PBL 2016 Season in Review: Carolina Comets

None of the four expansion teams that joined the Patriot League in 2016 seriously competed for a playoff spot, or even came particularly close to threatening the .500 mark.  But each team, to varying degrees and in different ways, showed hope for the future.  The Carolina Comets, alas, might have the longest road ahead of them. In the words of owner/GM Steven Roseman, “we had brief moments where we looked like a squad, just not enough to strike fear in anyone.”

Start with the record: 46-104, worst in the league and only one game better than Salt Lake’s all-time worst performance from last season.  As Roseman put it, “The season started and before I realized it my team was trying to dig out of an insurmountable hole.” The Comets spent the season getting “walloped in the chin by a number of teams.”

Take a look at the underlying numbers, which suggest that the team’s record was no surprise.  Carolina underwhelmed on both sides of the ball.  The Comets finished dead last in batting average (.236) and second-to-last in OPS (.713), while also bringing up the rear in ERA (5.78) and OPS allowed (.863).  Carolina’s relievers managed to convert only 33% of their save opportunities, an appalling number given that no other team converted fewer than 57% of their chances.

The Comets disappointed on an individual level as well.  At the season’s beginning, Roseman felt that his team had the talent to “compete for the pennant, or at least be competitive,” but that belief was undermined as the season went on.  Presumed ace Randy Flats was a flop, going 6-13 with a 5.97 ERA.  Hometown hero LF Stargell Jackson provided some sorely-needed speed, stealing 50 bases, but didn’t get on base often enough (hitting .252 with a .733 OPS).  Only three pitchers on the squad finished with an ERA under 5.00, and only four hitters finished with an average over the .250 mark.

Arguably the best player associated with the Comets franchise is one who never played a game for them.  One of Carolina’s top draft picks was left-handed starter Scott Green.  But in a stunning move, the Comets shipped him to Knoxville just before the season for journeyman lefty Tom Trane and second-base prospect Danny Kurland.

The deal was a head-scratcher at the time, and only looked worse as the season went on.  Green sparkled with Knoxville, contending for Rookie of the Year honors and helping the Smokies win their first league title.  Meanwhile, Trane went 5-21 with a 7.06 ERA, while Kurland struggled to keep his average over the Mendoza Line and failed to nail down the starting job at second.

Then there’s the volatile presence of manager Taylor “Two-Buck” Ashy.  Ashy is a disciple of Knoxville Smokies skipper Snuff Wallace; in his first season with Carolina, he tried to mimic Wallace’s brash and outspoken personality, but without the results to back it up.  Ashy’s abrasive style reportedly led to numerous conflicts with his players.  Two of the team’s best pitchers, starter Davey Skargard (2-7, 4.57 ERA) and reliever Avery Lavine (1-2, 3.60) finished out the season in the minors, reportedly after getting on the manager’s bad side.  Although Roseman declined to comment on Ashy’s performance, he did say that the Comets had “no identity or vision.”

Despite all of that, there were some causes for optimism if you squinted hard enough.  1B Pete Shives, another high draft pick, flashed a brilliant glove and displayed real thump, leading the team with 39 homers.  CF Joe Jones displayed some unexpected power as well, launching 35 round-trippers to make up for a less-than-sterling .251 average.  Between those two and Jackson, the Comets have the core of a lineup with some promise, even if there are numerous holes, especially in the middle infield.

It’s harder to see the same hope among the pitching staff, but starters like Flats and Deke Slater (8-16, 5.75) are young enough to be viable bounce-back candidates.  Right-hander Whitney Winslow (2-10, 1 save, 5.27 ERA) cycled through just about every possible role in the pen; he might improve if the team can settle on the best way to use him.

Roseman took primary responsibility for the team’s performance, acknowledging that “I didn’t do my homework” and “making critical mistakes was my undoing in the first year.” Looking toward next season, the owner said his focus is on “[h]aving a clear plan for the team and organization, following a consistent game plan from the draft throughout the season.”

