Smokies Strike Twice at Deadline

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Jeremy Mills, King of Trading

The Patriot League trading deadline was today.  Most observers predicted that the Knoxville Smokies and Jackson Hammerheads would be the most active teams at the deadline, since they’ve been by far the most prolific dealers all season long.  Unsurprisingly, they kicked off the deadline swap meet by making a trade with each other.

But then the Hammerheads struck a deal with the California Sharks, one that threatened to make Jackson owner/whiz-kid GM Steven Butler the king of the deadline.  But Smokies boss Jeremy Mills wasn’t about to let Butler steal his crown without a fight.  In the final hours before the deadline passed, Mills made a pair of deals that may or may not have made the Smokies the team to beat in the East, but definitely ensured that Mills remained the top trader.

“We’re always looking for ways to make the team better,” said Mills, still visibly twitching from the adrenaline that trading always gives him.

The first deal that Knoxville struck was with the East’s last-place team, the Orlando Calrissians.  The Smokies acquired a pair of left-handed pitchers, Rick Tomblin and Tom Trane, from Orlando in exchange for LF Titus Maben, lefty reliever Oliver Jones, and a 3rd-round draft pick.

The Smokies have the best team ERA in the league (3.47), so it might seem odd that they were looking to add pitching.  But they opened a hole in their rotation when they traded knuckleballer Todd Warrant to Jackson in their earlier deal.  In Tomblin and Trane, they get a pair of possible replacements, although both had a rough ride with the Calrissians.

Rick Tomblin
Rick Tomblin
Tom Trane
Tom Trane

Both Tomblin and Trane began the season in Orlando’s rotation, but both were bounced out after the Calrissians suffered through a disappointing April.  The 22-year-old Tomblin compiled an 0-1 record and a 15.26 ERA in three starts before being banished to the minors.  The 29-year-old Trane was sent to the bullpen after being bumped from the rotation, but he struggled in that role as well before going down with an oblique strain, then winding up in the minors on his return.  Overall, Trane compiled an 0-2 record with a 9.82 ERA in nine appearances with Orlando.

“Tom and Rick are both solid hurlers,” said Smokies manager Snuff Wallace.  “They ran out of chances with Orlando, but I’m sure they’ll both be ready to help us lift that championship trophy.  Rub a little of the Snuff magic dust on ‘em, and they’ll be good.”

According to team sources, it is likely that Trane will work out of the bullpen for Knoxville, giving the Smokies another long-relief arm to supplement Jerry Tile.  As for Tomblin, he seems destined to bump the recently-acquired Nico Library out of the rotation.  Although Knoxville insists that Library will get a start against Jackson, his unimpressive minor-league numbers suggest that he is not destined to remain with the big club for long.

Titus Maben
Titus Maben
Oliver Jones ORL
Oliver Jones

Meanwhile, the Calrissians have made no secret of their desire to rebuild around young players.  While they did make the somewhat curious decision to part with a young arm in Tomblin, the Calrissians received several promising pieces in return.  The 23-year-old Maben headlines the package coming to Orlando.  Although he scuffled in limited action with Knoxville, compiling a .125 average in 32 at-bats, Maben profiles as a quality corner outfielder and potential top-of-the-order bat.  The Calrissians have had major struggles in the outfield, and now they have another prospect to join teenage slugger Bart Law in their stable.

In the 19-year-old Jones, the Calrissians land a capable, hard-throwing young arm that might bring some stability to their wobbly bullpen.  The young southpaw began the season in Salt Lake, where his numbers suffered from overuse.  He was dealt to Knoxville in June, and was slotted into a lower-usage role that allowed him to thrive.  He compiled a 1-1 record with a 3.71 ERA in 16 appearances with the Smokies.  Like a lot of young pitchers, Jones struggles with his control – he has allowed 48 walks this season while recording only 26 strikeouts – but he is considered a highly promising prospect in an area where Orlando is sorely lacking.

“We really wanted a look at a young outfielder, and we liked Maben,” said Calrissians owner Brian Aufmuth.  “But it was the draft pick that pushed us over the edge.  This gives us a real shot to build for the future.”

After completing the deal with Orlando, Mills turned around and struck a bargain with the California Sharks, acquiring LF Rucky Virella in exchange for 3B Max Ortiz.

Rucky Virella
Rucky Virella

The Smokies were looking to add a young player after dealing away several prospects in recent deals, and Virella fits the bill.  The 24-year-old is a versatile young player with decent pop.  After a brief stint with California at the start of the season, he has spent most of the year with the minors, where he compiled a .234 average with 6 homers.  He is capable of playing all three outfield positions and first base, although he does not have a reputation as a good fielder.

Max Ortiz
Max Ortiz

Meanwhile, the Sharks were looking to strengthen their infield, and Ortiz provides what they were looking for.  The veteran can play either corner infield position, and he is known for a solid power bat.  He was relegated to pinch-hit duty with the Smokies, putting up a .208 average in 48 at bats, but he should get much more opportunity with California.  The team plans to start him out in a platoon with Johnie Oller at first, and if he thrives, he may also split time with struggling 3B Karl Mote.

“I am delighted to have Max on our team,” said Sharks manager Eduardo Aponte, who was teammates with Ortiz in the Mexican League several years ago.  “He is a delightful storyteller, a dangerous bat, and he will be a good mentor for our younger players.”

With the deadline now past, Mills and the Smokies are officially done dealing for the season.  Now they’ll just have to wait and see if these tweaks were what the team needed to stay on top, or if the revolving clubhouse door will wind up dooming them.

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