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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”