Comets, Smokies Swap Starters

There’s a trading arms race afoot in the Patriot League.

Recently, the Jackson Hammerheads have pulled off a string of deals, leading to owner/whiz-kid GM Steven Butler dubbing himself the “Sultan of Swap.”  Apparently, the Hammerheads’ rival and last year’s trading kings, the Knoxville Smokies, aren’t going to give up their title without a fight.

No sooner had the smoke cleared on Jackson’s two-deal day than Knoxville announced a trade with the Carolina Comets.  In the deal, the Smokies acquired right-handed starter Scott Green and C Dustin Hoffman in exchange for southpaw Tom Trane and 2B Danny Kurland.

“We got younger and deeper without giving up any front-line players,” said Smokies owner Jeremy Mills.  “It was a no-brainer from our perspective.”

Scott Green

For the Smokies, the big prize in the deal is Green, a 25-year-old who pitched last season in Korea, posting a 19-11 record with a 3.09 ERA.  The righty immediately becomes one of the harder throwers on the Knoxville staff, having compiled 199 strikeouts in 245 innings last season; however, he also displayed excellent control, yielding only 44 walks.  He is considered a likely candidate for the Smokies’ rotation.

“I got me another live one!” crowed Smokies manager Snuff Wallace.  “This kid’s got a thunderbolt for an arm, and I’ll bet he looks real good in orange.  Them Jackson boys may as well give up now and save themselves the embarrassment of us whuppin’ up on ‘em again.”

Dustin Hoffman

Hoffman, meanwhile, gives Knoxville some extra depth behind the plate, although he is likely to begin the season in the minors.  The 22-year-old batted .255 with 16 homers and 79 RBI in his senior season at Northern Indiana, and displayed above-average skills as a fielder and pitch framer.  He was nicknamed “Rain Man” by his teammates because of his name, although he is no relation to the famous actor.

“Believe me, I heard all the jokes,” said Hoffman.  “Probably my favorite was every time I got a base on balls, my teammates would start yelling, ‘Hey, I’m walkin’ here!’”

Tom Trane

In Trane, the Comets acquire an experienced and versatile pitcher, although one who had a down year in 2015.  The 30-year-old lefty started the year as a starter for the Orlando Calrissians, but after a rough first month found himself exiled to the bullpen.  Shortly thereafter, he landed on the disabled list with a strained oblique.  Once he returned from the DL, Orlando sent him to the minors, where he remained buried until the trading deadline.

At the deadline, Knoxville picked him up from the Calrissians along with fellow ex-starter Rick Tomblin.  While Tomblin seemed reborn in Knoxville orange, Trane continued to struggle in a long relief role for Knoxville.  He finished the year with an 0-2 record and an 8.66 ERA.

“I got bounced around like a ping-pong ball last year,” said Trane.  “I had a couple bad starts, then I got bumped to the pen, then I got hurt, then I got buried in the minors, then I wound up with a new team down the stretch.  I never really found my footing.  I’m hoping that being with an expansion team, I’ll have some stability and a bit longer leash, so I can just relax and do my job without looking over my shoulder.”

Outside observers believe Trane has a decent shot to make Carolina’s rotation, though he said he is willing to start or relieve.  “All I want is a shot, a real shot,” said Trane.

Danny Kurland

Carolina also picked up a second-base prospect in Kurland, a 22-year-old native of Calgary.  Kurland played only sparingly for Knoxville last year, batting .267 in only 8 games, and he does not have a strong reputation with the glove.  But with light-hitting former Salt Lake second sacker Quincy Gaytan the projected starter, Kurland should get a strong shot at the starting job.

“There ain’t no guarantees on this team,” said Comets manager Taylor Ashy.  “Everything’s up for grabs.  If you play hard, drink hard, and do a job, you’re all right by me.  If Danny comes here and does a job, the sky’s the limit.”

Given the past trading history of Mills and the Smokies, it’s unlikely that this is the last deal for the defending division champs.  The owner implied as much at the press conference announcing the trade, saying that he was “just getting warmed up.”  Can the King of Trading regain his throne?  Only time will tell.

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Hammerheads Strike A Pair of Deals

There’s a new sheriff in Trade Town.

