The Prospectiest of the Affiliates: The 2023 Double-A Tennessee Smokies
More Chicago Cubs minor league baseball returns today, including the season opener for the Double-A Tennessee Smokies. You’re going to want to see them a lot this year.
With four members of the Cubs top 10 prospects, and 14 members of my top 50 list, the Smokies are the most prospect-loaded affiliate in the Cubs farm system in 2023. The team released their 30-player preliminary roster Tuesday, ahead of beginning their season Thursday evening at home in Kodak, Tennessee.
Pete Crow-Armstrong is of course your headliner, earning the step up to Double-A after a strong Spring Training effort. Crow-Armstrong’s plate approach will be tested here — most believe the jump to this level is the largest in minor league baseball — but the Cubs are confident that the 21-year-old is ready. He’ll be joined in the Smokies Stadium outfield by Owen Caissie, who is looking to build on a highlight-heavy performance for Canada in the World Baseball Classic.
While the offense is quite deep, the highlight of this team is one of the more fun minor league rotations we’ve seen from the Cubs in a long time. Ben Brown and Ryan Jensen are the two members of the 40-man roster in the rotation. Jensen needs a hot start to thwart a move to the bullpen, while Brown is looking to implement two major pitch grip changes into his arsenal. Jordan Wicks is my highest-ranked pitching prospect left with Hayden Wesneski in the bigs, while Porter Hodge is AZ Phil’s vote (and someone who was just promoted to AA riiiight before the end of minor league Spring Training). And, ho hum, Daniel Palencia can throw 102 mph there in the fifth spot.
The Cubs will return most of the same coaching staff in Double-A as last season. Michael Ryan will be the manager, flanked by Rick Strickland as hitting coach and Jamie Vermilyea as pitching coach. The Smokies will also be a very consistent home base for the various roving instructors employed by the Cubs, given just how prospect-filled the roster is.
- Pete Crow-Armstrong, LHH, CF
- B.J. Murray, SH, 3B/2B/1B/DH
- Bryce Ball, LHH, 1B
- Chase Strumpf, RHH, 3B/2B
- Owen Caissie, LHH, RF
- Miguel Amaya, RHH, C
- Jordan Nwogu, RHH, LF
- Luis Verdugo, RHH, 3B/2B/SS
- Luis Vazquez, RHH, SS
Amaya’s return to action will likely be more focused at DH than catcher out of the gate, but he needs both at-bats and defensive innings to instill some confidence. Remember: he’s out of options when the 2024 season begins.
The Cubs really hope that a further breakout comes from one of the following players: Murray, Strumpf, Nwogu, Verdugo. All improved in the 2022 season to varying degrees, but none has reached the status of meaningfully impacting future big league blueprints. Murray and Verdugo need to show a bit more power to get there, while Strumpf and Nwogu a bit more day-to-day consistency in plate approach.
Vazquez and Ball return to the Smokies, and 2023 looms as a make-or-break season for both. Vazquez actually had one of the better minor league spring trainings of any Cubs player, and has earned far more playing time for himself than might have been planned six weeks ago.
- Ryan Jensen, RH
- Jordan Wicks, LH
- Ben Brown, RH
- Porter Hodge, RH
- Daniel Palencia, RH
It was a bit of a surprise that Jensen was sent back to this level, but the Cubs are giving him a real shot here (and it might be the last) to instill some confidence he can work as a starting pitcher. He has six pitches now and has always had the stamina, it’s just a matter of whether he can pitch more efficiently than he has in the past. I’d put Daniel Palencia in a similar boat, though I don’t think he’s yet running up against the clock in the starter/reliever decision. It would be possible he gets a look late in the season.
I think Wicks is the likeliest to pitch his way to Wrigley this year, despite the fact that he does not need to be added to the 40-man roster until 2024. The team added a cutter to the mix in the middle of last season, and I believe the offering will be a game changer. We’ll also be tracking the implementation of a new slider and changeup for Ben Brown, who relied mostly on a unique curveball and riding four seamer to fuel last year’s breakout.
It appears that Porter Hodge was a late addition to this roster off a strong Spring performance, and I think he can handle it. The slider and curveball combination were Major League quality last year, and the fastball has the movement profile the Cubs love. (D.J. Herz will be here eventually, too, but he is seemingly still ramping up in Arizona.)
- Jake Reindl, RH
- Cayne Ueckert, RH
- Bailey Horn, LH
- Hunter Bigge, RH
- Michael McAvene, RH
- Dalton Stambaugh, LH
- Ben Hecht, RH
- Chris Kachmar, RH
- Walker Powell, RH
My highest ranked two in this group are Bailey Horn and Jake Reindl, two guys that had really strong performances in the second half last season. Horn picked up the sweeper slider and took off, it’s a good pitch to mix between a solid curveball and sometimes above-average fastball. Reindl was encouraged by the Cubs to drop his arm slot permanently, and his love of pitching in high leverage was very valuable in the minor league playoffs last year.
Cayne Ueckert and Ben Hecht return to this level after dabbling in Triple-A, but there’s still some reason for optimism. I’ve heard Hecht looked fantastic in Arizona, and he’s fully healthy now. Ueckert had a breakout 2021 season that he didn’t quite carry over into 2022.
- Pablo Aliendo, RH, C
- Caleb Knight, RH, C
- Nelson Maldonado, RH, 1B/DH
- Andy Weber, LH, IF
- Cole Roederer, LH, OF
- Zach Davis, RH, OF
Aliendo deserved a spot in the projected lineup and will be in there on most days. He’s right in that potential breakout mix I mentioned above, and did show me a little more physical strength and raw power in Arizona last month.
Roederer finished the 2022 season really strong, and spent the winter playing everyday in Australia. He’ll get plenty of playing time over the season, and could absolutely put himself firmly back on the prospect radar.