Farm Report Wrap-Up: Keep an eye out for some sleepers on Smokies roster

Tennessee Smokies infielder Logan Watkins was named the organization’s 2012 Minor League Player of the Year. (Photo by Rodger Wood)

Today we continue our tour around the Cubs farm system, taking a level-by-level look at performances the organization hopes to build on in 2013. The Double-A Tennessee Smokies are next in the spotlight.

For all the talent we’ve written about in the lower levels of the Cubs system, it was the Tennessee Smokies who featured two full seasons from the organization’s Minor League Player and Pitcher of the Year.

Two nights ago, infielder Logan Watkins and right-hander Nick Struck were honored by Jason McLeod and farm director Brandon Hyde in a pre-game ceremony at Wrigley Field. Watkins was a 21st-round pick out of high school in the 2008 draft, and he’s shown a consistent ability to get on base throughout his minor league career. This year, he hit for a .281/.383/.422 slash line (AVG/OBP/SLG) and collected 76 walks in 588 plate appearances. His 13 percent walk rate was three percentage points higher than his already lofty career standards, and his slugging percentage was nearly 50 points higher despite having roughly the same batting average. In other words, it was a career year.

Of course, Watkins’ skill set is broader than just patience. He has versatility in the field—spotting at shortstop and center field in addition to second base—and the speed to rack up double-digit triples and stolen bases. He bats left-handed too. A 23-year-old sleeper to track as he likely moves to Iowa next year.

Struck also is turning out to be a late-round sleeper. A 2009 39th-round pick out of an Oregon community college, Struck emerged as the Smokies’ ace a season after he split time between three levels (A, AA and AAA). His 155 innings led the team, and he finished with a 3.18 ERA and 1.18 WHIP. Just as importantly, his hits and walks allowed ticked down from a year ago, while his strikeouts climbed to just over seven per nine innings.

Struck isn’t a high-ceiling type—in other words, someone with a high-90s fastball or a wipeout breaking ball—but he’s succeeded with poise, pitch ability and a versatile four-pitch mix. He turns 23 this month and also is likely to wind up in Iowa next season.

Final Records:

First Half / 35-35, tie-second place, 7.0 GB

Second Half / 37-33, tie-second place, 4.0 GB

Storylines: This is a team that the Cubs front office hopes will develop some future contributors in Chicago. Matt Szczur struggled in his first taste of Double-A, but he has the toolset to hit for average and use his speed on the basepaths and in the outfield alongside Brett Jackson. Right-hander Trey McNutt has had mixed success since his breakout campaign two years ago, but this summer, the Cubs found a new home for his plus fastball and power breaking ball in the bullpen. Shortstop Junior Lake also is smoothing out rough edges, but he has a ceiling that few prospects in the higher levels can match. Outfielder Jae-Hoon Ha deserves special mention after a successful all-around campaign including a home run in the Futures Game.

Perhaps most telling is that the Cubs are sending seven Smokies, along with the quickly climbing Javier Baez, to the Arizona Fall League: outfielder Rubi Silva and pitchers Struck, Dae-Eun Rhee, Tony Zych, Zac Rosscup and Kevin Rhoderick.

Starting in one week, the AFL features many of baseball’s best prospects. For the players, it’s an opportunity to get extra at-bats or innings against high-quality competition. For the Cubs front office, it will be a chance to judge the readiness of some players, including if a player like Rhee should be added to the 40-man roster and thus protected from the Rule 5 draft.

MLB.com Rankings: Four Tennessee players were on the organization’s end-of-season top 20 prospect list, according to prospect expert Jonathan Mayo. Outfielder Matt Szczur ranked sixth, right-hander Trey McNutt was eighth, shortstop Junior Lake slotted in at ninth and Zych was 19th.

Top Performances: Ha (international, 2008) was a catcher when he signed out of Korea, but he’s certainly taken to the outfield. A spectacular defender who makes outstanding reads and has a strong arm, his main focus is in developing the offensive side of his game. He made some strides this year in his plate discipline, increasing his walk rate from a career 3.5 percent to an astounding 9.5 percent. It did appear to come at the cost of power—his slash line was .273/.352/.385. Ha turns just 22 this month, and it will be interesting to see how his profile fills out.

Lake (international, 2007) is commonly referred to as toolsy—featuring elite, 80-grade arm strength to go along with a loud bat and speed. He was added to the 40-man roster last winter, and scouts noted some real offensive progress as he finished 2012 with a .279/.341/.442 slash line in 103 games. He still struck out over 100 times, but he also walked nearly twice as much as he did in 2011 (between Daytona and Tennessee). Lake saw a little more time at third base this season, with shortstop blocked at the major league level.

Michael Burgess (first/supplemental round, 2007) was acquired from the Nationals in the Tom Gorzelanny trade two off-seasons ago. Turning 24 this month, he’s always shown massive power and he bounced back from a rough 2011 with a higher batting average (as part of a .259/.350/.422 slash line) and significantly lower strikeout rate. Burgess also has an outstanding arm in right field.

Left-hander Eric Jokisch (11th round, 2010) was promoted to the Smokies after nine games with Daytona, and he looked right at home. His 2.91 ERA in 18 appearances (17 starts) led all starters, and he showed no drop off in increasing his workload from 134 total innings to 159. His strikeouts per nine did plummet to 5.4, but he also kept the walks and hits low. A product of Northwestern University, Jokisch will be 23 until next June.

Zych (fourth round, 2011) had a successful full-season debut between Daytona and Tennessee, striking out 10.2 batters per nine innings at the latter level in 24 innings. He’s 22, has true power stuff and projects as a future late-inning reliever in the majors as he develops his breaking ball.

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