Last year, the Knoxville Smokies and owner Jeremy Mills claimed the PBL’s unofficial King of Trading title after amassing a long and impressive list of deals.  Most observers expected his high-frequency trading to continue this season.  But although the Smokies consummated the year’s first deal, since then the Jackson Hammerheads and owner/whiz-kid GM Steven Butler have stolen the show.

Steven “Sultan of Swap” Butler

On Thursday, Butler called a press conference to announce that his team had struck a pair of trades. Thus far, the Heads have completed four swaps before the season has even season.  Butler chose to commemorate the occasion in his trademark style, adding another to his self-designated list of titles.

“From now on, you can call me the Sultan of Swap,” said the Jackson majordomo.  “Nobody out-deals this whiz kid!”

Both of the most recent deals are meant to fix chinks in the Hammerheads’ armor that were exposed last year.  One such area was starting pitching depth.  Jackson’s rotation was suspect throughout last season, and wound up being exposed due to injuries.  With that in mind, the Heads acquired veteran starter Tony Harris from the Jacksonville Dragons in exchange for the rights to RF Dustin Gonzalez.

Tony Harris

Harris, a 37-year-old righty, put up less-than-impressive numbers for the Dragons last season, going 2-6 with a 6.26 ERA in 13 games.  He was the target of a particularly vicious rant from since-fired manager Harlan Davidson, who called him “washed up” and told him to “pack his little hobo bindle and hit the road.” But Harris was later diagnosed with a partially torn elbow ligament, which has reportedly healed over the offseason.

“Last year was kind of a lost season for me,” said Harris.  “But I’m feeling a lot better and I’m ready to show what I can do.  I feel like I’ve still got gas left in the tank.”

Harris is considered a long shot to make Jackson’s rotation, but the Heads hope that he can step in as a veteran innings-eater if injury issues crop up again.  “Tony’s exactly the kind of guy we need to have around,” said Jackson manager Bob Henley.  “He’s a real pack mule, a guy who can come in and put up steady numbers.  Guys like that may seem like a dime a dozen, but when you don’t got one, you sure wish you did.”

Dustin Gonzalez

Gonzalez, who was picked by Jackson in the seventh round of this year’s draft, is a 23-year-old power-hitting prospect out of Southern California.  In his senior season at Cal State-San Gorgonzola, he established himself as an all-or-nothing type of player: he hit .243 with 35 homers and 98 RBI, but also racked up an eye-popping 205 strikeouts.

Gonzalez was unlikely to stick with the Hammerheads, who play in the cavernous Cash Carter Downs and feature a contact-based offense.  However, Dragons owner Eric Stetson’s affinity for raw power is well known, and the rookie has a good shot to break camp as a fourth or fifth outfielder.

“Dustin seems like the kind of kid who can put on a show,” said new Dragons skipper Steve Califano.  “He hits the kind of bombs that make your neck snap trying to follow them.”

“The Dragons organization has two goals: to win a championship, and to become the premier power organization in the Patriot League,” said Stetson.  “Dustin Gonzalez helps us in both of those areas.  We wish Tony well.”

Max Ortiz

In Butler’s other deal, the Hammerheads sent 3B Max Ortiz back to his former team, the California Sharks.  Jackson acquired Ortiz from the Sharks for starter Todd Warrant earlier this month, filling a need at the hot corner.  But a couple weeks later, the Hammerheads reacquired last season’s third sacker, Kim Fleitas, from New Orleans and rendered Ortiz expendable.  So they shipped him back to his former team and acquired CF Santiago Suarez.

“That’s how I operate,” said Butler.  “I get a guy in, and if there’s no room for him, I’ll turn right around and ship him back out.  That’s why I’m the Sultan of Swap.”

The 36-year-old Ortiz was delighted to be heading back to California.  “Back to my adopted home!” said the veteran infielder.  “I am very happy to be going back to this team and this city.  I was sad when I learned I had been traded away, so to come back is a dream come true for me.  I wasn’t even gone long enough to sell my house.”

Ortiz, who hit .383 in a limited run with California last season, is expected to platoon at first base with Jamal Gerke.  “I am beyond thrilled to have Max back,” said Sharks manager Eduardo Aponte.  “He is a strong and capable player, and I expect that he will do great things with us this season.”

