Was the Knoxville Smokies’ season a success? It seems a straightforward question, but apparently, the answer depends on who you ask.
In the opinion of Smokies owner/GM Jeremy Mills, the outcome of the season met his expectations. “I felt my team had the necessary pieces to contend for a championship,” Mills said, “and we won the division and went to the 6th game of the series.”
According to always-outspoken Knoxville manager Snuff Wallace, however, the season was a failure. “I judge a team by one thing and one thing only,” Wallace said. “At the end of the year, are you the guy holding the big shiny trophy? And I ain’t got no big shiny trophy. How can you succeed if you’re not the king of the hill? Why the hell would you even ask that question?”
Wallace aside, most observers would agree that the Smokies had an impressive run this season. Prior to the season, most observers considered Knoxville, at best, a co-favorite in the East with the Jackson Hammerheads and Jacksonville Dragons. In fact, after surviving an early slump, the Smokies stormed away to win the division with ease. And, as Mills noted, they pushed the mighty Milwaukee Bear Claws to six games in the inaugural Patriot Series.
What were the secrets to Knoxville’s success? The first key was an outstanding, better-than-expected performance from the pitching staff. The Smokies’ team ERA of 3.79 was the best in the Patriot League, and their .721 OPS allowed was second only to Milwaukee. Knoxville’s hurlers recorded 811 strikeouts, the highest total in the league, while walking only 472, a figure bettered only by California. For a staff with few big names and little preseason buzz, this was a most impressive accomplishment.
The pitching staff’s performance was anchored by a dominant, shutdown bullpen. In a season where quality relief was in short supply throughout the league, the Smokies had an abundance of top-notch relief arms. “The bullpen as a whole performed out of its mind,” said owner Mills, who compared his relief corps to the Buck Showalter-led Baltimore Orioles, who have also gotten a lot of mileage out of less-than-household names.
Journeyman right-hander Jerry Tile emerged out of nowhere as a dominant long reliever, making 50 appearances and posting a 6-0 record with a 2.28 ERA. Righty Rick Wilkins bounced from Silver City to Salt Lake to Knoxville during the season, but he really thrived with the Smokies, going 7-2 with a 2.67 mark. Veteran closer Charlie Pasternak provided regular drama-free work in the 9th, notching 31 saves to go with a 2.55 ERA.
Wallace also credited the bullpen, saying, “They were all nails, so I didn’t even have to think about who to bring in. I could just close my eyes and point. Made me look like a genius.”
Knoxville’s top-notch pen backed up a solid rotation, although it took a while for the pieces to come into place. Mills admitted his profound disappointment at “how far my original rotation missed the mark.” He found an unexpected ace in lefty Elicio Santana. The young southpaw came into the season with a reputation for being talented but inconsistent, in addition to being known as something of a flake. He ended up being an All-Star, putting up a 17-5 record and a 3.16 ERA.
Behind Santana, though, the Smokies rotation struggled at first. Lefty Grant Fore, expected to be the staff ace, suffered through a nightmarish season. He went 1-3 with and 8.18 ERA before being banished to Salt Lake in a midseason trade. Korean lefty Yu Chen also underperformed, going 1-4 with a 6.60 ERA. “Grant and Yu will be great starters in this league,” said Mills, “but circumstances dictated we make moves to reach our end goal.”
How did the Smokies front office fix their leaky rotation? By making trades. Mills’ passion for high-frequency trading became something of a joke in league circles, but there’s no denying that he never missed a chance to improve his team, and almost all of his trades this season worked out.
After Fore flopped, the Smokies made a deal to acquire right-hander Jack Jacques from Jacksonville. Inserted into the rotation, Jacques went 12-10 with a 4.40 ERA and proved an excellent innings-eater with an unflappable demeanor. Mills praised the Haitian-born hurler for “boost[ing] the rotation.”
When Chen stumbled, Knoxville swapped him to Jackson for veteran righty Sylvester Lighty. Despite being unable to crack the rotation for the pitching-starved Hammerheads, Lighty went 8-9 with a 4.27 ERA and provided needed stability.
The Smokies’ excellent pitching complemented an above-average offense that was, once again, bolstered by bold trades. Knoxville acquired 3B Ronnie Aceuedo before the season in a much-derided deal, but he proved a solid player, hitting .266 with 14 homers and providing excellent defense at the hot corner. Mills said that Aceuedo, along with backup C Ricky Bossard, “carried the team during stretches during the start and middle of the season.” 1B Eddie Battin, picked up from Jackson in the Lighty deal, turned out to be a fan favorite and a leader on the field and off, putting up an astounding 1.024 OPS in Knoxville and leading the team’s frequent victory celebrations.
With the Smokies coming so far but falling short of the ultimate goal, what’s the plan for next season? For Mills, unsurprisingly, the plan involves more trading. He did say, though, that he would look to “tweak the squad” rather than make wholesale changes. The front office is reportedly focused on strengthening the rotation and improving depth both on the bench and in the minors.
For Wallace, also unsurprisingly, the focus is on attitude. “We gotta come back mad next year,” said the skipper. “We waltzed through the regular season all right, but Milwaukee ate our lunch in the series. If there’s anybody who’s not out to come back next season and kick [expletive], I don’t want ‘em around. Next year is all about clawing our way to the top of the hill. That’s it.”