PBL 2016 Season in Review: Knoxville Smokies

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.”

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.”

Smokies Send Flowers to Jackson for Drawdy

Knoxville Smokies left-hander Woody Flowers finally got his wish.  After a season-plus of suffering torrents of insults and abuse from his manager, and two weeks after demanding a trade, Flowers finally got out of Knoxville as the Smokies shipped him to the rival Jackson Hammerheads in exchange for reliever Sam Drawdy.

Woody Flowers

“It’s a tremendous relief to me,” said Flowers.  “I feel like I’m escaping a war zone.”

The trade closes the book on a long and contentious relationship between Flowers and manager Snuff Wallace.  The southpaw began last season as an expected top starter for the Smokies, but scuffled somewhat in the early going while suffering anxiety attacks.  Flowers’ struggles – and his openness in discussing his anxiety issues with the media – made him a target for Wallace, a defiantly old-school manager who believes in ridicule as a tool to inspire better performance.

Wallace repeatedly derided Flowers in public and private, questioning his masculinity and frequently describing him using homophobic slurs.  The left-hander privately appealed to the front office to be traded at last year’s deadline, but the team opted to keep him.

Snuff Wallace

This year, Flowers reported to camp and was shocked to find that Wallace had banished him to the bullpen.  The pitcher performed well in limited action, but lost patience when Wallace repeatedly denied him spot-start opportunities.  Earlier this month, Flowers went public with his unhappiness and his trade demand, saying that he had been “bullied” by Wallace.  In response, the skipper acknowledged his lack of respect for Flowers and said “I’m not gonna shed any tears if he’s gone.”

Early this week – reportedly at the insistence of Knoxville owner/GM Jeremy Mills – Wallace finally gave Flowers his first start of the season.  The left-hander struggled, giving up five runs in 6 innings and taking the loss.  Wallace responded by calling Flowers a “whiny little baby” and adding, “He’ll be lucky if I let him on the mound again this year.”

At this point, Mills finally acknowledge that Flowers and Wallace could not co-exist on the same team and began shopping the southpaw actively.  He found a willing taker in Hammerheads owner/whiz-kid GM Steven Butler, a frequent trading partner whose team has struggled to find reliable arms all season.

Sam Drawdy

The fact that Drawdy was the only return in the deal suggested both how far Flowers’ stock had fallen in the Knoxville organization and how desperate Mills was to make a deal.  The 25-year-old lefty reliever has turned in undistinguished results in his rookie campaign with Jackson, going 0-1 with 1 save and a 4.97 ERA over 12 2/3 innings.  He is expected to figure in the late-inning picture for Knoxville, which has gotten underwhelming results from southpaw relievers Spencer Einhorn and Jason Landau.

“Flowers was a fan favorite in Knoxville and great teammate,” said Mills.  “If the opportunity arises, Flowers would be welcome back to the Smokies at any time.”

Wallace did not share his owner’s sentiments.  “I’m glad Mr. Mills finally stepped up and shipped that pansy out of town,” said the manager.  “I was tired of changing his diapers and listening to him whine.  [Hammerheads manager Bob] Henley might be happy now, but once he finds out what a weak whiny little pansy he’s got on his hands, he’ll change his tune.  Welcome to your new nightmare, Bobby!”

For his part, Butler isn’t shy about declaring the deal a win for his team.  “Chalk up another dynamite deal for the Sultan!” crowed the Jackson owner/whiz-kid GM.  “See you in the playoffs, Mills.”

Sources close to the Hammerheads organization reported that Butler bonded with his new acquisition by throwing darts at pictures of Mills and Wallace.  The owner/whiz-kid GM would not confirm or deny the rumor.

Flowers Demands Trade from Knoxville

Knoxville Smokies reliever Woody Flowers is fed up.  He’s endured the ups and downs of pitching life, to be sure, but he’s endured more.  He’s endured an endless stream of ridicule and gendered insults from his manager, and he’s endured a demotion that he felt was entirely unearned.  Now he’s had enough of his manager and his team, and on Sunday reportedly asked the Smokies organization to trade him.