Santiago Suarez

While Ortiz’s reunion with California is a happy occasion, Suarez’s departure from the Sharks brings an end to an unhappy tenure marked with unfulfilled potential.  The 23-year-old Mexican native was expected to be a star for California, combining a great glove with blazing speed and a strong batting stroke.  However, Suarez’s numbers didn’t match the hype.

While his fielding was as excellent as expected, he proved to be only average as a base stealer (swiping 27 bags in 40 attempted) and a weak hitter, he hit only .236 with a .630 OPS.  He was dropped from second to eighth in the order during the season, and became a frequent target of boos.

Suarez lost his starting spot when the Sharks picked CF Justin Canales in this year’s draft, and he was considered a 50-50 shot to make the major-league roster this season.  Despite the fact that the writing was clearly on the wall, Suarez was reportedly shocked and devastated by the trade.  He packed up his locker at Blue Note Stadium and left without speaking to reporters or saying goodbye to his teammates.

“This can be a difficult business sometimes,” said Aponte.  “I was very sorry that things did not work out for him here.  He is a sensitive young man, and I believe there was too much pressure for him to succeed here.  Perhaps this fresh start will be what he needs.”

For the Hammerheads, Suarez’s glove is a tremendous asset.  Jackson had serious problems with outfield defense last season, given the enormous dimensions of their park and the fact that many of their outfielders were below-average fielders.  CF Damian “Black Hammer” Deason put up an appallingly bad .944 fielding percentage last year.

“Boy, do we need a guy like Santiago,” said Henley.  “Two-thirds of the earth is covered by water, and he can cover the other third.  Whatever he can give us with the bat is just gravy.  But I think a park this big, he’ll be able to hit it into the gaps and just run all day.  His speed and this park were made for each other.”

Butler promised to do his best to make Suarez feel appreciated in his new home.  He indicated that he planned a “hero’s welcome” for Suarez, to be held before the Hammerheads’ first home game against Knoxville.  While the whiz-kid GM was tight-lipped on the details, he promised that it was a ceremony the Smokies “would never forget.”

Asked for a response, Smokies owner Jeremy Mills said, “The 2015 PBL Eastern Division Champions have no comment.  Mr. Butler can give himself all the titles he wants, but we have the one that counts.”

Hammerheads Get Fleitas Back, Send Jaramillo to N’Awlins

Ever since the Jackson Hammerheads lost 3B Kim Fleitas in the expansion draft, team owner/whiz-kid GM Steven Butler has been a man on a mission.  Butler, who has consistently argued that Fleitas was mistakenly left exposed in the draft, has tried everything to get Fleitas back into the fold.  According to sources, Butler had bombarded the New Orleans Sazeracs, the team that picked Fleitas, with trade proposals on a near-daily basis.  “When I want something, I keep going until I get it,” said Butler.

When the Hammerheads acquired 3B Max Ortiz from the California Sharks last weekend, it was widely seen around the league as an acknowledgement of defeat in Butler’s relentless pursuit of a reunion with Fleitas.  But on draft day, the Hammerheads and Sazeracs announced a surprising deal: Fleitas is coming home to Jackson, while RF Alex Jaramillo heads down to the Big Easy.

Kim Fleitas

“Victory is mine!” crowed Butler.  “It took a while, but I got my guy back.”

It’s not hard to see why Butler was so eager to get Fleitas back.  The 26-year-old third sacker hit .287 with 17 homers and 130 RBI last season, and was generally acknowledged as one of the league’s best at the hot corner, despite a shaky reputation with the glove.  “Kim’s a pretty quiet guy, but he’s definitely one of our team leaders,” said Hammerheads 2B Homer Righter.  “One of those guys who shows up every day, does his job and does it well.  I’m thrilled that he’s back.”

Alex Jaramillo

Few in the Jackson clubhouse had a similarly glowing assessment of Jaramillo.  The 26-year-old slugger, picked up from the Knoxville Smokies last season in the infamous Eddie Battin deal, put up disappointing numbers with the Heads, hitting .258 with 16 dingers.  In addition, he was an unpopular figure in the clubhouse, quickly earning a reputation for being moody and selfish.  It didn’t help matters that he was acquired for the hugely popular Battin, or that he got hurt shortly after arriving in Jackson and wound up spending over a month on the DL amid accusations of malingering.

