After seeing Jorge Soler and Kris Bryant last season, Smokies fans may have thought there might be a drop off in talent but that’s not the case in 2015. Catcher Kyle Schwarber, outfielder Albert Almora, right-handed pitcher C.J. Edwards and first baseman Daniel Vogelbach headline an impressive roster littered with recent Cubs draft picks.
Here’s a breakdown of the roster starting with the pitching staff:
The big news out of Kodak when the starting rotation was announced on Tuesday was that C.J. Edwards’ name was not among them. The right-hander will start the year out of the bullpen, and while there’s plenty of speculation of the implications. The Cubs front-office has not indicated they plan to move him from the rotation and he has been kept on a strict pitch count ever since experiencing shoulder problems last year.
Black is back for his second stint in Tennessee, going 6-7 with a 3.47 ERA in 26 AA games last year. Black throws a fastball that can touch 96 with a good slider and decent change-up but command was his downfall last year with 5.14 BB/9.
Pineyro is back in Tennessee after a strained forearm limited his 2014 season to only 11 AA games and 48 .2 innings. The 23-year-old has one of the better change-ups in the system with a low 90s fastball and a decent curve in his arsenal.
Pena is one of the most overlooked pitchers in the Cubs system, being named a MWL and FSL all-star the past two seasons. The 25-year-old Dominican will be looking to get some revenge on the SL this year, going 2-4 with a 7.48 ERA and a 1.70 WHIP in six games after being promoted from Daytona at the end of July.
Zastryzny was the Cubs second round pick in 2013 and the former Missouri product spent his first full season in Daytona, with 110 K in 110 innings. The left-hander struggled in the first inning, allowing 24 runs in 23 starts, and only 34 runs over the rest of his 86 innings.
Batista had 10 saves in 32 relief appearances for Tennessee last year but worked as a starter in the Dominican Winter League and will start the year as part of the rotation. In his 7th year with the organization, Batista made 20 starts his first two years in the Dominican Summer League and Class A Peoria.
Edwards will start the year in the bullpen and the Cubs haven’t said if the move is a switch in development or they are just being cautious with the slender right-hander. I’’m siding on the second half of that statement as he they may want to keep his innings down, especially if he’s needed at the end of the year at Wrigley. Edwards, a member of the Cubs 40-man roster, throws a fastball in the mid 90s and a plus curve ball.
A pair of lefties return to the Smokies bullpen in Jeffry Antigua and Hunter Cervenka while right-handers Fernando Cruz, P.J. Francescon, Michael Jensen, Stephen Perakslis, and Andres Santiago round out the pen. Cruz and Santiago were signed as free agents during the off-season, Perakslis and Jensen threw for Daytona last year, and Francescon returns for his third straight year at Tennessee.
All eyes will be behind the plate as top pick Kyle Schwarber will be getting most of the starts at catcher for Tennessee. The Cubs first-round pick last year, Schwarber hit .344/.428/.634 with 18 HR, 53 RBI and 55 R in 72 games after the June draft. Schwarber’s out to prove he can become a big league catcher and that transformation may take a huge leap in AA.
A familiar face is back in centerfield as Albert Almora returns after being promoted to Tennessee in late July. The Cubs best defensive outfielder in the minors, Almora displayed a new approach at the plate in spring training at Cubs camp and could be on the verge of a big season.
First baseman Daniel Vogelbach has one of the best approaches at the plate of anyone in the Cubs organization with a career .375 OBP in 300 games over four seasons. He also show the ability to hit with power to all fields and improved his first base play last year in Daytona.
Cather Willson Contreras caught 80 games last year in Daytona and also performed well in the Venezuelan Winter League. A converted third baseman, Contreras continues to refine his backstop his skills and has shown flashes of power. Erick Castillo, 22, will be the third catcher, after spending last year at Boise and Mesa.
Two years ago, Christian Villanueva was named the top third baseman in AA baseball and he returns to Tennessee after a tough 2014 campaign as he began the year in Iowa and was demoted. He posses great defensive skills and has led all Cubs minors leaguers in doubles the past two seasons.
Dustin Geiger, who can play third and first, returns to Smokies Park as do middle infielder Stephen Bruno and Elliot Soto. Geiger hit 12 HR last year for the Smokies; Bruno played in 105 games (.276, 3 HR, 42 RBI); while Soto spent the year between Tennessee and Iowa. Ryan Dent, a former Red Sox farmhand, was signed by the Cubs as a free agent in the off-season and will see action all over the infield.
Outfielder Bijan Rademacher makes the jump to AA after a good season at Daytona where he hit. 281 with 10 HR and 56 RBI. A former pitcher in college, Rademacher has the arm to play right and continues to work on his defensive skills. Super-sub Anthony Giansanti returns to Smokes Park after 90 games last year and Pin-Chieh Chen will also play outfield. Chen hit in 65 games before being promoted to Tennessee for 48 games.
The Smokies are managed by Buddy Bailey, who begins his 32nd year in baseball, the last three as manager of the Smokies. His staff consists of hitting coach Desi Wilson, pitching coach Storm Davis, and assistant coach Guillermo Martinez.