The Tennessee Smokies begin their 13th season as a Chicago Cubs affiliate in 2019, and they will be trying to produce better results after missing out on the playoff fun just a season ago. They just missed out on playing .500 baseball in 2018, finishing the season at 67-71. Across the board, the team fell victim to a top-heavy roster that saw guys like Jason Vosler, Ian Rice, Zack Short, and Trent Giambrone leading the offensive unit while Michael Rucker and Duncan Robinson had to carry the team on the bump.
There will be a good share of returning players on the roster in 2019 and that experience will be important to the Smokies getting off to a quick start in the first half. The pitchers will be doing the heavy lifting this season, with a very impressive bullpen and a rotation lead by Thomas Hatch, Keegan Thompson, Michael Rucker, and Wyatt Short.
Possible daily lineup
C – Johnny Pereda, Ian Rice
1B – Jared Young
2B – Christian Donahue
3B – Vimael Machin
SS – Nico Hoerner
OF – Roberto Caro, Eddy Martinez, Charcer Burks
Bench – PJ Higgins (C/IF), Robel Garcia (IF)
SP – Michael Rucker, Thomas Hatch, Justin Steele, Keegan Thompson, Cory Abbott, Tyson Miller
RP – Bailey Clark, Ian Clarkin, Zach Hedges, Craig Brooks, Scott Effross, Jordan Minch, Manuel Rondon, Wyatt Short
As Cubs Insider was first to report last week, Nico Hoerner has received the aggressive assignment to Double-A to begin the 2019 campaign. The 2018 draft pick has absolutely dominated at every stop since being drafted, albeit in small sample sizes in each location. Hoerner owns a .900 OPS in three Arizona Rookie League games, 1.010 OPS in seven games at Short-Season Eugene, 1.137 OPS in four low-A South Bend games, an .867 OPS in the Arizona Fall League, and a ridiculous 1.811 OPS this spring with the Major League roster.
He will start at shortstop for the Smokies this year and will probably remain at that position until he is eventually forced over to second base (probably in Chicago). The kid is no joke and he will be downright dangerous if he is able to continue to develop his power.
Highlight of team
This category is an easy one: The aforementioned starting rotation is stacked to begin the year. There are six arms that legitimately have a shot of pitching out of a major league rotation next year, and they all had very strong 2018 campaigns. Hatch, Rucker, and Thompson all finished last year in Tennessee and they will start this year in the same place, mostly due to the crazy depth in the upper minors rotations.
Rucker doesn’t have much left to prove in Double-A, but both he and Hatch might eventually find themselves in the bullpen once they make it to Chicago. Thompson dominated High-A batters, but cooled off a bit once he reached Double-A in 2018. He is crafty and I expect him to put up a strong year and remain in the rotation moving forward.
Cory Abbott and Tyson Miller got the promotion from last season where they proved to be two of the more underrated pitching prospects in the entire system. Along with Myrtle Beach’s Alex Lange, they are the most fun pitchers to watch work on the mound every time they toe the rubber.
Justin Steele is actually the most exciting prospect of all of these guys. After returning from Tommy John surgery late last year, he put up very impressive numbers and finished the year in Tennessee. He will begin the year in the rotation and since he is already on the Cubs’ 40-man roster. They may look to limit his innings coming off surgery, but expect to see Steele finish the year in the Chicago bullpen.
The sleeper pick on this roster is Ian Rice. The days of him being hyped up as a top prospect have kind of fallen by the wayside, but there is still a ton to like about his game. He shows promise as a guy who walks an insane amount (15.6% in 2018) and has power potential. Even though he is repeating Double-A for the dreaded third time, he has improved his defensive abilities behind the plate every single year he has been in the organization.
My deep sleeper here is Vimael Machin. There is just something about this kid that is easy to like. He has failed to put up good numbers at the plate at any stop since he slashed .320/.371/.500 in South Bend in 2017, but he has an advanced approach at the plate (19.9% walk rate in Myrtle Beach last year) and can play anywhere in the infield. If he can join the launch angle revolution, he could see his slugging numbers that are holding him down spike up and then all the sudden he becomes a bat to seriously keep an eye on.
First to be promoted
As much as I want to say Hoerner, I just do not see him getting pulled up to Iowa that quickly. In fact, he is a candidate for being called straight up to Chicago later in the season. Instead, I will go with Bailey Clark. He finally seems to be a full-time reliever and that will accelerate his path to Chicago. The teams he has been with over the years have failed to give him a defined role and I think the bullpen is the perfect place for him. Clark only needs a month or so of proving he can get Double-A hitters out before we see him make his way up to Triple-A Iowa.