Knoxville Smokies owner/GM Jeremiah Mills has a fever. And the only prescription is more trades. The man is constantly working the phones and sending emails, looking for ways to improve his team, looking for ways to keep things fresh, sometimes looking for deals just to satisfy his pathological need to trade. Mills isn’t afraid to make a big deal if he thinks it will make his team better. And once he decides he wants a player, he stops at nothing until that player is his.
Those two tendencies came together in a major trade between the Smokies and the Salt Lake Samurai. Knoxville shipped out their former ace, Grant Fore, along with minor-leaguers Matthew Weigel and Norman Sater, to Salt Lake in exchange for relievers Oliver Jones and Rick Wilkins and prospect Jose Mariata.
“I feel like we have a strong team,” said Mills, “but there’s always room to improve. And you never know what kind of deals are out there unless you ask. That’s why I’m always asking.”
The Smokies are currently in hot pursuit of the Jackson Hammerheads atop the East, and one weakness that Mills has identified in his team is the bullpen. After a promising start, the relief corps has faltered in recent weeks. Mills is hoping that Wilkins and Jones can provide the Knoxville pen with some badly needed depth and strength.
Wilkins, a 31-year-old righty, is on his third stop of the season. He opened the year with the Silver City Outlaws, but landed in manager John Jarha’s doghouse after a particularly poor outing. Last month, the Outlaws shipped him to Salt Lake in exchange for reliever Cliff Humphrey. After feeling he never got a fair shake in Silver City, Wilkins thrived in Salt Lake. In 11 appearances, Wilkins posted a 3.71 ERA and compiled a 12-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
“I’m thankful to the Samurai organization for giving mt the chance to prove myself,” said Wilkins. “I was gathering dust [in Silver City], and it felt like I might wither away. The Samurai let me do what I do best. Every player want s to compete for a championship, and I’m glad I’ll get to do that with the Smokies. But I’ll always remember my time here.”
The versatile, rubber-armed Wilkins could fill a number of roles in the Knoxville bullpen. He is likely to get a number of late-inning opportunities, complementing or possibly even supplanting Sheldon Follis as the team’s primary setup man. He may also provide some long relief, taking some of the pressure off of Jerry Tile.
Jones, a 19-year-old lefty, has less promising stats than Wilkins. In 22 appearances with the Samurai, Jones compiled an 0-3 record and a 6.89 ERA. He has struggled quite a bit with his control, allowing 25 walks against only 12 strikeouts. But he started the season in promising fashion before hi numbers nosedived, and many analysts attribute his swoon to overwork.
“[The Samurai] were riding him like a rented mule,” said one scout of Jones. “God bless the kid, he kept going out there and never complained. But someone needed to rescue him before his arm fell off.”
The Knoxville bullpen has only one incumbent southpaw, Tobias Dennis, who has also struggled recently. The Smokies front office hopes that the two can split opportunities and take some of the pressure off of each other.
Wilkins and Jones figure to help Knoxville compete this season. But according to sources with the team, the real prize for Mills in this deal was Mariata. He has coveted the 20-year-old righty from afar for some time, and it’s easy to see why. Mariata has an arm that makes scouts drool; his fastball has been clocked at speeds up to 103 MPH. He is an extremely raw prospect who is still learning to harness his talent, but he profiles as a future closer, according to scouts.
“He just plain throws smoke,” said one scout. “He has Aroldis Chapman stuff, plus. He could wind up being the best player in this deal in the long run.”
The key to this deal from Salt Lake’s perspective is Fore. The 20-year-old lefty was expected to be a building block of the Smokies franchise and an anchor of their rotation, but things never clicked for him in Knoxville. Fore compiled a 1-3 record and an 8.18 ERA in a Smokies uniform, failing to find success as a starter or a reliever. He lost his spot in the rotation when the Smokies acquired Jack Jacques from Jacksonville, and never really found his footing after that.
“We wanted to keep Grant, but we had to make a move that would get us immediate help,” said Mills. “Also, Fore deserved to go to an organization that could be more patient with him.”
While the pennant-contending Smokies couldn’t afford the wait to see if Fore could turn things around. But for the rebuilding Samurai, he represents a promising gamble. If he can regain the form he displayed as a college prospect, Fore could become the reliable starter that Salt Lake desperately needs.
“We’re really excited to have Grant on board,” said Samurai owner/GM Sarah Buehler. “We believe he and Toshiie Maeda can be the 1-2 punch that will make us a contender for years to come.”
The other two pieces coming Salt Lake’s way are low-cost veterans that provide additional depth options. The 35-year-old Weigel came to spring training with Knoxville to compete for the DH job, but was beaten out for the position by Alex Jaramillo and has spent the season in the minors. But for the Samurai, who have struggled to generate consistent offense, Weigel has a shot to crack the lineup before the season is out. He spent last season in Japan, where he batted .246 with 24 home runs.
The 37-year-old Sater, a right-handed reliever, originally signed with Silver City, but was waived during spring training. He pitched last season in the Atlantic League, where he posted a 2-5 record with 6 saves and a 4.82 ERA. A former fireballer who has become a finesse pitcher with age, Sater figures to take the spot formerly held by Wilkins in the Samurai bullpen. He may also have the opportunity to start later in the season.
Some around the league have questioned why the Samurai, who should be stockpiling youth, decided to trade two very young players (Jones and Mariata) while getting only one in return (Fore). But the Samurai front office believes that Fore has the potential to be a franchise cornerstone, while neither Jones nor Mariata figured into the organization’s long-term plans. If either one turns out to be a future star and Fore continues to stumble, the trade could turn into a major embarrassment for Salt Lake. But as a team that has a long way to go to be a contender, the Samurai know they’re going to have to take some chances in order to get better, and they believe Fore is a chance with taking.
As for Knoxville, they’re clearly hoping that Jones and Wilkins can help them compete in the short term. But they’ve got to be hoping that Fore won’t turn out to be the one that got away.