Perhaps the key piece of the plan is the fate of the manager.  Roseman didn’t commit on whether Ashy would return, but he did say that “a major adjustment in philosophy will be implemented.”  Is Ashy capable of dialing back his cut-rate Snuff act for the sake of the team’s growth?  Can he avoid alienating his players and wearing out his welcome in the clubhouse?  Does he have the patience to oversee what is likely to be a long building process in Carolina?  If the answer to those questions is “yes,” then Ashy might be the man to guide this club for the long haul.  If the answer is “no,” however, Roseman might need to find a new skipper in order for the Comets to get better.

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Smokies Strike Three Deals at Deadline

Did the Knoxville Smokies need to make a deadline trade?  They’ve been well out front in the East for almost the entire season, having built a lead as large as 15 games.  They’re the overwhelming favorites to win the division and a virtual lock to make the playoffs.  However, the Smokies have slipped a bit in recent weeks and the Jacksonville Dragons have been surging, cutting Knoxville’s lead to 8 1/2 games.  So perhaps the Smokies needed to make a trade to shore up their position.

Jeremy Mills, Duke of the Deadline

On the other hand, Smokies owner/GM Jeremy Mills never needs an excuse to make a trade.  He is a well-known trading obsessive.  It’s rumored that Mills is largely interested in his team because it gives him an excuse to make trades.  He makes trades when his team is doing well, and he makes trades when they’re doing poorly.  He deals players on hot streak, and he deals players in slumps.  He makes trades to improve his team, and he makes trades just for the heck of it.  Give the man even the slightest hint of a trade offer, and he’ll pounce on it like a tiger on fresh meat.

Given Mills’ insatiable lust for dealmaking, it’s no surprise that even during a fairly quiet deadline, the Smokies made not one, not two, but three deals.  “You know how it is with trades: one’s too many and a thousand is never enough,” said the Knoxville owner.

Somewhat surprisingly, the first deal the Smokies made was with the team chasing them in the standings, the Dragons.  It was a swap of starters in need of a change of scenery, as Knoxville acquired left-hander Randy Cannon from the Dragons in exchange for southpaw Rick Tomblin.  The 25-yer-old Cannon was a solid innings-eater in Jacksonville’s rotation last season, but after getting off to a rough start with sporadic work this season, he was quickly exiled to the bullpen.  At the time of the trade, he sported an 0-3 record with a 6.69 ERA.

“We wish Randy Cannon well,” said Dragons owner Eric Stetson.  “He’s a good man and a solid pitcher.  We felt that a fresh start was the best way for Randy to get his career back on track.”

Tomblin, meanwhile, was dealt at the deadline for the second straight season; last season, the Smokies picked him up from Orlando at the end of July.  The 23-year-old started the season in Knoxville’s rotation before getting exiled after a slow start.  After spending time in the bullpen and in the minors, Smokies manager Snuff Wallace promoted Tomblin back to a starting role after rookie Jody Garrity got hurt.  He did a credible job, although he left multiple starts early due to injury.  He did pass the Dragons’ medical exam, however, and seems likely to bring his live arm into Jacksonville’s rotation.  He compiled a 1-1 record and a 4.66 ERA with Knoxville.

“Rick’s a tremendous talent, and it wasn’t easy to trade him,” said Mills.  “But Randy’s a special one, and we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to acquire him.  And clearly, I can’t pass up the opportunity to acquire anyone.”

Knoxville’s second deal of the day involved the Carolina Comets.  The Smokies acquired 2B Quincy Gaytan and lefty starter Adrian Pierce from the Comets in exchange for a pair of right-handers, starter Nico Library and reliever Jose Mariata.  The trade was a bit of a head-scratcher for both sides.  The Smokies already have a second sacker in Jeremiah Campo.  Gaytan has a reputation as a quality fielder, and he got off to a hot start with the bat this season.  But he’s gone cold over the last couple months, with his average sinking to .281, with no power.  Pierce, meanwhile, is a 22-year-old rookie who has yet to play a PBL game.

