The 2016 Tennessee Smokies project to be a bit of an odd team. There are only two position players (Mark Zagunis and Victor Caratini) on the Baseball America Top 30 that I think are likely to spend the entire season in Double A (although there are quite a few more who may start or finish the season there), and yet the core of these Smokies will be the team that won the Carolina League with Myrtle Beach in 2015.
And that raises the question: if the ’15 Pelicans were good enough to win their league, why aren’t the prospective ’16 Smokies’ prospects getting more attention from the prospect press? Part of the answer is the sheer depth of the Cubs’ system. There is only so much digital ink to spend on the Cubs, and there are a lot of prospects worth spilling it on. Some good candidates are going to overlooked. Another part is that the ’15 Pelicans won in no small part due to a very good pitching staff, and that pitching staff has been getting quite a bit of prospect attention.
But the third part, and I think the biggest part, is that the Smokies this summer are likely to have a roster filled with players who are, to a great deal, still unknown quantities. That means there will be some players who do not fair as well as we might hope, but it also means that there could be a number of breakout seasons. And some of those breakouts could be significant. Maybe not ‘Willson Contreras in 2015’ significant, but ‘we should consider him a possible major league bench guy at the least’ significant.
[adinserter block=”1″]For example, consider Jason Vosler. Not only did Baseball America not rank Vosler, they flat didn’t mention him in the 2016 Handbook at all. Drafted in 2014 in the 16th round, Vosler got off to a slow start in South Bend. Once he hit Myrtle Beach, though, the third baseman produced a walk rate of 16.6%, and strikeout rate of 17.2%, a line of .244/.389/.441, and hit six homers in 157 trips to the plate. Age wise (22 to start the 2016 season) he is right where he should be for a Double A player. Currently relatively unknown, Vosler is a strong candidate to turn 2016 into his breakout campaign.
Thanks to his elite contact abilities, Chesny Young has received a fair bit of coverage for his impressive High A campaign, but like Vosler his stock could take quite a jump if he performs well in Double A. Defensively versatile, at the plate Young is a pure contact hitter. He walked more than the struck out for the Pelicans and finished with an excellent line of .321/.394/.388. There is plenty of room for debate about the long-term future for a right-handed hitting, lower power, contact based utility guy on a Major League bench, and it is quite possible that Young will be the subject of those debates by season’s end.
Cael Brockmeyer is also well worth watching. A surprisingly good catcher given his massive 6’5″, 235 lb frame, Brockmeyer played at pretty much every available level in 2015. Literally. He spent at least five games in South Bend, Myrtle Beach, Tennessee, Iowa, and Mesa of the Arizona Fall League (and is the only prospect I can remember to hit all five of those levels in a single season). That much movement makes it tough to pin down where he will start 2016, but I suspect he’ll spend at least a few months in Double A. In 2015 he started to unlock some of his expected power, and he maintained pretty good plate discipline numbers for a slugger in the process. He’ll face increased scrutiny on his proficiency behind the plate as he moves up the system, but if the bat stays productive the Cubs could be looking at breakout Double A catching prospects in consecutive years.
Then again, they might be so fortunate anyway thanks to Victor Caratini. Acquired from the Braves, this switch hitter was the non-Schwarber catching prospect to watch when 2015 began. He was quickly pushed out of the spotlight by Contreras, but don’t be surprised if he pushes his way right back in again. As the primary catcher for the Pelicans, Caratini quietly posted a line of .257/.342/.372 with a walk rate of 10.8% and a strikeout rate of 16.6%. Defensively, he’s one of the better backstops in the system. Caratini does get some respect in prospecting circles, so his breakout, if it happens, won’t be completely unexpected.
Jacob Hannemann took a non-traditional path to professional baseball that has slowed his development, but he has the tools to evolve into a quality prospect if he can harness them for baseball. He should return to Tennessee for a second crack at Double A pitching (and a second round of highlight reel catches in the outfield). At the plate is where he needs to improve the most; the defense is excellent already.
[adinserter block=”2″]On the pitching side, there are plenty of quality prospects who will get most of the attention early in the season. With names like Underwood, Blackburn, Torrez, and Tseng in the rotation, it may not seem like there is much room left for a breakout starter to emerge. That said, Brad Markey and Jonathan Martinez are both quality prospects with breakout potential. In the case of Markey, in particular, that breakout may already be well underway.
Later in the season we may add Jeremy Null to that list. Null dominated Low A alongside Ryan Williams to start the season, but did not rocket up the system quite as fast. Null may return to Myrtle Beach to start the year, but keep a close eye on how he handles Double A when he eventually reaches that level.
Bullpen arm Jasvir Rakkar is generally overlooked when listing the Cubs’ pitching prospects, but his performance in High A was quite good in 2015. A repeat at the next level could set him up for a spring training invite in 2017. David Berg, an effective submariner, currently inspires a range of opinions. His 2016 campaign may tell us for sure whether or not he has a major league future.
That’s a lot of breakout potential. Keep in mind that I’m only looking at the fringe and breakout guys in this article. There are some very good prospects, such as that talented group of starters and outfielder Mark Zagunis, who will be playing in Tennessee as well.
With that mix of known talent and a large number of under the radar types, the 2016 Smokies should be a really interesting team to follow. A lot of these players already have two championships on their resume (2014 Midwest League, 2015 Carolina League), so it could be a fairly exciting team as well. Don’t sleep on the Smokies.