Pitching is the strength of the Tennessee roster as some of the Cubs top young arms will be tested in AA. Many of the Cubs recent top pitching prospects have excelled in the lower levels of the minors but Carl Edwards, Pierce Johnson and Duane Underwood have all struggled in the Southern League. Hard-throwing Trevor Clifton will be looking to break that jinx along with Zach Hedges and Preston Morrison.
Trevor Clifton—The Cubs 2016 Minor League Pitcher of the Year as well as taking top honors as the Carolina League Pitcher of the Year, going 7-7 with a 2.72 ERA and a Cubs minor league best 129 strikeouts. Clifton returns to his home state in his fifth pro season after being selected in the 12th round in 2013. Clifton feature a fastball in the mid-90s and continues to get better with a plus curve ball and a decent change-up.
Duane Underwood—Back in Tennessee after a disappointing 2016 season that included a rough start, a trip to the DL, and a rehab that included stops in Mesa, South Bend and Myrtle Beach. The Cubs second-round pick in 2012 out of high school in Georgia, the 22-year-old was added to the Cubs 40-man roster to be protected from the Rule 5 draft. Underwood throws a fastball in the mid-90s but doesn’t get a of of swing and miss with 243 K in 315 minor league innings.
Zach Hedges gets the ball on opening night at Pensacola as the right-hander continues his rise up the Cubs minors. Drafted in the 26th round in 2014, Hedges started last year in Myrtle Beach (7-8, 2.89 ERA, 16 GS) and finished the year in Tennessee, going 3-3 with a 2.47 ERA in 47.1 AA innings.
Brad Markey made 23 starts last year for Tennessee and he’s back in AA after logging 130.2 innings. Markey was the Cubs 19th round pick in 2014 and went 8-7 with a 3.17 ERA and a 1.30 WHIP last year.
Drafted in the 8th round in 2015, Preston Morrison was the ace of the South Bend staff (9-4, 2.24 ERA) and earned a late season promotion to Myrtle Beach. After only nine games at High A last year, Morrison has been promoted to AA in his third pro season.
Jen-Ho Tseng will take the hill on Friday night in the second game of the series at Pensacola. Part of the Cubs 2013 IFA class, Tseng is back in AA after going 6-8 with a 4.29 ERA in 22 starts in 113.1 innings in his third pro season.
Lots of familiar faces in the Smokies bullpen. Ryan McNeil had his best season after the Cubs third-round pick in 2012 missed 2013 after Tommy John surgery. McNeil recorded 22 saves last year in 24 opportunities, going 1-1 with a 2.33 ERA in 44 games, 54 innings with 61 K and a 1.24 WHIP. David Berg didn’t miss too many bats lats year in AA as he allowed a .329 BAA and 67 hits in 43 innings. The side-winding right-hander was the Cubs sixth round pick in 2015, after setting the NCAA save record at UCLA.
Daury Torrez makes his AA debut after spending the last two years in Myrtle Beach, A starter for the first five seasons of his career, Torrez made the switch to the bullpen last year, and was 2-2 with a 3.56 ERA in 68.1 innings. Stephen Perakslis is back in the Tennessee bullpen after appearing in 27 games while logging 57 innings. Perakslis also made three starts and was the Cubs 21st round pick in 2012 out of Maine. James Pugliese starts the year in AA after getting a brief taste last year but returned to Myrtle Beach to help the Pelicans to the title. Pugliese logged 84.2 innings in High A, going 7-5 with a 3.83 ERA.
Gerardo Concepcion was re-signed as a minor league free agent and is back in Tennessee to start the 2017 season. Concepcion was impressive in AA last year, tossing 17.2 scoreless innings before getting promoted to Iowa.
Signed as minor league free agents with an invite to spring training, Daniel Corcino and Jhondaniel Medina are both on the Smokies roster to start the year. Corcino throws in the mid-90s and impressed at both the major league and minor league camps this spring. Medina was signed after his success in the Venezuelan Winter League and was named to the Team Venezuelan roster for the World Baseball Classic. After making his MLB debut last year,
Ian Rice hit 15 homers between South Bend and Myrtle Beach and gets the promotion to AA in his third pro season. The Cubs 29th round pick in 2015, Rice hit .265/.380/.461 between the two levels. Cael Brockmeyer spent his second straight year living out of a suitcase. as he played in Iowa (32 G), Myrtle Beach (24 games) and Tennessee (12 games). The Cubs 16th round pick in 2013 hit seven homers between the three levels. Erick Castillo spent most of 2016 as the backup catcher at Myrtle Beach, batting .185/.245/.219 in 43 games.
Yasiel Balaguert had a career-year at Myrtle Beach, setting a franchise record with 96 RBI while leading all Cubs minor leaguers with 19 homers and slashing .263/.316/.424. The Cuban native made 124 starts at first and two in the outfield. Shortstop Carlos Penalver is back at Tennessee after a tough 2016 season that saw the slick-fiddling Venezuelan record a career-high 31 errors. The 22-year-old hit .211/.265/.268 in 118 games with 21 doubles. Jason Vosler returns at third base for the Smokies after starting last year in Myrtle Beach and earning a promotion in early August—hitting .250/.314/.359 in 26 AA games. David Bote and Andrew Ely head to AA after helping the Pelicans win the Carolina League championship. Bote was the Mills Cub MVP and had his best year as a pro, batting .337/.410/.518 in 72 games. Ely started 2016 in South Bend (.295/.368/.398) and hit .237 in 60 games in High A.
Drafted in the ninth round out of high school in 2013, Charcer Burks takes his game to AA after his best season as a pro. Not only did Burks win a Rawlings Gold Glove for his defense, hit hit a career-high 11 homes and slashed ,247/.356/.407 in 124 games with 23 stolen bases for Myrtle Beach. Burks isn’t the only outfielder with a gold glove as Trey Martin won his award in 2015 while at Myrtle Beach. Martin returns to Tennessee after batting .186/.240/.242 in 68 games. Jeffrey Baez spent all of 2016 in High A, making 96 starts in right while hitting .241/.324/.363 with eight homers and a career-high 38 stolen bases. Roberto Caro makes the jump from South Bend to AA after hitting .231/.304/.286 in a reserve role last year.
Manager Mark Johnson is back for his second year with the Smokies and has managed Boise, Kane County and Myrtle Beach as part of his seven-year career with the Cubs organization. Former big league pitcher Terry Clark starts his second season with the Smokies as well as the Cubs organization after spending 13 years as a minor league pitching coach and two as the Mariners minor league pitching coordinator. Jacob Cruz is the Smokies hitting coach in his fist season with the Cubs. A veteran of nine big league seasons, Cruz spent the last six years in the D-Backs system. Bench coach Ricardo Medina moves from South Bend to Tennessee in his 19th season with the Cubs.
Southern League Primer
The Smokies play in the North Division of the Southern League with Birmingham (White Sox), Chattanooga (Twins), Jackson (Mariners), and Montgomery (Rays). Biloxi (Brewers), Jacksonville (Marlins), Mississippi (Braves), Mobile (Angels) and Pensacola (Reds) comprise the South Division in the ten-team league.