might be at this point.
It’s going to be fun watching them thunder away at teams the next six weeks.