“I think I’ve been a pretty reliable pitcher for this team,” said Flowers.  “I’ve served in whatever role the organization has asked me to perform and I haven’t complained.  But when you don’t have the trust of your manager, and when you have to put up with your manager calling you ‘pansy’ and ‘fairy’ all the time, enough is enough.”

Woody Flowers

Flowers broke in with Knoxville last year as a rookie, displaying both considerable promise and a fair amount of rookie nerves.  Flowers spoke openly with reporters about his issues with nerves and anxiety, and the breathing and meditation techniques he was learning to try and overcome.  Flowers’ honesty about his struggles made him a sympathetic figure to many, but not to Smokies manager Snuff Wallace.

Wallace is known for his brash and abrasive style, and according to team sources, he is notorious for picking on players who he sees as weak.  Flowers’ early jitters and his willingness to discuss them made him a target for the manager’s abuse.  Both publicly and privately, Wallace regularly insulted Flowers and questioned his manhood, calling him “that scrawny little fairy” and regularly humiliating him in front of the team.  Wallace apparently felt that the insults would toughen Flowers up, but the insults had the opposite effect on the sensitive lefty.  Flowers reportedly asked the front office to deal him at last year’s trading deadline, but they declined.

Flowers finished the 2015 season with decent but not spectacular numbers (9-11, 4.36 ERA, .781 OPS against).  “Not bad for a rookie,” said Flowers of his performance, “especially for one who was being bullied by his manager all season.”

Flowers came to camp this season expecting to start, but Wallace had other ideas.  He told Flowers that he planned to use him in long relief, and that if he went “snitching” to reporters, Wallace would demote Flowers to mop-up duty.  The lefty was unhappy with the decision, but accepted it without public comment.  In fact, he has thrived in the role; he has yet to allow an earned run this season.

Despite his solid play, Wallace has refused to consider returning Flowers to the rotation.  When left-hander Rick Tomblin was demoted after a poor start, Wallace bypassed his long man in favor of rookie Ben DeKok.  When DeKok suffered a lat strain that is projected to keep him out for a month, Wallace again ignored Flowers and promoting hard-throwing but wild project Yamil Garizabalo.  Garizabalo flamed out in his first appearance Saturday, allowing five runs in only 2 innings.  Flowers followed him and tossed 4 scoreless frames in relief.

Snuff Wallace

After the game, Flowers asked Wallace if he would be given a chance to start.  According to Flowers, the manager told him, “I wouldn’t start a little [expletive] like you as long as I have hair on my [expletive].”  This was the last straw for Flowers, who went public with his trade demand.

“I’m tired of being abused,” Flowers told reporters.  “And I don’t want to play where I’m not respected.”  Flowers said that he’d prefer to be dealt to a team that would allow him to start “but honestly, I’ll go anywhere if it gets me away from Snuff.”

Wallace’s response to the trade demand?  “That’s the manliest thing he’s done his whole damn career,” the manager said.  “Nice to see Woody showing some balls for once.”  Asked his opinion of the demand, Wallace replied, “I don’t give a [expletive] if he stays or goes.  That’s not my decision, anyway, it’s up to [owner/GM Jeremy] Mills.  But I’m not gonna shed any tears if he’s gone.  He’s right: I don’t respect him.”

The Smokies front office declined to comment on the matter.

“Hero’s Welcome” for Suarez Sparks Controversy in Jackson

In his role as owner/whiz-kid GM of the Jackson Hammerheads, Steven Butler has made two things clear: he loves putting on a show, and he hates the rival Knoxville Smokies.  Those two threads came together in spectacular fashion this weekend.  The Heads had their home opener against the Smokies on Saturday, and Butler marked the occasion by overseeing a wild, over-the-top opening ceremony that left some of the Smokies seeing red.

Santiago Suarez

The controversy began in fittingly strange fashion.  Shortly before the season began, Jackson acquired CF Santiago Suarez from the California Sharks.  The trade seemed to surprise Smokies owner Jeremy Mills, who had called Suarez a “hometown hero” and predicted that he would never be dealt.  Mills also appeared irked that Butler dubbed himself the “Sultan of Swap” in the wake of the Suarez trade; the Smokies owner is also known as a frequent trader.  Mills’ comments were innocuous enough, but Butler spied an opportunity to stoke the rivalry with his foes from Tennessee.

