Cubs News: Season in Review: Tennessee Smokies

Cubs News: Season in Review: Tennessee Smokies

by - Senior Writer -

The 2023 MLB season was a special one for the Tennessee Smokies and one that was nearly five decades in the making. That is because, for the first time in 45 years, the Smokies were crowned outright Southern League Champions, ending one of the longest droughts in AA. While the season was filled with success, as you can expect from a 75-62 record, things weren't always that way, as there was plenty of drama to go around.

The biggest story surrounding the team was when they decided to let Manager Michael Ryan go right before the end of the first half as Kevin Graber replaced him. For the most part, Graber did a phenomenal job, especially during the second half, to help lead the Smokies to the second-half title and put them in a position to win the title. That didn't come without some late-season struggles, as the Smokies dropped seven straight toward the end of the season before winning five of their last six to get rolling.

For that to happen, you need a strong cast of players, and the Smokies had plenty of talented guys, highlighted by Owen Caissie and Pete Crow-Armstrong. The outfield duo showed the fans why they are two of the more coveted players in the Cubs system, with Caissie hitting .289 with 22 homers and 89 RBIs and having PCA chip in with 14 homers, 60 RBIs, and also a .289 average. PCA would earn a late-season promotion to AAA, but his presence was felt all season.

Along with those two, the Smokies were also treated to a great showing from Luis Vazquez before his promotion. At the same time, Pablo Aliendo, Haydn McGeary, and BJ Murray Jr. put up impressive numbers from start to finish. Aliendo may have struggled average-wise, hitting just .231, but his 16 homers were second on the team while also driving in 61. The same can be said about McGeary, who slugged 16 homers of his own with 55 RBIs, hitting .255 for the campaign.

Had it not been for Murray Jr. and his 16 homers, 63 RBIs, and .263 average, who knows where this team would have been as he came through with several clutch hits down the stretch.

While the offense was the story most of the season, the pitching showed up when it mattered, and you look right at Cade Horton as one of those reasons.

Horton began the season with Low-A Myrtle Beach before finishing in AA this season. Once he got to the Smokies, he continued to pick up where he left off and emerged as the Ace of this staff, going 1-1 with a 1.33 ERA in six starts and 4-4 with a 2.65 ERA across 21 starts this season.

Before his arrival, Jordan Wicks anchored down the rotation as he went 4-0 with a 3.23 ERA across 13 starts, while DJ Herz posted a 3.97 ERA across 14 starts before his trade.

Kohl Franklin led the team in starts with 21, but after a 4-10 record and an ERA near 6.00, there are many questions surrounding his future and what his best role would be. Of all the pitchers that saw time with the Smokies this season, the one name that continues to get overlooked is Walker Powell, and that shouldn't be the case any longer.

Powell may not be one of the top prospects in the system, but he is a top-25 guy who has continued to improve. Take this season, for example, where he posted a 3.68 ERA and led the Smokies with 11 wins and only six losses. He did that across 21 starts and will be looking to build on that next season. Porter Hodge was another guy that impressed in 2022, but took a few steps back this season as he was moved to the bullpen in the second half of the year.

Other guys who saw time with Tennesse, although limited, were Brandon Birdsell, who should be near the top of the rotation next season, Mosises Ballesteros, Kevin Alcantara, Chase Strumpf, and Cole Roederer, as all of them played a role in some aspect. Heading into the 2024 season, all eyes will be on Matt Shaw, who was not only a first-round selection by the Cubs in 2023 but has risen inside the top 10 prospect ranking within the organization, reaching AA as a rookie this year. That is unheard of, and it will be interesting to see the strides he makes next season.

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