McKinney, acquired from the A’s in the deal that also sent Addison Russell to the North Siders, ended last season on the DL with a broken knee cap. McKinney, 21, started last year in Myrtle Beach and after hitting .340/.432/.544 in 29 games, earned a promotion to AA. One of the youngest players in the Southern League, the Texas native held his own, hitting .285/.346/.420 in 77 games with 3 HR and 39 RBI. McKinney can handle either corner outfield spot and started his career with the A’s as a centerfielder.
Candelario carried his impressive 2015 season into spring training as the 22-year-old appeared in 15 game for the North Siders, hitting .350/.381/.675 with three homers. Candelario rebounded after a sub-par 2014 season that saw him return to low A, as he started 2015 in Myrtle Beach and earned a promotion to Tennessee. In 46 games last year for the Smokies, Candelario batted .291/.379/.462 with five homers in over 180 plate appearances. A member of the Cubs’ 40-man roster, Candelario will anchor third for Tennessee but don’t expect him to spend his entire year in AA.
Catcher Victor Caratini takes his game to AA after his first full season behind the plate for Myrtle Beach. The MVP of the Carolina League playoffs, the switch-hitting Caratini hit .252/.342/.372 with 31 doubles and 53 RBI in 112 games. The second-round pick of the Braves in 2013, Caratini is one prospect that stayed under the radar last year but should get plenty of hype this summer.
The Cubs third-round pick in 2014 and a former catcher, Mark Zagunis made the full-time switch to the outfield last year and while he improved his defensive skills, earned Carolina League All-Star status with a .271/.406/.412 slash and led the league with 80 walks and added eight homers. His best tool is his bat and plate discipline but look for some more pop this year from Zagunis.
Jacob Hannemann, a human highlight reel last year in the outfield for the Smokies, returns to AA and while his defense continues to shine, Hannemann works on his plate appearances after hitting .233/.291/.362 in 112 games last year in AA. The 24-year-old was a third-round pick of the Cubs in 2013 and had very little playing experience before signing.
The Tennessee rotation will be anchored by left-hander Rob Zastryzny, the Cubs second round pick in 2013 out of Missouri. Zastryzny started 14 games last year in AA, going 2-5 with a 6.23 ERA in 60.2 innings. The 24-year-old missed part of the season with a broken bone in his foot.
Paul Blackburn, Jen-Ho Tseng, Brad Markey and Tyler Skulina were all part of Myrtle Beach last season and will make their AA debuts for Tennessee. Blackburn, 22, made 18 starts last year (7-5 3.11 ERA, 89.2 IP, 63 K) and is a first-round compensation pick of the Cubs in 2012. Tseng was named the Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2014 and went 7-7 with a 3.55 ERA in 22 starts (119 IP) last year.
Markey has really improved his value in the last year, as the went from being used out of the bullpen in Low A to one of the top starters in the Carolina League. After only making one start in South Bend, Markey went 7-0 with a 1.61 ERA in nine games for the Pelicans. A 19th round pick out of Virginia Tech, the righty capped off his season with a eight-inning, one-hit performance against Winston-Salem in the playoffs. Skulina missed a month last year but was one of the top pitchers for Myrtle Beach, recording 73 K in 75.1 innings in 15 starts. The right-hander sported a 3-6 recorded but had a 3.11 ERA and a .199 BAA.
The bullpen will be anchored by Corey Black, back for his third tour with the Smokies after moving to the pen last year. Black started the year rotation and is still figuring out the bullpen (1-3, 7.09 ERA, 28 G, 39.1 IP). Joining Black in the pen is Andury Acevedo, who made some noise in spring training after throwing in the mid to upper 90s. Signed as a free agent during the off-season and one the Cubs 40-man roster, the 25-year-old needs work on his command to reach AAA and a shot at Wrigley.
Taylor Davis, who traveled between Iowa and Tennessee last year, will be one of the backup catchers and you can expect him to also play first. David Freitas, a free agent who spent the last six years in minors with Nats, A’s, and Orioles, is the third catcher on the roster.
Chesny Young, the Carolina League batting champ last year, takes his utility game to AA. Listed as a second baseman, look for Young to play all over the field as he handled seven different positions last year in Myrtle Beach while batting .321/.394/.388 in 102 games. SS Carlos Penalver returns to AA after a late season call-up last year and is considered one of the top defensive shortstops in the minors. Stephen Bruno is back in AA for the third straight year, hitting .263/.335/.336 last season. Also on the roster is versatile infielder Ryan Dent, who played 72 games last year for the Smokies and spent time in Iowa.
Rounding out the roster are outfielder Bijan Rademacher and Anthony Giansanti. Rademacher played 113 games last year for Tennessee (.261/.379/.370) while Giansanti appeared in 64 games for the Smokies in the outfield and infield.
Mark Johnson is the new skipper in Tennessee after earning back-to-back Manager of the Year awards in Kane County and Myrtle Beach. He served as the manager of the Arizona Fall League's Mesa Solar Sox and has spent past campaigns with Kane County (2013-14) and Boise (2011-12). Over the course of his five-year managerial career, Johnson has accumulated a 300-265 record and a .531 winning percentage.
The 40-year old played eight seasons in the Major Leagues as a catcher with the White Sox, A’s, Brewers and Cardinals. In 332 career games, Johnson tallied a .218 batting average with 16 HR and 83 RBI. The backstop retired following the 2010 campaign after spending two seasons in the Cubs' organization with AAA Iowa. Johnson was drafted by the White Sox in the first-round (26th overall) of the 1994 draft out of Warner Robbins High School in Georgia.
If there’s any coach in the minors that’s being “developed” its Johnson. Already on the staff when Theo Epstein took over baseball operations, Johnson has worked his way from the short-season Northwest League to the Southern League. Johnson went right from the playing field to the dugout in 2011 with Boise and has been advancing towards the majors ever since. If you’re looking for homegrown talent to replace Joe Maddon down the road, Johnson may be the man.
In his sixth season with the Cubs organization, Johnson will be surrounded with new faces as first-year pitching coach Terry Clark joins the organization. Clark spent the last two seasons as the minor league pitching coordinator for the Seattle Mariners after serving as a pitching coach in the minors for the Indians (2000-2004), Rangers (2006-12) and Mariners (2013). Clark appeared in parts of six big league seasons with the Angels (1988-89), Astros (90 & 96), Braves (’95), Orioles (’95), Royals (‘96), Indians (‘97) and Rangers (’97), going 10-23 with one save and a 5.54 ERA (232.2 IP) in 91 games. He was a 23rd round pick of the Cardinals in 1979 out of Mount San Antonio College in Walnut, California, the same school that produced Cubs scout and former big leaguer Keith Lockhart.
Desi Wilson starts his fourth year as the AA hitting coach and his ninth with the organization. Wilson played one year in the majors for San Francisco, hitting .271/.338/.677 in 41 games in 1996. Osmin Melendez joins as an assistant coach after serving in a similar role last season with South Bend. Jon Fierro, in his fifth year in the organization, is the team's athletic trainer and Mike Megrew enters his third season as the team's strength and conditioning coach.
The Smokies open the 2016 season at home with a five-game series with the Mobile BayBears (D-Backs) with the home opener slated for 7:05 p.m. EST on Thursday, April 7 at Smokies Stadium. All home games will be televised on MiLB.TV with Mick Gillispie and Justin Rocke handling the play-by-play broadcast duties again this season.