If you are looking for the Cubs top prospects, Tennessee is a great place to start. Two former number one picks and the top pitching prospect in the Cubs system all call Smokies Stadium home.....for now.
After 35 games, second-place Tennessee (20-15) finds themselves 2.5 games behind Chattanooga (Twins) in the Southern League’s North Division. The Smokies are the top hitting team in the league batting .268, and also first in on-base percentage (.349) and walks (141). They rank in the top four in a majority of the rest of the offensive categories, including second in OPS at .746. On the mound, Tennessee ranks 2nd in the SL with a 3.26 ERA and 291 strikeouts, and are 3rd in WHIP (1.25). They’ve issued the second-most free passes (127) and allowed the second-least hits (245) in 306 innings.
When you talk about the Smokies offense it starts with Daniel Vogelbach and Kyle Schwarber. Vogelbach leads the Southern League in walks (27) and on-base percentage with a slash of .357/.476/.574 with 4 HR and 21 RBI. He’s second in the league to Schwarber in slugging percentage and OPS. Schwarber, the Cubs first-round pick, is not only getting better behind the plate every game, he’s hitting .333/.444/.618, and leads the league with a 1.062 OPS. His seven homers are third in the league and he’s walked 22 times while striking out 27.
2012 first-round pick CF Albert Almora missed just over a week after experiencing “whip-lash” after diving for a fly ball on April 27 but is hitting .293/.330/.384 with a homer and 11 RBI in 25 games. The 21-year-old’s new approach at the plate has drawn 7 BB with only 10 K, compared to 2:23 BB/K ratio he sported in 36 AA games last year.
There may not be a bigger surprise than C Willson Contreras, who’s hitting .327/.393/.667 and is 7th in the Southern League with a .875 OPS. Having hit .240 his last two seasons in A-ball, the 23-year-old’s hot bat has forced his way into the lineup, serving as the DH and even playing a game at third. Another surprise of the Smokies has been the play of Elliot Soto, on the field and with the bat. The slick-fielding shortstop is batting .296/.377/.330 in 32 games and leads the team with 21 runs scored.
Outfielders Billy McKinney and Jacob Hannemann both earned early season promotions to AA. McKinney’s only played in two games (3-for-9) and Hannemann is hitting .219/.260/.329 in 18 contests. 2B Stephen Bruno is batting .264/.330/.352 in 29 games.
If you had Frank Batista pegged as the Smokies top starter for the first quarter of the season, congratulations. The reliever turned starter leads the Southern League with a 1.53 ERA and the right-hander is 3-0 in six starts (35.1 IP) with nine walks and 29 K.
Felix Pena (3-1, 2.76) is pitching the best baseball in his 7th year in the Cubs organization. The 25-year-old leads the staff with 42.1 IP and 42 strikeouts. After an arm injury sidelined last season, RHP Ivan Pineyro has returned to his old form, with great command of his fastball and change-up. He’s 3-1 with a 3.18 ERA in seven starts and has 41 K, 8 BB, and a 0.98 WHIP. Corey Black has made seven starts and is 1-2 with a 3.68 ERA and 41 K in 36.2 innings. Black has also walked 18, hit three, and was just placed on the DL.
C.J. Edwards is the top pitching prospect in Tennessee but the Cubs front office has decided to start the right-hander in the bullpen. After a bit of a struggle to adjust, Edwards is getting the ball every three to four days. He 2-2 with a 3.57 ERA in 17.2 innings and a 1.30 WHIP. Edwards has fanned 27 but walked 12. P.J. Francescon is off to a good start out of the bullpen and has team-high five saves in six chances with a 0.61 ERA in 14.2 innings.