In exchange, the Comets pick up a pair of intriguing but extremely raw prospects.  Mariata, whom the Smokies acquired from Salt Lake last season, has a triple-digit fastball, but he has major control issues.  On the season, the 21-year-old Mariata sports a 10.00 ERA, has allowed more than twice as many hits as innings pitched, and has walked three times as many hitters as he has struck out.  Library, meanwhile, is a marginal 24-year-old prospect who showed mysterious flashes of adequacy during a limited starting stint with the Smokies this year, going 2-2 with a 3.99 ERA.

“Who wins this trade?  Who knows?” said Mills.  “But hey, a deal’s a deal!  Trading is where it’s at!”

Finally, in the closing minutes before the deadline, Knoxville re-acquired an old friend, picking up 3B Ronnie Aceuedo from the Orlando Calrissians in exchange for left-handed reliever Spencer Einhorn.  The trade was an implicit admission of failure by the Smokies GM.  During spring training this year, the Smokies dealt Aceuedo, along with 1B Malcolm Bryant, to Orlando in exchange for 3B Curt Figueroa.  Knoxville was counting on a bounce-back year from Figueroa; instead, he has been a disappointment, hitting only .234 with 14 homers.  Meanwhile, Bryant has been a strong contributor on a much improved Orlando team.

By picking up Aceuedo, the Smokies are hoping for a return to the form he showed last year, when he surprised with a strong season at the hot corner.  This year, Aceuedo hit only .223 with 6 home runs for Orlando.  In exchange, the Calrissians picked up Einhorn, a lefty reliever who made only 6 appearance with Knoxvile, going 1-0 with a 5.40 ERA.

“Ronnie’s a guy we’ve always liked,” said Mills.  “We hated letting him go in the first place, and we’re excited to have him back.  More importantly, I got to make another trade!  A trade!  A sweet, life-affirming trade!  Whee!”

Mills is confident that the Smokies’ deadline wheeling and dealing has left his team in a better place coming down the stretch.  Perhaps more importantly, he has defended his crown as the PBL’s trading king.  “I don’t see the Sultan out here talking about his big trades, because he didn’t make any,” said Mills in a playful jab at his rival, Jackson Hammerheads owner/whiz-kid GM Steven Butler, the self-proclaimed “Sultan of Swap.”  The Hammerheads were reportedly trying to strike a trade at the deadline, but were unable to work it out.  Said the Smokies boss: “The Hammerheads are standing still, and we’re charging ahead.”

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.

PBL Expands By 4 For Season 2

After a rousingly successful debut season, the Patriot League is growing aggressively for its second season.  Commissioner Jeremiah Mills has officially announced that the PBL will be expanding from 8 teams to 12 for the 2017 season.  “Our first season was a tremendous success,” said Commissioner Mills, “and we’ve clearly demonstrated that there’s an appetite and an audience for this.  I know going from 8 to 12 may seem like a big jump, but I see it as a sign of how well we’re doing that we’ve got four new owners who want to join us.”

These are the new teams that will be joining the fold next season:

carolina-cometsCAROLINA COMETS

The Comets, who will be joining the PBL’s Eastern Division, are the brainchild of owner Steven Roseman.  Roseman believes that there is a significant untapped market of baseball fans in the Carolinas, and he expects the Comets to demonstrate it.  Roseman has committed to his vision with money, constructing a retractable-roof stadium in Catawba, NC to house his team.  Catawba is located roughly equidistant from the Charlotte and Winston-Salem/Greensboro metropolitan areas, and he expects to draw fans from both cities.

Despite being housed in an up-to-date modern facility, Roseman expects his team to play with old-fashioned flair.  The Comets certainly won’t lack for color under the direction of manager Taylor “Two-Buck” Ashy, a protege of Knoxville Smokies skipper Snuff Wallace.  “Ol’ Taylor reminds me a lot of myself,” said Wallace, “only meaner, drunker, and crazier.”  The Comets will also get a healthy dose of flair from their hometown stars. Left fielder Stargell Jackson‘s father is a diehard Pittsburgh Pirates fan who named his son after his hero, Hall of Famer Willie Stargell.  Southpaw starter Randy “Satchel” Flats earned his nickname due to his multi-pitch arsenal and quippy nature, both reminiscent of Negro League great Satchel Paige.

kalamazoo-kazoosKALAMAZOO KAZOOS

The Kazoos will be competing in the league’s Western Division.  Owner Will Norman selected his team name to honor “America’s greatest musical instrument.”  He doubled down on the kazoo motif by naming his stadium Kazoobie Kazoo Field, securing the sponsorship of America’s oldest and most venerable kazoo manufacturer.