Butler announced that he would hold a “Hero’s Welcome” ceremony to greet Suarez during Jackson’s home opener, which just happened to be against Knoxville.  Asked what the ceremony would entail, the whiz-kid GM was tight-lipped on the details, but said that it was a ceremony that the Smokies and the fans “would never forget.”

On Saturday, everyone got to see what Butler had planned.  Just before the teams were due to be introduced, the lights at Cash Carter Downs went out.  The fans initially believed it was a blackout, but that suspicion was soon dispelled as colored searchlights began sweeping the field.  As the lights came back up, the strains of James Brown’s “Living in America” began to throb over the PA system.

As the fans began to clap along with the song, the center-field gate opened and a group of male dancers clad in sparkly bodysuits and hats paraded onto the field.  While the fans laughed and cheered, the visiting Smokies looked around in bewilderment.  The male dancers were then joined by a group of women dressed like old-fashioned Vegas showgirls, and the crowd erupted with delight.

The spectacle became even more spectacular as the Hammerheads’ ground crew ran onto the field waving giant American flags and a pair of WWI-era biplanes flew over the stadium.

Just when it seemed like the ceremony couldn’t get any crazier, the fans suddenly spotted Butler and Suarez descending from the roof of the stadium on a platform containing a golden shark head with glowing red eyes, with flames shooting upward from the corners.  As the pair came into view, the crowd saw that the owner/whiz-kid GM was clad in an Uncle Sam hat, an American-flag tailcoat, and star-spangled shorts.  Butler danced frantically along with the music while Suarez, wearing his uniform with an American flag draped over his shoulders, smiled and waved to the crowd.

The platform came to rest on the field, and Suarez jogged to his position in center field and acknowledged the roars of the fans.  Butler lit a pair of sparklers and sprinted along the warning track, high-fiving fans as he passed.  Meanwhile, a brass band wearing Hammerheads-blue tuxedos marched onto the field, adding to the general mayhem.

The Hammerheads’ in-game entertainment crew fired Jackson T-shirts with Suarez’s autograph out of a cannon and into the crowd.  Butler, meanwhile, ran to the mound and thrust up his arms, whereupon two bald eagles came screaming out of the sky and landed on his shoulders.

Finally, as the song came to an end, Butler collapsed to his knees, and a team employee ran out and threw a flag cape over his shoulders before escorting him off through the home dugout.  In the ensuing pandemonium, several fans rushed on the field; others threw beer cups, coins, and hot-dog wrappers at the Smokies.  Irate Knoxville manager Snuff Wallace raced after head umpire Trent Capps to demand a forfeit, a demand the umpire refused to grant.  It was almost 45 minutes before order could be restored and the game could begin.

After the game, a 6-3 Knoxville win, Wallace began his post-game press conference with a stream of obscenities directed at Butler, Suarez, and the Hammerheads.  “Damn fools can’t beat us, so they’re out here trying to start a [expletive] riot,” fumed the Smokies skipper.  “Is this a [expletive] ballgame or the [expletive] circus?  Well, you can [expletive] well believe that they sure as [expletive] fired us up to win this game and kick the [expletive] out of them.  And you [expletive] well believe this [expletive] ain’t [expletive] over.  Me and Mr. Mills both got a [expletive] memory like a [expletive] elephant, and we’re good and hell well going to get our [expletive] revenge for this [expletive] show.”

The league has not announced plans to discipline Butler or the Hammerheads for their actions.

When the whiz-kid GM was asked about the incident, he only smiled.  “I know I had a good time,” said Butler.  “Didn’t you?”

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.

Smokies, Calrissians Strike Season’s First Deal

Knoxville SmokiesOrlando CalrissiansIf there was one constant for the Knoxville Smokies in their debut season, apart from manager Snuff Wallace’s colorful comments, it was change.  Owner/GM Jeremy Mills was seemingly unable to resist constantly tinkering with his roster, even as his team maintained a steady division lead throughout most of the second half.  Mills couldn’t pass up the opportunity to make a trade, or try a new face from the minors.  The constant roster churn seemed not to hurt his team, as they made it all the way to the Patriot Series before falling.

