You might think that the Jackson Hammerheads and Knxoville Smokies, direct competitors in the Patriot League’s Eastern division, might not be interested in making trades with each other. But the teams’ owner/GMs, Knoxville’s Jeremiah Mills and Jackson’s Steven Butler, have a lot in common. They’re both active owners who are always seeking ways to improve their teams. They’re not averse to taking risks and making big splashes. If there is going to be a major deal this season, the Hammerheads and Smokies are by far the most likely teams to make it.
The two combined to close out the month of May with a doozy of a deal, one that was reportedly struck during a back-alley poker game between the teams’ owners. Knoxville traded DH Alex Jaramillo, starter Yu Chen, and 1B Pete Cianciarulo to Jackson for 1B Eddie Battin and reliever Sylvester Lighty. It’s the second trade between the two teams, after the preseason swap that sent reliever Butch Turnbull to Jackson in exchange for 3B Ronnie Aceuedo.
The prize of this deal from the Smokies’ perspective was unquestionably Battin. “We’ve been trying to land him pretty much since Opening Day,” said Mills. The 27-year-old Battin was a popular figure in the Hammerheads clubhouse, a man who kept things loose with a steady stream of jokes and an iPod full of upbeat country and rock-and-roll songs that he played after Jackson’s frequent victories. Although Battin has been a bit of a disappointment with the bat, hitting .247 with 6 homers and 28 RBI so far on the season, he has earned a reputation as an excellent fielder. He is expected to man first base in Knoxville as well, with incumbent first sacker Malcolm Bryant sliding into the DH role.
“I hate to see Eddie leaving here,” said Hammerheads CF Damian “Black Hammer” Deason. “He’s been our heart and soul. Maybe the deal makes sense on paper, but that’s a big loss for us.”
Lighty also represents an intriguing piece for the Smokies. The 35-year-old right-hander started the season in Jackson’s crowded bullpen, but when starter Luke Danton went on the DL with a rotator cuff injury, Lighty slid right into the rotation and thrived. He posted a 4-2 record and a 3.77 ERA with the Hammerheads in 13 appearances, including five starts. He is expected to join Knoxville’s starting staff.
“It’s an good opportunity, that’s how I think of it,” said Lighty. “I’ve got a lot of friends here [in Jackson], and I think this team’s got a real shot at winning it all. It’s hard to walk away. But I love starting, and if the Smokies are giving me a chance to start, that’s something to be excited about. And I’m sure there’s some cool guys there, too. It should be fun!”
Jaramillo, the biggest name heading to the Hammerheads in the deal, has been the Smokies’ full-time DH for most of the season. The 25-year-old slugger has put up fairly solid numbers, batting .266 with 10 HR and 34 RBI. Unlike Battin, he does not have a reputation as a clubhouse favorite. Knoxville teammates considered him to be somewhat egocentric and aloof, and he reportedly clashed with Smokies manager Snuff Wallace on a number of issues, most notably his spot in the batting order.
“I don’t know if anybody here’s going to be sorry to see him gone,” said one Knoxville player. “Alex is in a lovefest… with Alex.”
Jaramillo is expected to serve as the Hammerheads’ designated hitter, which will trigger a series of rearrangements in the lineup. Erin Arispe, who has served as Jackson’s DH since returning from a DL stint for a hamstring problem, will return to his season-opening position in right field. Lacy Wilczynski, who has been manning right since Arispe’s injury, will replace Battin at first base.
Chen represents the biggest question mark in the deal, and perhaps the player with the most upside. The 27-year-old Korean lefty struggled mightily with the Smokies this season. He missed an early-season start with a back injury and seemingly never got himself back into working order after that. In eight starts with Knoxville, Chen posted a 1-4 record and a 6.60 ERA. Like Jaramillo, Chen had a difficult relationship with Wallace. The manager felt that Chen was difficult to communicate with (in fairness, Chen is a recent immigrant who is not fluent in English) and that he was less than diligent in working out and staying in shape between starts.
The Hammerheads hope that new pitching coach Eddie Harris can get Chen straightened out and get him back to the workhorse form he showed in Korea, where he posted a 24-9 record and a 3.22 ERA in 40 starts last season.
Cianciarulo, a 32-year-old New Jersey native, who has failed to perform in limited action with the Smokies, was generally regarded as a throw-in to the deal. He is currently on the disabled list, and is expected to be sent to the minors by the Hammerheads once he gets back.
It’s unquestionably a major deal, but the question must be asked: Did either team really get better? It may be addition by subtraction for the Smokies, who got rid of two players the manager had soured on. But it’s far from clear that Battin will perform any better offensively than Jaramillo, and Bryant had been doing a fine job defensively at first. Lighty seems like a good bet for the rotation, but he’s only seen limited action there. As for the Hammerheads, they’re rolling the dice by bringing two players of questionable character into what has been a tight and happy clubhouse. Will the positive atmosphere in Jackson rub off on Jaramillo and Chen, or will it be the other way around? And is Chen capable of producing the results he did in his home country, or have the years and innings taken their toll on his arm?
Jackson’s Butler, one of the architects of the deal, shrugged when asked about the impact. “I’m not sure whether either team got better from a talent standpoint,” Butler said. “It’s really just dragon-chasing.”
The trade leaves the Hammerheads one man over the roster limit, and the Smokies a man short. As of the time this article went to press, neither team had announced a corresponding move.