Last season, the Knoxville Smokies rolled to an Eastern Division title before losing the championship in 6 games. Some might have considered that a successful first season. Not Smokies manager Snuff Wallace, who said that he would only be satisfied when his team was holding a “big shiny trophy.” This season, Wallace finally got his sought-after hardware, as Knoxville blitzed to a 100-win season and then took down the Silver City Outlaws in the Patriot Series.
“We the big dogs now!” crowed Wallace. “Kings of the hill! Y’all can say whatever [expletive] you want about me, but you can’t take this ring away from me. Y’all can line up to start kissing my [expletive] now.”
Smikes owner/GM Jeremy Mills was more circumspect, but equally pleased with the outcome: “We righted the ship from last year and brought home a title for our loyal fans.”
Similar to last year, the Smokies’ success was built on its excellent pitching staff. Knoxville led the league in ERA, OPS against, quality start percentage, and save percentage. Their staff walked fewer men and allowed fewer homers than any other in the league.
In 2015, the Smokies’ bullpen led the way with a shutdown performance. This year, the relievers weren’t quite as dominant (though still solid), but the rotation stepped up to compensate. Rookie righty Scott Green, whom Mills pilfered from Carolina in a heist of a deal, went 18-6 with a 3.23 ERA. Ace Elicio Santana was the Patriot League’s first 20-game winner, backing it up with a 3.59 ERA and a .673 OPS against. Right-hander Jack Jacques was as consistent and unflappable as ever, going 16-8 with a 3.29 ERA and allowing a stingy .658 OPS.
And when Knoxville needed one more arm for the stretch run, they picked up lefty Randy Cannon, suffering through a lost season in Jacksonville. He seemed reborn with the Smokies, going 6-2 with a 2.98 ERA to help hold off his old team for the division title. Mills was particularly thrilled with what he saw out of Cannon, adding that he is “looking forward to seeing what our coaches can do with a full season from Randy Cannon, assuming we can resign him.”
Wallace described the Smokies’ starting staff as “like judging a Miss Universe contest. Whichever one you picked, you can’t go wrong. But instead of killer bodies, they had killer arms.”
Although the bullpen as a unit took a half-step back this year, closer Charlie Pasternak remained as automatic as ever, converting 35 of 37 save chances and posting a 2.15 ERA. “I wish Charlie had been my lawyer during my last divorce,” said Wallace. “My ex-wife wouldn’t have got a [expletive] nickel.”
The brilliance of Knoxville’s pitching staff bolstered a lineup that was good but not brilliant. LF Track Johnson (.353, 50 doubles, 22 HR, .989 OPS) and RF Jackson Campo (.301, 35 doubles, 45 HR, 108 RBI, .978 OPS) were the brightest stars at the plate. On the flip side, Knoxville’s trade for 3B Curt Figueroa turned out to be a rare flop, as the third sacker hit .226 with only 19 homers. And 1B Eddie Battin, who was a key part of last season’s pennant drive, took a big step back this season, hitting .256 with 20 homers and striking out 145 times.
Mills acknowledged that he “felt our offense should have been more productive.” He noted that the lineup “definitely caused concern in the Eastern Division Championship.” In particular, he was referring to the middle three games of the series, in which the Smokies scored only five runs while dropping three straight to the Dragons in offense-friendly Tesla Field.
What to do for an encore? Unsurprisingly, Knoxville’s deal-happy owner/GM isn’t about to rest on his laurels for 2017. He said that he is “looking forward to free agency” and that he will be evaluating “where we can find upgrades to our existing team.” He didn’t specify where he might be looking to upgrade, but boosting offense at the corners and adding another relief arm or two seem likely places to start. Also, the Smokies will need to resign key free agents, starting with Cannon.
As for Wallace, his offseason plans reportedly involve “drinking all the whiskey in Tennessee and basking in the glory of my greatness. Call me every name in the book, but don’t forget to call me champion.”