By Roger Hoover / Smokies Radio Network
Many things have changed for the Chicago Cubs this offseason, as new President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and General Manager Jed Hoyer put their touches on the Cubs roster and farm system. Many Cubs have changed organizations over the winter, including several former Tennessee Smokies. This week, the Smokies Radio Network will profile five notable former Smokies who will play for new organizations in 2012. We’ll take a look at what’s new for these players, as well as reflect on their time at Smokies Park.
In yesterday’s post we looked at Marwin Gonzalez’s new situation after he was selected by the Boston Red Sox in the Rule 5 draft then traded to the Houston Astros. Today we look at another former Smokies infielder that was selected in last December’s Rule 5 draft, Ryan Flaherty.
Flaherty, a left-handed hitting versatile infielder, was selected by the Baltimore Orioles from the Cubs with the fourth overall pick in the Rule 5 draft on Dec. 8,2011.
For Flaherty this is the second time in his career that he has been a high-profile draft pick, as he was a first round sandwich round selection (41st overall) by the Cubs out of Vanderbilt University in 2008.
Flaherty is coming off a solid 2011 season that he split between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa. The infielder hit .280 between the clubs with 19 homers and 88 runs batted in in 132 games.
While he only hit .237 with Iowa in 2011, Flaherty shined while wearing the Smokies uniform to begin the season. In 83 games with Tennessee, Flaherty hit .305 with 14 homers and 66 runs batted in. Flaherty played all over the infield and outfield with the Smokies, seeing the most action at second base where he played in 37 games for manager Brian Harper.
Flaherty’s play helped Tennessee clinch a first half North Division championship, the fourth straight division title for the Smokies. The Southern League recognized Flaherty’s stellar play with a selection to the Southern League North Division All-Star team. Flaherty was one of 12 Smokies named to the All-Star squad, as the North Division defeated the South Division in the All-Star Game 6-3 on June 22, 2011 in Jackson, Tenn.
Flaherty’s time in Tennessee came to an end on July 14 when he was called up to Triple-A Iowa. Between Iowa and Tennessee, Flaherty managed to play every infield position and both corner outfield positions to further build his versatility.
The native of Portland, Maine entered the 2010 season as the ninth best prospect according to Baseball America, and in just his third professional season he began the year at the Double-A level with the Smokies.
Flaherty was the Opening Day starter at second base for Bill Dancy’s 2010 Smokies, and went onto play in 23 games for Tennessee before he was transferred to High-A Daytona on May 7.
Although he hit .183 with nine runs batted in during his 71 Tennessee at-bats, Flaherty made headlines with his first Double-A homer on April 18.
The Smokies were off to a 7-2 start to begin the season and had won three of the first four against Chattanooga in the first home series of the year at Smokies Park. With the Lookouts leading 5-4 going into the bottom of the tenth, Flaherty smashed a two-run walkoff homer to deliver Tennessee the victory to finish the series.
Broadcaster Jim Tocco was filling in for Mick Gillispie on the Smokies Radio Network that afternoon, and here is his call of Flaherty’s walkoff blast.
While Flaherty performed well at Smokies Park, his best playing days in the Volunteer state were likely spent down the road in Nashville where he starred for Vanderbilt University where in two seasons he was twice named an All-American and helped the Commodores win the 2007 SEC Championship.
Flaherty now makes his offseason home in Tennessee in Franklin.
What the Move Means for Flaherty: Like Gonzalez, Flaherty now has the Rule 5 protection to help him get his first shot at performing in the big leagues with the Orioles.
“I’m just going to make sure I come into camp ready to go, and whatever happens happen,” Flaherty told MASNsports.com. “I can’t control the rest. Just come into camp ready to go.”
While Flaherty is a part of the Orioles 40-man roster, Baltimore features many infielders with big league playing experience including Brian Roberts, Robert Andino, J.J. Hardy, Josh Bell, Matt Antonelli, Chris Davis, Ryan Adams, and Mark Reynolds.
Flaherty’s versatility should give him a shot to see playing time in Baltimore in 2012 as a reserve infielder that can play all over the diamond.
“Ryan is a high draft pick from an excellent college program, and we really like his bat,” Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette told the Baltimore Sun. “He has a reasonable chance to contribute at the major league level this season.”
What the Move Means for the Cubs: One of the strengths for the Cubs heading into 2012 is all the talent at the middle infield positions. Former Smoky Starlin Castro is expected to anchor the shortstop position for years to come, and was an All-Star in 2011 who led the National League in hits.
At second base, the Cubs feature three players who have performed at the big league level before in former Smoky Darwin Barney, Blake DeWitt, and Jeff Baker, all returning from the 2011 club.
The Cubs will start Bryan LaHair at first base to begin the season, and will also feature Ian Stewart at third base. Stewart was traded to the Cubs from the Rockies in December.
While Smokies fans will miss having Flaherty, Gonzalez, as well as D.J. LeMahieu in the Cubs organization, there is still good depth in the organization at the middle infield spots, and it will be interesting to see how these players adjust to new situations for 2012.