Jackson Hammerheads owner/whiz-kid GM Steven Butler and Knoxville Smokies boss Jeremy Mills are the Pavlovian dogs of trading. If you so much as mention the word “trade” in their presence, they spring to attention, eager to make a deal. And despite the fact that their teams are in heated competition for the Eastern division title, they aren’t hesitant to make a deal with each other, as they’ve proven more than once.
So with the trade deadline looming, it comes as no surprise that the Hammerheads and Smokies were working the phones and actively pursuing one last big score. Jackson was hungry, bordering on desperate, to bolster its starting rotation. Knoxville was seeking another big bat in the middle of its lineup, and also seeking to scratch Mills’ ever-present trading jones. Finding the trading waters chilly around the league, they wound up striking a deal with each other. The Smokies sent starter Todd Warrant and LF Ezra Sisco to the Hammerheads in exchange for LF Track Johnson and minor-league pitcher Nico Library.
Mills called it a “win-win” deal, but others around the league aren’t so sure. And the stakes couldn’t be higher; if the deal winds up being particularly one-sided, it might wind up deciding the division race.
“Wouldn’t it be funny if this trade winds up winning it for us?” said Butler.
For Butler’s Hammerheads, Warrant is the big prize, giving them the impact starter they so desperately needed. This season, the 25-year-old knuckleballer put up a 9-5 record and a 2.65 ERA, the lowest mark in the Smokies’ rotation. He will take the third slot in Jackson’s rotation, bumping Korean lefty Yu Chen, a failed reclamation project for the Hammerheads.
Starting pitching has been a major weakness for Jackson this season; ace Henry Jones and fifth starter Jordan Bergman have thrived, but the rest of the rotation has struggled with injury and ineffectiveness. If Warrant can continue to put up strong numbers for Jackson, it will be a big win for them. However, according to sources around the league, Knoxville had been shopping Warrant aggressively for some time, as their front office felt that his high walk totals (61 in 139 1/3 innings) and high unearned run total made him a poor long-term bet.
“Warrant was great! We’ll miss him,” said Mills. “I hope he does well, at least until he faces us.”
The 24-year-old Sisco, meanwhile, has shown himself to be a capable fielder and an excellent contact hitter, although one who lacks power. Batting largely out of the ninth slot for Knoxville, Sisco posted a .303 average with 2 home runs on the season. He’s also flashed excellent speed, swiping 18 bags to date. The Hammerheads haven’t been shy about deemphasizing power, and they think Sisco’s game will be a good fit for the cavernous dimensions at Cash Carter Downs.
“He’s the kind of guy who can keep the line moving and steal a base or two,” said Hammerheads manager Lou Hayes. “He’ll look real good in Hammerheads blue.”
Meanwhile, the Smokies are taking a gamble on Johnson’s ability to jump-start their offensive attack. The burly 29-year-old compiled a .321 average and an .877 OPS in Jackson, in addition to displaying a fine batting eye and a strong outfield arm. Although he generally batted out of the seventh slot for Jackson, he profiles as a middle-of-the-order hitter in Knoxville’s more power-friendly lineup.
“Move over, ’27 Yankees, here come the Smokies!” said Knoxville manager Snuff Wallace, visibly salivating at the prospect of adding Johnson to his lineup. “Look at the heart of our order! Malcolm Bryant, Eddie Battin, Jackson Campo, now Track. We got a carload of cannons!”
The wild card in the deal is Library, a poorly regarded 23-year-old righty. Library has spent his season to date in the minors, splitting his time between starting and relieving, and has compiled a 3-1 record and a 5.39 ERA, allowing 54 hits over 43 innings. He is not regarded as a hard thrower, nor does he have excellent control, and he is not particularly durable. Library’s reputation is so lackluster that some have questioned why Knoxville would ask for him in the trade.
“His only ability is availability,” said one league scout. “I’m not sure I’d take him if you paid me.”
Although Mills was clear that acquiring Johnson was his focus, he insists that he intends to insert Library into Knoxville’s rotation. “Embracing my inner Snuff,” said Mills with a smile. Library’s first start would come against his former team on August 17th. “Of course, there may be another trade in the works,” said the Smokies capo.
For Butler, this trade represents a chance to even the scales after his last deal with Knoxville went sour. At the end of May, Jackson shipped 1B Eddie Battin and swingman Sylvester Lighty to Knoxville for Chen and DH Alex Jaramillo. Although the trade was considered a wash at the time, it wound up being a steal for the Smokies. Battin has raked for Knoxville (putting up a .357 average with 17 homers) and Lighty has been a solid starter (posting a 5-5 record and a 3.48 ERA), while Chen fizzled with the Hammerheads and Jaramillo struggled with injuries and has posted underwhelming numbers since.
Will this trade be Butler’s revenge? Or will Mills wind up executing another swindle? Or will the trade be a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing? Only time will tell.
“At least we did something,” said Butler. For these two transaction-crazy owners, it seems, a big deal with big risks is much better than spending the deadline on the sidelines.