Tuesday, June 28, 2016

GBS Road Trip: Tennessee Smokies

Although the AA Tennessee Smokies (Chicago Cubs) play just a few hours away from where I am in Nashville, I never got a chance to see recent prospects like Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber. Their time at that level was so brief, and it just never fit into my schedule. So when I learned that Ian Happ was promoted to Tennessee last week, I checked the schedule and determined that this past weekend was my only good chance to get over there.

So Sunday morning we drove east and checked out the game at Smokies Stadium that night, as Tennessee beat the Pensacola Blue Wahoos 3-0.

Happ had three hits the night before, including his first AA home run. He picked right up in Sunday's game, and I got to see him get three more hits. Happ clearly is a player on the rise, much like the top prospects before him, who are doing so well in Chicago and Iowa now. He honestly already seemed kind of out of place on the field, even though he'd just arrived.

Of course, he followed this up with another three hits last night (and another home run). So he's 11-for-15 through five games, and his AVG/OBP/OPS are a ridiculous .733/.706/1.973. Maybe Pensacola is just terrible? I know the Cubs want these guys to experience struggles at each level, but so far that isn't happening for Happ at AA.

Overall it was a great experience. For a family of five, we got the tickets, meal vouchers, and three Kid Zone passes for about $4 more than it cost us to see Finding Dory the weekend before. I've been to hundreds of games, including MLB, college, and high school, but living in New Orleans and Nashville my whole life, I've only been to AAA minor league games. I now have to say that AA is a much better value. While I usually go for the "cheap" seats in the outfield (which is like $10-12 for a AAA Nashville Sounds game), at Smokies Stadium we sat five rows directly behind home plate and paid less to do so.

In addition to being able to see Happ play, I was looking forward to watching a few other players as well. I think we'll be seeing the following players at the major league level eventually:

Billy McKinney - I've been keeping an eye on McKnney's progress since the Cubs acquired him in the Samardzija/Russell deal and have written about him here before. He had two hits, a walk, and a run, and he looked great. He's only hitting .264 at Tennessee this year, but the average is improving. His OBP is .365 (up from .346 at AA last season), and his strike out to walk ratio is 35:50.

Victor Caratini - He was 0-for-3 in the game we saw, but he looked good behind the plate in a Tennessee shut out. He's hitting .295 for the season, with an OBP of .386. He has also started 13 games at first base and has not made an error there this season. Originally a third baseman, Caratini could make the catching situation in Chicago even more interesting within the next year or so. If David Ross is truly done and Miguel Montero keeps playing the way he currently is, I think we'll be looking at Contreras and Schwarber as the two main catchers for 2017. Adding Caratini to the mix would give the team a third catcher who also plays other positions.

Paul Blackburn - A 2012 1st round pick out of high school, Blackburn has lowered his ERA each year so far. His career ERA is 3.02, and it is currently at 2.35 following Sunday's six scoreless innings. He's 5-2 for the year with a career record of 25-14. His 84 innings and 53 strike outs lead the Smokies.

Jacob Hannemann - While he hasn't hit for a high average in the minors, Hannemann is exciting on the bases. He stole a base and was caught once on Sunday, bringing his totals in those categories to 25 and 7. He led off the game with a nice slap hit to the opposite field, bouncing it over the third baseman's head. He has only 25 walks and an OBP of .323, but if he gets those numbers up, he'll be fun to watch.

What we missed:

Joe Nathan - Nathan is currently at Tennessee, trying to get back to the majors. It would've been fun to see him pitch, and a healthy Nathan will look nice in Chicago's bullpen.

Brad Markey - Markey started Monday night, so we missed him by a day. He's a 2014 19th round pick out of Virginia Tech who has a 2.13 ERA in the minors so far. He's been at Tennessee all season, and his 6 wins lead the team. His 2.34 is right under Blackburn's and leads Tennessee starters.

Jen-Ho Tseng - Tseng has been a top prospect for a few years now and is currently ranked #24 on the MLB's Cubs list. Through nine starts, he's 3-3 with a 2.98 ERA.

We definitely had a lot of fun. I'm hoping we can make it back there later this season, especially if something like a Gleyber Torres promotion happens at some point.

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