The Tennessee Smokies, now one of the most top-prospect-laden teams in the history of the Cubs franchise (I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that, but your mileage may vary), won Game 1 of their best-of-3 opening round playoff series last night with a 3-1 win over the Chattanooga Lookouts.
The star of the game was Cade Horton, putting the newest stamp on his drop-dead-perfect debut season in the Cubs organization.
Horton threw five scoreless innings, allowing five baserunners (one on an error, one on a bloop, one on an infield single) and striking out seven. The start took Horton north of 90 innings on the season, as the Cubs continue to build him up, since they know he’ll likely have a Major League workload to deal with in 2024.
The season numbers, which of course span from Low-A to the Double-A playoffs: 93.1 IP, 64 H, 2.51 ERA, 28 BB, 124 K.
In watching back the start, the fact that both these things are true is what makes Cade such a good prospect: 1) he’s absolutely deadly with two strikes in the count and 2) hitters never seem to have an advantage, even when they work the count to three balls. His feel is good enough that it never locks him out for more than a couple pitches, and his stuff is good enough to generate swing-and-miss from even good AA hitters inside the zone.
It’s time we start saying this truth about Horton: he’s the Cubs’ best pitching prospect since Mark Prior. I know that sounds scary, but the revelation that Prior was, and the boost he provided at the Major League level when he arrived, can’t be overstated. No pitching prospect is ever a sure thing, Prior’s arm showed us that, but the very best guys are the ones we know will at least throw enough strikes and miss enough Major League bats that only injuries can stand in their way. Horton has graduated into that circle for me.
(By the way, one nerd prospect thing: I’m intrigued if the high slider can become a non-mistake pitch in Horton’s arsenal in time. It’s a pitch generally seen as a mistake, but if the pitcher gets it into the top third, he gets away with it: it has a .270 wOBA against at the MLB level this season. Horton’s command is good enough that I think he could actually probably locate there with solid frequency if given the opportunity, and it would be one of those unique traits that could separate him from others at the very top.)
Cade’s fifth win of the season is also owed to the bats that provided just enough run support, mainly the MVP’s of the Smokies season: right fielder Owen Caissie and third baseman BJ Murray. I thought the latter had the best at-bats of the night all game, and he also opened the scoring with a little swinging bunt infield single in the third inning. Caissie then followed it up with this hustle double, made possible by the fact that he hits the ball so damn hard.
The Smokies gloves were on display as well, with Kevin Alcántara making the play of the game in center. Watch how fast, and how perfect his first step on this ball is. Add in the giant frame allowing his dives to go a little farther than anyone else, and that’s how you make a play that not a lot of other humans would have snagged. Jaguar also singled and scored the game’s first run, so he’s contributing in the biggest games of his career on both sides of the field.
We also had this great play by Moises Ballesteros, showing off great reaction time and instincts, though it was overall an up-and-down night for him at first base:
Credit to the bullpen for locking it down; Porter Hodge was a bit shaky, but the guys behind him (Zac Leigh, Riley Martin, Hunter Bigge) were all excellent. I want to make sure that Leigh is on people’s 2024 radars, as he quietly put together a really good season, and was at his absolute best in the summer months. His last 22 outings: 31.2 IP, 20 H, 3.13 ERA, 15 BB, 48 K. Bigge also deserves praise for looking completely dominant since returning to Tennessee from Iowa.
In all, a fantastic team win for a really good Tennessee squad. Internally, the Cubs front office is really hoping for a championship run here, as they’ve put a lot of the organization’s top prospects (four of the top five, six of the top 11) onto this roster to experience meaningful baseball together. Great to see those talents rising to the occasion.