Sandberg on Double-A Prospects

SEVIERVILLE, Tenn. – Ryne Sandberg's first season as the Tennessee Smokies' manager hasn't exactly been a walk in the park. The Smokies (43-50) have had a season full of ups and downs that has them sitting in the middle of the Southern League North Division standings.

"We've had a couple stretches of hot and cold," Sandberg said of the season. "A big point in the first half was a stretch of going 0-12 against the top three teams in the league. Then the team bounced back from that and won something like 14 out of 19."

Mathematically losing 12 straight games doesn't translate well for any ballclub. But wins and losses does not tell the whole story from here.

Rainouts early in the season forced the Smokies into a grueling schedule in late May, including five doubleheaders.

"We had the three rainouts at Huntsville that we made up here; we played eight games in five days. We had a tough time getting through the eight games in five days," Sandberg said.

The Smokies are also one of the youngest teams in the Southern league with an average age around 23. Included in those youngsters is a trio of ace pitchers.

Jay Jackson and Casey Coleman both have ERA's under 3.50 and have combined for 13 wins, while Cubs 2008 first-round draft pick Andrew Cashner has a 1.98 ERA in his first three starts for Tennessee since being called up from Class High-A Daytona.

"We have a young starting pitching staff," Sandberg said. "The organization wanted to see how they would adapt to this level because they were inexperienced. They hadn't been at this level before. They are young in age. We look at Jackson, Coleman, (Hung-Wen) Chen and now Cashner and it's a group that has age and quality on their side."

Each pitcher has a specific attribute that stands out. But according to Sandberg, Coleman (9-4, 2.93 ERA) has been the team's most valuable player.

"He's done a nice job with a 9-4 record. He's picked up some nice wins when we needed them. He's been real steady. The team feels good about themselves when he takes the mound," Sandberg said.

Coleman may be the team's MVP, but Jackson's rare athletic ability allows Sandberg to apply some unconventional coaching strategies.

"He swings a pretty nice bat for a pitcher," Sandberg said of Jackson, who batted .336 in 40 games for Furman as an infielder-outfielder in 2008. "A lot of times, I give him a little more leeway with that. I've hit and ran with him, I've let him swing. I was even taking him out of the game and I let him hit the next inning and he got a base hit. He brings a lot to the table. When he's on, he can be tough."

The pitching staff isn't the only bright spot in Tennessee. Joining Coleman, Jackson, and Brian Schlittler at the Southern League All-Star Game in Birmingham, Ala., earlier this month were position players Jim Adduci, Tony Thomas, and Blake Lalli.

"I think our biggest strength when you look at numbers and things like that is that we are a team that hits for average. We are right there at two or three in the league in hitting for average. We do have guys that get on base and create some opportunities," Sandberg says.

Adduci creates most of those opportunities. He is second on the team in runs scored with 40, and first in stolen bases with 20. Perhaps he is also the most improved player on the team.

"Early on, Jim Adduci was struggling and he had a point with a low of what I think was a .220 batting average. Within about four and a half weeks, I think he raised it to .320. He was just red hot. He made some nice adjustments and started driving the ball," Sandberg said.

Sandberg has had to make some adjustments of his own to deal with the revolving door of players at the Double-A level.

He knows that losing players to promotion is all part of his job, and he embraces it even though losing players like Matt Camp and Darwin Barney made it more difficult for the Smokies to win.

"I just kind of get them into the program and just kind of work on them and develop them. We work on things they need to work on to move them on up," Sandberg says. "That's what this is all about: giving each guy a chance."

A Hall of Fame second baseman, Sandberg was called up from Double-A before – as a player. Now, he has hopes to gain some experience and one day get called up for a second time – as a manager.

"That's what this experience is all about and that's how I'm going about my daily business, to gain experience," Sandberg said. "I want to learn as much as I can about all parts of the game. In some ways, I tend to look toward the pitching side of it. That's probably the least I knew about the game three years ago. Now, three years doing this and really studying the pitching side of it and what goes into the pitchers on a daily basis, I'm looking at gaining experience but I'm enjoying this right now."

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