Southern notes: Clifton enjoys home cooking

Cubs prospect feeling comfortable close to Tennessee hometown

Trevor Clifton is 3-1 with a 2.73 ERA, 35 strikeouts and 14 walks in 38 innings for the Smokies. (Brian McLeod/

By Guy Curtright / Special to | May 18, 2017 10:00 AM ET

When Tennessee right-hander Trevor Clifton takes the mound at Smokies Stadium, it really is a home game for the Cubs' No. 7 prospect. Clifton is from nearby Maryville and grew up occasionally watching games at the Southern League ballpark where he now pitches.

The Smokies hadn't had a local player to cheer for previously, and Clifton has a sizeable rooting section of family and friends for each start.

"It's definitely cool to have the support," the 22-year-old said. "My teammates mess with me about all the cheers I get, but the jokes are all in good fun. I'm really enjoying being able to play here. It's exciting."

Clifton's roots with the team run so deep that it was in the Smokies Stadium press box where Clifton signed his first contract after being a 12th-round pick by the Cubs in the 2013 Draft soon after graduating from Heritage High School.

The Clifton of five years ago doesn't look much like the one of 2017, though.

"I'm four inches taller and weigh 40 pounds more," said Clifton, who stands 6-foot-4 and about 215 pounds.

Clifton is also a much better pitcher, although the extra size doesn't mean he now throws harder.

"My velocity has actually gone down," he said. "All I did in high school was throw hard. I think that's probably why I didn't go higher in the Draft."

After reaching 96-97 mph with his four-seam fastball as a teenager, Clifton now mostly sits 90-94 mph. But he also has a two-seamer, a tight curveball and a changeup, and he's he working on a slider/cutter. Most importantly, Clifton now knows where the ball is going. Not just approximately, either.

"The key is to be able to command my fastball to either said of the plate, and my offspeed pitches, too," Clifton said. "That's what I've worked on the most this year."

The early results with the Smokies have been impressive. Clifton is 3-1 with a 2.73 ERA, 35 strikeouts and 14 walks in 38 innings. Opponents are batting .236 against him, and he has a WHIP of 1.24.

Video: Tennessee's Clifton strikes out Medrano

Clifton, who received a bonus of $375,000 to bypass a scholarship to the University of Kentucky, began the transition from thrower to pitcher in 2015, and it all started coming together last season at Myrtle Beach. He was named the Class A Advanced Carolina League's Pitcher of the Year after leading the circuit in ERA (2.72), opponent batting average (.225) and WHIP (1.16). Clifton also won two playoff games, allowing just one run and helping Myrtle Beach claim the Carolina League title, and was named the Cubs' Minor League Pitcher of the Year.

Despite Clifton's fan support at Smokies Stadium and his familiarity with the ballpark, he's been just as good on the road as at home, posting ERAs of 2.29 and 2.40, respectively. It's all part of Clifton's ultra-consistent start to the season. He's gone at least five innings all seven times and only once given up as many as three runs.

The World Series champion Cubs went for hitters over pitchers in the Draft during the team's rebuild, leaving a bit of a gap in the system. In fact, Clifton may be the most advanced pitching prospect the Cubs have, and he didn't turn 22 until May 11.

"I'm taking it day by day. We all are," Clifton said. "There is an unbelievable team up there right now in Chicago. I watch the Cubs every day and try to learn from them. The goal is obviously to be up there, but you want to make sure you're ready so you can fit in and have success, too."

In brief

Major turnaround: Chattanooga outfielder LaMonte Wade, the Twins' No. 13 prospect, didn't get a hit until the fourth game of the season and was batting .103 (3-for-29) through April 17. Since then, though, he's been one of the hottest hitters in the Southern League, raising his batting average to .327. Wade, 23, hit .405 (34-for-84) over a 27-game stretch through Tuesday, and the rise in his average was hardly his only impressive statistic. The left-handed hitter also ranked among the league leaders in on-base percentage (.459) and runs scored (27). Wade, a ninth-round pick in 2015, had 28 walks compared to 19 strikeouts.

Road warriors: The Biloxi Shuckers won the South Division first-half title in 2015 as a travel team while MGM Park was being finished, and they continue to have success away from the Gulf Coast. The Shuckers were 14-6 after their first four road series, but a league-worst 6-13 at home through May 16. Home field has meant little for a lot of SL teams so far, with half enjoying better records on the road. Joining Biloxi with road success are Jackson, Tennessee, Mississippi and Montgomery. Jackson is 12-3 on the road.

Conflicting stats: The bad news for Birmingham left-hander Jordan Guerrero is that he has a 0-5 record and a 4.95 ERA. The good news is that he has other pitching stats that are as impressive as those are disappointing. Guerrero, 22, has an SL-best 59 strikeouts to 12 walks through 43 2/3 innings in eight starts and seems on the verge of finally getting a victory. The 15-round pick by the White Sox in the 2012 Draft was 0-1 in his first three May starts but had a 2.00 ERA and 26 strikeouts to five walks in 18 innings.

Playing catchup: Chattanooga reliever Nick Burdi pitched just three innings for the Lookouts last season because of an elbow problem, but the hard-throwing right-hander is making up for lost time this year. The second-round pick by Minnesota in the 2014 Draft out of the University of Louisville is 2-0 with a save and a 0.61 ERA after his first 12 appearances, striking out 19 in 14 2/3 innings. Burdi, 24, is ranked as the Twins' No. 16 prospect but is now behind his younger brother in the race to the Majors. Zack Burdi, 22, was taken in the first round of the Draft last year by the White Sox and is pitching in Triple-A.

Guy Curtright is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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