A Healthy Pitching Staff Makes for a Crowded Double-A Smokies Rotation

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A Healthy Pitching Staff Makes for a Crowded Double-A Smokies Rotation

Chicago Cubs

It was previously reported, and confirmed by Theo Epstein, that Nico Hoerner would get an Opening Day assignment to Double-A Tennessee. Today, the Smokies released the rest of their preliminary roster ahead of their Wednesday exhibition game against Walters State Community College (and Thursday’s season debut).

Hoerner will play his first Double-A game having taken exactly zero at-bats at the High-A level and just 15 in Low-A. However, Hoerner starred in 21 games at the Arizona Fall League and was absolutely fantastic both on and off the field in Spring Training. The Cubs have made this decision under the consult of his college coach, and it sure seems like an exciting approach (even if it’s a little aggressive). Hoerner is not being rushed for the purposes of contributing to the Major League team as soon as possible. He’s being placed at the level the Cubs believe his development is best suited.

The big surprise on the roster, to me, is Justin Steele. Not because we didn’t think he’d be here, but because we didn’t think he’d be with the team right away. Steele got off to a slow start in spring, and wasn’t fully stretched out when I left Arizona. His presence on the roster suggests that he is now, even if he’ll require a piggyback, from either Tyson Miller or Bailey Clark.

The Smokies are going with a 9-man pen, and will really lean on the versatility of their offensive players.

Here is the full group, starting with the lineup ….

Projected Lineup

  1. Nico Hoerner, SS, RH
  2. Robero Caro, CF, SH
  3. Ian Rice, DH, RH
  4. Jared Young, 1B, LH
  5. Jhonny Pereda, C, RH
  6. Eddy Martinez, RF, RH
  7. Vimael Machin, 3B, LH
  8. Charcer Burks, LF, RH
  9. Christian Donahue, 2B, LH

Rice and Burks are back for his third run with the Smokies, and surely the Cubs are hoping they get off to hot starts, eventually forcing promotions to Triple-A. Rice will likely split time between catcher, DH and first base with the Smokies. When he’s at first, Jared Young will move to left field, a position with which he needs more time to acquaint himself.

The Cubs saw tepid breakouts from Caro, Donahue and Pereda last year, and the Double-A level should show how real those are. Donahue is surely going to serve as a super-sub on this team, able to play as many as 6 positions. Pereda’s playing time will be interesting with 3 legitimate catching prospects on the roster, including Rice and P.J. Higgins.

Note that this is probably Eddy Martinez’ final chance to prove that he’s worth roster spots going forward. After showing some patience early last season, Martinez began swinging at everything, and had a .266 OBP in his final 105 games. Woof.

Projected Rotation

  1. Tom Hatch, RH
  2. Michael Rucker, RH
  3. Cory Abbott, RH
  4. Keegan Thompson, RH
  5. Justin Steele, LH

Three returnees — Hatch, Rucker, Thompson — got looks at moving up this spring, but the Iowa pitching staff was ultimately too crowded. The hope is they all build on their positive end-of-seasons from last year, and take a step forward. I’ll call out Rucker, specifically, whom I saw twice in Arizona getting a lot more swings and misses than I expected. Was that a change-up I saw that lefties were swinging through? Would make a big difference for him.

It appears that Abbott essentially went head-to-head with Lange in Spring Training for a single Tennessee roster spot, and it was Abbott that came out ahead. When I saw him in Mesa, Abbott was really good, reminding me that his stuff exists in a tunnel that hitters just don’t see well. I underranked him in the BN Prospect Rankings.

Steele will probably be kept on pitch counts or innings limits; the Cubs are going to bring him along slowly. I still think it’s possible he spends September as a live arm from the left side in the bullpen.

Projected Bullpen

  • Craig Brooks, RH
  • Bailey Clark, RH
  • Ian Clarkin, LH
  • Scott Effross, RH
  • Zach Hedges, RH
  • Tyson Miller, RH
  • Jordan Minch, LH
  • Manuel Rondon, LH
  • Wyatt Short, LH

When I look at this, I actually see the possibility of a lot of piggybacking. Clark, Clarkin, Hedges and Miller all could go 3+ innings easily, so perhaps we are looking at a bit of a piggyback here. If Miller is indeed in the bullpen, perhaps that’s a disappointment. He was fantastic in High-A last year, and I saw improvements across the board. But he’s so fastball heavy, I can understand the argument that it’s worth seeing that fastball in short relief.

There are 5 strictly short relievers here. Brooks has already proven better than this level, he just ran into a juggernaut of a Triple-A bullpen. Minch showed some good stuff this spring in big league camp, and has reportedly touched 96+ mph this spring. He stopped striking AA hitters out in the final 2 months, that will be the number to watch with him.

Projected Bench

  • P.J. Higgins, C/3B
  • Robel Garcia, IF

Yes, it’s a thin team. But Young and Donahue’s ability to go to the outfield, and Higgins’ ability to play more than catcher gives them a lot of options with just 11 players.

Quick call-out for Garcia, a minor league free agent the Cubs signed from – I’m not kidding – Italy. Garcia hasn’t played in affiliated baseball since the 2013 season, but kept working anywhere that would give him a chance. He has a little pop and could be an option at all 4 infield positions. Would be a great story if he does well.

Author: Bryan Smith

Bryan Smith is a Minor League Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @cubprospects.