Die-hard Tennessee Smokies fans are going to have a hard time adding autographs to their collection as 17 players, including 11 pitchers, return to the AA affiliate for the start of the 2013 season.
All-star first baseman Justin Bour returns after driving in 110 runs last year, second in the Southern League and tops for any Cub minor leaguer. The 2009 25th rounder has driven in 282 runs the past three seasons and hit .283 last year with OBP of .360.
Dae-Eun Rhee, Dallas Beeler, Eric Jokish, and Trey McNutt combined for 87 starts last year totaling 478.1 innings. Rhee, 24, (9-8 4.81 ERA) signed as a free agent in 2007 and the left-hander from South Korea sported a WHIP of 1.54. Beeler, 23, (6-7 4.24) was a 41st round selection and led the Smokies with 27 starts last year with a BAA of .305. Jokish went 7-2 with the Smokies with a 2.91 ERA and .226 BAA. The 11th round pick in 2010 out of Northwestern also made nine starts at Daytona in 2012. Used out of the bullpen and as a starter, McNutt pitched in a career-high 34 games going 9-8 with a 4.26 ERA. A 32nd round pick in 2009, the right-hander was added to the 40-man roster in Nov. of 2012.
A majority of the Smokies' bullpen returns led by Frank Batsita, who racked up 24 saves with a 2.22 ERA and WHIP of 1.12. Kevin Rhoderick, 24, a ninth round selection in 2012, appeared in 44 games going 2-8 with a 4.99 ERA. He fanned 53 in 57.2 innings and had eight saves. Brain Schlitter returned from an elbow injury and worked in 29 games in relief, going 3-4 with a 3.00 ERA and a WHIP of 1.29. A fourth-round pick in 2011 out of Louisville, Tony Zych pitched in 20 games for Tennessee last season with 28 strikeouts in 24.2 innings. The 22-year-old also appeared in 27 games with Daytona, recording six saves. Marcus Hatley, a 39th round selection in 2009, had four saves in 28 games for the Smokies and pitched in 12 games for AAA Iowa. The right-hander had 46 Ks in 45 innings at the AA level. Alberto Cabrera worked his way to Wrigley Field last season making his MLB debut on Aug. 1 vs. Pittsburgh and appeared in 25 games with Chicago going 1-1 with a 5.40 ERA. The right-hander threw in 23 games (35.2 IP) for the Smokies with a 2.52 ERA and 45 strikeouts. He also pitched in 13 games at Iowa and was placed on Cubs 40-man roster in November. Zac Rosscup, acquired from Tampa Bay in the deal with Matt Garza, pitched in 11 games for the AA team in 2012 after making stops at Mesa and Peoria. The left-hander recorded 29 strikeouts in 22.1 innings for the Smokies.
The only hurlers new to Tennessee are right-handers A.J Morris and Kyle Hendricks. Morris, acquired from the Nationals in the trade for Tom Grozelanny, missed all of 2011 due to shoulder surgery and made 39 relief appearances for Dayton, striking out 42 in 52.1 innings in the FSL. Hendricks came to the Cubs in the deal that sent Ryan Dempster to Texas in July of last year. The 23-year-old pitched went 5-8 with 2.82 with Myrtle Beach before the trade and started four games with Daytona, throwing 17 innings.
The other player acquired in the Dempster deal, Christian Villanueva, a third baseman, will start the season at Tennessee. The 21-year-old from Mexico played in 15 spring training games for Chicago, hitting three homers while batting .167 in 30 at-bats. He played in 25 games at Daytona after the trade hitting .250 with 4 HR, nine RBI and five steals. The Smokies infield will be anchored by 21-year-old shortstop Arismendy Alcantara, who hit .302 in 85 games last year in Daytona. The switch hitter whacked 7 HR and swiped 25 bases. Elliot Soto, drafted in 15th round in 2010, hit .220 in 82 games the Smokies in 2012. Jonathan Mota, 25, is starting his 10th season with the Cubs organization, hitting .293 in 21 games last year in AA. Anthony Giansanti, 24, was hitting .296 in 25 games at Peoria last year before an ankle injury cut his season short. He returned to play 11 games between Mesa and Daytona.
Jae-Hoon Hae, Rubi Silva and Matt Szczur all spent time with Tennessee last season and will be joined by free agent acquisition Johermyn Chavez to comprise the Smokies outfield. Hae, who hit a homer in last year's Futures All-Star game, hit .273 in 121 games in AA. The South Korean, signed in 2008 as a free agent, hit 6 HR and had a OBP of . 352. Silva hit .302 at Daytona in 111 games and played 20 games for the Smokies (.263 2 HR, 13 RBI). The 24-year-old from Cuba signed with Cubs in 2010 and hit .300 in 93 games in 2011 at Peoria. Szczur was a fifth round selection out of Villanova and the two-sport star has risen quickly through the Cubs farm system. He hit .295 in Daytona last year with 38 stolen bases and a .394 OBP before being promoted to Tennessee. The 23-year-old batted .210 in 35 games for the Smokies. A former top prospect in the Mariners minor league system, the Cubs signed Chavez to a minor league contract in November and was a spring training non-roster invitee. The 24-year-old hit .287 at AA Jackson last year but broke his wrist and hit only .193 after returning from the injury. In 2010 in the California League, the Venezuelan blasted 32 HRs with 96 RBI, hitting .315.
The Cubs also added catching depth in their minor league system signing 26-year-old Jair Fernandez to a minor league contract in January. He hit .269 in 56 games at AA Corpus Christi (Astros). Rafael Lopez was a non-roster invitee to spring training and the 25-year-old appeared in nine games hitting .143. A 16th round pick in 2011 out of Florida State, Lopez hit .279 in 70 games between Peoria and Daytona.
Buddy Bailey will manage the Smokies, after spending the last three years in Daytona, including a 2011 FSL championship. He has 23 years of minor league managing experience and has worked in the Braves and Red Sox organizations. Desi Wilson is the hitting coach at Tennessee, his sixth season with the Cubs, serving in the same capacity last year in Boise. Jeff Fassero starts his second season for the Smokies, after a 16-year MLB career going 120-124 with a 4.11 ERA with nine different teams.
The Smokies open the 2013 season on April 4 as they travel to Pensacola at 8 p.m. EST for the start a five game series. Beeler gets the opening night start for the Smokies