Recapping the Tennessee Smokies: The Pitching Wave Takes Shape, Useful Bats Emerge

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Recapping the Tennessee Smokies: The Pitching Wave Takes Shape, Useful Bats Emerge

Chicago Cubs

Tennessee was one of the older teams in the Southern League this year, but they were not one of the better ones. The Smokies managed to play their way into first half title contention down the stretch, but could not finish it off. In the second half they were never really in it. And when we look at the stats, it is easy to see why. Their pitching was right about league average. Their hitting was a little below average. They were third in the league in home runs and second in walks, but finished third from last in runs scored.

That said, the Smokies did give us at least one breakout prospect this season, not to mention a few other hitters well worth remembering when 2019 rolls around. More importantly, by the end of the Double A season I think the shape of the upcoming pitching wave was very much coming into focus. Most of the help coming out of the farm system over the next year or two will be on the pitching side of things; much of that help finished last season in Double A.

Let’s start with a look at the bats. Corner infielder Jason Vosler and catcher Ian Rice were the best hitters on this team (by wRC+) at 132 and 130 respectively. Vosler we talked about a little in the Iowa article earlier. Rice, like Vosler, is a high-walk, fairly-high-strikeout slugger. Vosler had the better ISO (.238 to .151), but Rice beat him on walk rate (15.6% to 13.1%). In both case, their future success is probably going to depend on drawing enough walks to offset a lowish batting average, and making enough hard contact to keep the power numbers elevated. Both should be in for pretty good seasons in Iowa next year.

If it is possible for a true shortstop with a wRC+ of 123 and 17 homers in Double A to be underrated, then Zack Short is underrated. The problem is the strikeout rate (26.0%), but his 15.6% walk rate led to an on base percentage of .356. Short needs to clean some of the swing and miss out of his game, but his power is legitimate. I did not expect Ian Happ’s power to hold up in the majors, and I did not expect David Bote’s power to hold up in the majors, so I’m not making the same mistake here. Short’s power is probably going to be just fine in the majors, and his defense should be good enough for him to stick at short on a regular basis. The question is whether or not he can cut back on the strikeouts enough to hold down a job. For now I like him more as a utility guy, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to be wrong. Keep a close eye on this guy in Iowa next year.

And the same goes for utility infielder Trent Giambrone, who is finishing up a monster AFL campaign right now. Giambrone didn’t strike out quite as much as Short at AA this year (19.5%), and didn’t walk quite as much (10.1%), but he paired his 17 homers with 26 steals. The steals were a new element to his professional game (his previous high was 7), but it has turned Giambrone from just an undersized second baseman into one of the better speed/power threats in Cubs’ organization. With those steals, I think a lot of fans will want to imagine him as a future leadoff hitter, but the OBP of .333 says that would be a mistake. Like Short, for now I have Giambrone penciled in as a future utility guy. Also like Short, I can’t wait to see what he does in Iowa next season.

Congratulations to Trent Giambrone for being named The Southern League's Player of the Week! https://www.milb.com/tennessee/news/trent-giambrone-named-southern-league-player-of-the-week/c-284997026

Posted by Tennessee Smokies on Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Then we have the pitchers. The Cubs have struggled to develop pitching in the past, thanks to a mix of drafting and developmental problems, but there is good reason to believe that those issues are a thing of the past. Now we’re simply waiting for that wave of pitching to work its way up through the minors and wash into Wrigley. As of 2018, we can definitely say that the front of the pitching wave has reached Tennessee.

Leading the pack in performance was RHP Keegan Thompson. Thompson, drafted in the third round in 2017, made it to Double A before the end of June in his first full season as a professional. You will not find many pitchers anywhere in the upper minors who have moved faster. He was rocked in his first Double A start, but over the span of his next eight games, he allowed just five runs. In other words, between June 30 and August 11, he was one of the most dominant pitchers in minor league baseball – again, despite being in AA in his first full professional season. His last four starts weren’t great, but I strongly suspect that had more to do with fatigue than his ability. We’ll see what happens in 2019, but I suspect by mid-summer he could be rivaling Adbert Alzolay for the title of Cubs’ best upper minors pitching prospect.

Other names who passed through AA and are well worth remembering include Duncan Robinson, a 6’6″ right hander who posted a 3.20 FIP in 130.2 innings of work, and Matt Swarmer, a 6’5″ righty who almost matched Robinson’s FIP (3.29). Both Robinson and Swarmer have very low walk rates (1.52 and 1.63 BB/9 respectively), and both strike out plenty (7.65 and 8.84 K/9). When you consider that Cubs pitching prospects tend to see an uptick in strikeout rate just before or when they reach the majors, I don’t think we should be shocked to see either of these turn into low walk, strikeout an inning type rotation options. Michael Rucker (8.01 K/9, 2.58 BB/9) isn’t too far out of that class, although he does tend to give up a little more hard contact than Robinson or Swarmer.

Swarmer, by the way, took home some hardware this year:

Congratulations to Smokies own, Matt Swarmer, for being named Chicago Cubs 2018 Minor League Pitcher of the Year!…

Posted by Tennessee Smokies on Tuesday, September 18, 2018

In the bullpen, Wyatt Short looks like the next good Cubs reliever in the making. He’ll have to compete for closing time in Iowa with the likes of Dillon Maples, Dakota Mekkes, and maybe even Allen Webster, but don’t lose track of Short. He’s proven to be an effective late inning lefty at every one of his professional stops, and I think his combo of good strikeout rate and good groundball rate will probably carry him right into the majors.

Speaking of lefties, Justin Steele will get a quick mention here, since he did wind up with 10 innings in Double A in 2018. He’s emerging as one of the best left-handed pitchers in the farm system, but we’ll talk much more about Steele when we recap Myrtle Beach.

I’m still keeping a seat warm on the Jake Stinnett bandwagon, but I’m not even going to bother trying to talk you into joining me. I still like Stinnett and his 9.99 K/9 as a reliever, but you’re going to say “Yeah, and what about his meh walk rate of 3.86 BB/9 and his scary HR/9 of 1.40 that lead to a FIP of 4.57,” so let’s just move on.

To Thomas Hatch. I left him off the mid-season Top 40 after he had been very forgettable all season for the Smokies, and he promptly pitched the best month of his season in August (ERA 2.51). He’ll be back in consideration for the 2019 Top 40, but I suspect he’ll have an uphill fight. None of his peripheral numbers in 2018 stood out. There is nothing I can point to and say “He can succeed in the majors because of this.” Hopefully he put something together in the final month of the season that he can carry into 2019 and re-emerge as a solid three or four starting pitcher option for the Cubs, but based on his 2018 body of work, I’m not expecting it. Still, he does have some pretty darn good stuff, and we should continue to pay attention to his starts at least through the first part of the season.

Even though this is the leading edge of the pitching wave, we’re not seeing much in the way of likely pitching stardom. Not yet. Those guys are coming, though, and some of them could be in Tennessee for at least part of next season. Pitching will likely remain the key story for the Smokies in 2019. With a little luck, that pitching might be good enough to push Tennessee back into contention. All in all, though, I think 2019 is going look pretty similar to 2018.



Author: Luke Blaize

Luke Blaize is the Minor League Editor at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @ltblaize.