“This is a great deal all around,” said one Jackson player.  “We get Kim back, which is a plus for us, and we get rid of Jaramillo, which is basically addition by subtraction.  Win-win.”

The Sazeracs are banking on a return to form for Jaramillo in an environment that might be a better fit.  Jackson has made a point of de-emphasizing power, a smart decision given the cavernous dimensions of Cash Carter Downs.  New Orleans has a more longball-friendly park, and they’re looking to Jaramillo to be a big bopper in the heart of their order.

“There’s a thing called talent!  We don’t have it,” said Sazeracs manager George Knox.  “Alex is a naturally talented guy, and this is a place where I think we can make the most of it.”

Asked if he was concerned about the negative reports out of Jackson about Jaramillo, Knox replied, “You can’t go through life thinking everyone you meet will let you down. Because if you do, a very bad thing will happen. You’ll end up like me.”

Now that Jackson has their old third baseman back, are they done dealing ahead of the season?  “No comment on that,” Butler said with a laugh.  “I’m a fishing guy, so I’ve always got my line in the water. ”

Jackson Issues Warrant to California for Ortiz

On the eve of this season’s entry draft, the Jackson Hammerheads and California Sharks made a swap that filled holes for both sides.  California acquired right-handed starter Todd Warrant from their fellow cartilage-based club in exchange for 3B Max Ortiz and long reliever Jason Richter.

Max Ortiz

Both teams were dealing from areas of relative strength in order to shore up weaknesses on the roster.  The Hammerheads had a vacancy at the hot corner after losing Kim Fleitas in the expansion draft in a controversial move.  In the 36-year-old Ortiz, Jackson landed a veteran player who is regarded as defensively challenged, but packs a potent bat.  The Sharks acquired him at the trading deadline last season and saw him go on a tear, batting .383 with 6 doubles and 6 RBI over 20 games.

“Hot dog!” exclaimed new Heads manager Bob Henley.  “We got a howitzer brigade in this lineup, and Max only makes us that much deeper.  Our lineup should be rated R with all the violence we’re gonna do to that poor ball.”

Ortiz, who projected to platoon on the corners for California this season, had mixed feelings about the trade.  “I hate to leave California,” he told reporters.  “Even though I was not here long, I made a lot of friends.  And I love the culture and the weather here as well.  But I also want to be playing every day, and I will be doing that in Jackson, which is very good.”

Sharks manager Eduardo Aponte wished Ortiz well in his new home.  “Max is a fine player and a true gentleman,” said the California skipper.  “I know the fans here and his teammates alike will miss him.”

Todd Warrant

The Sharks, meanwhile, were thin in their rotation after losing starters Deke Slater and Brian Goreman in the expansion draft.  They picked up a quality starter in Warrant, a 26-year-old knuckleballer who posted a 13-7 record and a 3.05 ERA.  Like Ortiz, Warrant was a late-season pickup, as Jackson acquired him from the Knoxville Smokies on the eve of the deadline.

“To me, I feel that Todd is the perfect addition to our team,” said Aponte.  “His pitching style is a great contrast to our other hard throwers, and he gives us a fourth high-quality starter.  Our rotation holds great promise this year.”

While some around the league consider the deal a clear win for the Sharks, others point out the inherent unreliability of knuckleballers and point out that two different organizations soured on him over the course of last season.

“Yeah, I’ve dealt with that kind of crap my whole career,” said Warrant.  “Because we don’t throw hard and we look goofy doing it, people don’t trust the knuckler.  I may not be the most impressive-looking player out there, but I’ll get you results.  Now I get to prove everybody wrong, and I get to do it while enjoying good sushi and year-round sunshine.  I’ll take it!”

The 31-year-old Richter spent all of last season in the minors, and is considered a long shot to make Jackson’s Opening Day bullpen.  But relief pitching is always in short supply around the PBL, and Hammerheads owner/whiz-kid GM Steven Butler considers Richter a lottery ticket.

“If I learned one thing last season, it’s that you can’t have too many relievers,” said Butler.  “Richter’s got a live arm, and who knows?”

In a funny coincidence, both principals in the deal (Ortiz and Warrant) spent most of last year with Knoxville.  Smokies owner Jeremiah Mills called the deal “interesting” and likened it to seeing a couple of ex-girlfriends become friends.  “Been there, done that,” said Mills.”