Norman’s unorthodox choices extend to his choice of managers.  Jacques “Zippie” DeFlute has no background in baseball.  The Montreal native played several years of minor-league hockey.  More recently, he has been a traveling musician.  Despite his lack of baseball experience, DeFlute’s upbeat, effervescent personality is sure to make him a hit with the fans of western Michigan.

The fans are also sure to love the Kazoos’ pair of hometown stars.  CF Damian Mash was a star at Kalamazoo College, and SS Johnny Shorts is a native of neighboring Portage.

The Kazoos hope to establish a regional rivalry with the PBL champion Milwaukee Bear Claws.  It seems likely that rivalry will be fairly one-sided at the outset, but as DeFlute said, “It gives us a goal to shoot for.”

 

 

las-vegas-narwhalsLAS VEGAS NARWHALS

The Narwhals are prepared to make a big splash in the Western Division.  Win or lose, the squad from Vegas is certain to attract attention.  From their striking violet-and-gold uniforms to their stadium, MGM Jackpot Field, which will be the second Patriot League stadium (along with Orlando) to have a built-in casino, the Narwhals are sure to be noticed.  The team is going to have the glitz and glamour of Sin City, which is the way owner Tricia Butler wants it.  Bright lights, big flies, and high scores… that’s what Narwhals baseball is going to be about.

The Narwhals’ style and flair starts at the top with manager Benjamin Banks Mahoney, who prefers to go by “B. Money.”  Mahoney’s goals for the season are to “win a lot of games and raise a lot of hell, and not in that order.”  Mahoney’s quest will be aided by the Narwhals’ local stars.  LF Andrew Zocken figures to bring a lot of pop to the heart of the Vegas order.  And ace pitcher Jose Oro has the golden fastball to blow it by visiting hitters.

Traditionalists are likely to hate the Narwhals, finding the uniforms gaudy and the stadium more like an amusement park than a ballpark.  But the team will fit well with its city.  The fans of Las Vegas can look forward to a summer of high scores and high stakes both on and off the field.

new-orleans-sazeracsNEW ORLEANS SAZERACS

While it’s far from clear how well the Sazeracs will fare in the PBL’s Eastern Division this season, the team is going to have a lot of fun along the way.  According to owner Jeff Wiggins, that’s by design.  Wiggins said he loves the Big Easy because it’s “a fun location [where you’re] able to bring your drinks wherever you want.”  He’s made it his goal to assemble a team that reflect the fun-loving spirit of the city.  He said that the team’s motto will be “Work Hard, Play Hard.”

The team’s outlook is also reflected in its name.  Wiggins named the team after the Sazerac, “a strong all-alcohol drink invented in New Orleans.”  Te Sazerac (made with 1/4 oz Absinthe, one sugar cube, 1 1/2 oz Rye whiskey or Cognac, and three dashes Peychaud’s Bitters) is one of the most famous products of New Orleans, and the name gives the team a true local flavor.  Continuing the alcohol theme, the Sazeracs will play at Abita Field, named after a local brewery.

The team will take the field under the veteran leadership of former Angels manager George Knox, who is known for having a “magic touch” with his players.  New Orleans will also be led by a pair of hometown heroes, outfielder Ben Williams and shortstop Al Angel. Wiggins believes that Williams and Angels will be wildly popular, because the fans “are just as likely to see them hitting a home run or making a game-saving play, as they are to see them out on Bourbon Street with everyone else.”

 

Along with the PBL’s expansion, Commissioner Mills announced that the playoffs will be expanding next season as well.  Going forward, the top two teams in each division will make the playoffs.  The winners of the two division series will face each other in the Patriot Series.

“We are confident that the expanded playoffs will only increase fan interest in our league,” said Commissioner Mills.  “This year, the action is going to be hotter than Snuff’s temper!”