What should we expect from the Smokies in the second half? It’s impossible to know, of course, but there are several keys to a more successful second half than their 33-36 first half record. Judging from their recent series with Chattanooga, they could finally breakout and show their potential in the second half. If they want to do that, here are some keys to success to make it to the playoffs.
Had the Smokies been healthier, could they have topped Huntsville’s 44-26 record and clinched a playoff spot? Possibly, but the focus has to be assuring a second half spot. Nine Tennessee players spent time on the Disabled List this season, including four of five starting pitchers–Corey Black, Ivan Pineyro, Pierce Johnson, and C.J. Edwards, all of them on Baseball America’s Cubs Top 30 Prospect list. Stephen Bruno and Jorge Soler, key bats in the lineup, have spent time on the DL, Soler for the majority of the season and remains on the list as the second half starts. Leadoff hitter John Andreoli, as well as Hunter Cervenka, have also missed due to a Disabled List stint. If the Smokies can stay healthy in the second half then their talent could well take them to the post-season for a second consecutive year. Soler, who hit seven doubles in the seven games played, could play an important offensive role once he comes back off the disabled list.
The Smokies have likely been the most inconsistent team in the league. They lost four out of five to begin the season in Pensacola, came back to Kodak to win four of five from Chattanooga. The pattern continued for most of the first half. Win streak followed by losing streak, followed by, well you get the picture. Huntsville started the season 10-13, but then went on a 13-3 tear, led by one of the most potent offenses in baseball.
Continued Success against North Division Teams:
With Huntsville excluded, the Smokies have gone 25-14 against North Division teams. The Cubs affiliate has taken five of nine games against Jackson, eleven of fifteen against Chattanooga, and nine of fifteen against Birmingham. This level of success against their North Division rivals should ensure a playoff spot.
Find a way to beat Huntsville:
The Huntsville Stars have been the story thus far in in the Southern League’s North Division, finishing 12.5 games ahead of second-place Tennessee. The first-half championship guarantees a post-season spot in their last season in Huntsville. The Milwaukee affiliate moves to Biloxi next season.
Pitching has been the main source of their success. Tyler Cravy is 8-1 with a 1.72 ERA; Brent Suter, 7-5 with a 3.65 ERA; Brooks Hall, 2-1 with a 2.77 ERA; Andy Moye, 2-0 with a 2.78 ERA and Drew Gagnon, 4-2 with 2.95 ERA.The Stars bullpen has also been impressive and combined for 16 of Huntsville’s 44 victories.
Their offense is led by veterans who know how to win. Although the Smokies played the Stars close, Huntsville did what they needed to win, besting the Smokies in eight of the ten first half contests. Six of the ten games were decided by three runs or less, including three walk-offs.
Their offense, while not overwhelming, has been solid and managed to do just a bit better than their opponents. Starting catcher, Adam Weisenburger, a Southern League All-Star last year, struggled in the beginning of the season, but he is now hitting .261 driving in 17 runs. The infield is solid—third baseman Jason Rogers is hitting .282 with six home runs and 37 RBIs, utility inflielder Josh Prince has contributed 23 steals, and first baseman Nick Ramirez is the main source of their power hitting .256, with 11 home runs and 45 RBI’s. Their outfield includes former University of Tennessee player Kentrail Davis, who is hitting .262, with two home runs and 22 RBIs; Mitch Haniger, who is hitting .263 with 10 home runs and 34 RBIs, and speedy D’Vontrey Richardson who has chipped in with 12 steals and has shown signs of pop with 29 RBIs.
They also boast eight players from Baseball America’s top 30 prospects in the Milwaukee Brewers system: Haniger (#3), Goforth (#8), Jed Bradley (#18), Rogers (#20), Kevin Shackleford (#21), Gagnon (#25), Cravy (#29), and Richardson (#30).
The Smokies know they have the talent to beat the Stars, but Huntsville and has proven they are the main hurdle to the championship.
Do better against the South Division:
Before winning the recent M-Braves series, the Smokies had not won a series against a South Division team. They had a chance to do so against Jacksonville, but suffered back-to-back walk-off losses. They have lost four of five to Pensacola, lost the first series to Mississippi four out of five, three out of five against Mobile and three out of five to Jacksonville, but they could have won the Mobile series and Jacksonville series. The Smokies must improve here to win a championship berth.
Despite what the record says, the Smokies are a good team. They had enough talent to win the first half, but too often faltered in close series, including the first two with Huntsville. But they will have to find a way to cope with the loss of Kris Bryant’s bat. The powerful third baseman, who won the Home Run Derby Monday during the All Star celebration, has been promoted to Triple A Iowa on the basis of his .355 batting average, 22 home runs and 58 runs batted in during the first half in Tennessee.
But a healthy Smokies squad will likely play more consistently. Moreover getting 2013 All Star third baseman Christian Villanueva back from Iowa who was an All-Star last year, will help and improve the defense.
Improvement in several of these areas should result in a far more successful second half.