As the PBL’s second season approaches, Mills has shown no signs of slowing down his high-frequency trading.  This week, the Smokies made another blockbuster deal, shipping 1B Malcolm Bryant and 3B Ronnie Aceuedo to the Orlando Calrissians for 3B Curt Figueroa and a 3rd-round draft pick.

“I love trades,” said Mills.  “Trades are a wonderful thing.  I can’t get enough of them!  I love trades more than I love life itself.”

Malcolm Bryant

Bryant leaves Knoxville on somewhat contentious terms.  The 31-year-old had a fine season with the Smokies, hitting .287 with 34 homers and 104 RBI, along with an excellent batting eye and a solid glove.  But Bryant was bumped from his first-base job in midseason after Knoxville acquired Eddie Battin from Jackson.  Bryant accepted the change without any public grumbling and continued putting up quality numbers.

But after Bryant heard rumors that he’d been left unprotected in the expansion draft, it was the last straw.  He went to the Knoxville front office and demanded a trade.

“I got jerked around by the Knoxville organization,” said Bryant.  “All I did was do my job, hit well, and be a professional.  But they go and bring in another guy who plays my position for no good reason.  I didn’t say anything, just did my job.  And then they don’t even protect me?  That’s garbage.  When I heard that, I called Snuff and asked him what the hell was going on.  He said it wasn’t his decision.  I said, ‘It seems like someone up there in the organization hates me.’  He said, ‘It sure seems like it.’”

Bryant’s bat will be a most welcome addition in Orlando.  The Calrissians had a dismal year offensively in 2016; they finished next to last in the league in batting average, OPS, and runs scored.  Bryant figures to be Orlando’s cleanup hitter next season.

“When I heard we were getting Malcolm Bryant, I could hardly believe my good luck,” said Calrissians manager Logan Bothan.  “I got to see him up close last season, and I kept saying to myself, ‘Man, we sure could use a guy like that in our lineup.’  He gives our offense an instant boost.”

Ronnie Aceuedo

Aceuedo came to Knoxville in the Patriot League’s first trade, as the Smokies acquired him from Jackson for reliever Butch Turnbull.  Widely expected to be a marginal player at best, Aceuedo surprised most observers with a decent season, batting .266 with 14 homers and 58 RBI.  He found himself on Wallace’s bad side, though, when he left the final game of the regular season in the 4th inning for personal reasons.  Wallace fined Aceuedo for the truancy, and reportedly never trusted him fully afterward.  He projects to start at the hot corner for Orlando.

“Ronnie is a good professional hitter,” said Bothan.  “Which might sound like a backhanded compliment, but if you saw our lineup last year, you know it’s not.”

Curt Figueroa

For Knoxville, the key to the deal is Figueroa.  The 27-year-old had a mildly disappointing season for the Calrissians in ’16, batting .258 with 23 dingers and 72 RBI.  Knoxville is betting on a bounce-back season from the third sacker.  From the Smokies’ perspective, they’re dealing from a surplus of first basemen in hopes of getting an upgrade at third.

The draft pick involved originally belonged to Knoxville.  They shipped it to Orlando as part of a deadline deal to upgrade their rotation.  With this deal, the Smokies get their pick back.

The Calrissians seemingly have the most short-term upside in the deal, as they get some badly-needed thump in the heart of their order while maintaining stability at third.  But if Figueroa has a monster season, or if the draft pick turns out to be a future star, the balance could tilt toward the Smokies.

Either way, one thing you can count on is more deals from the Smokies.  “Oh, there are definitely more deals to come,” said Mills.  “It’s not enough.  It’s never enough.”

PBL Season in Review: Knoxville Smokies

Knoxville SmokiesWas 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.”

Smokies Strike Twice at Deadline

Jeremy Mills, King of Trading

The Patriot League trading deadline was today.  Most observers predicted that the Knoxville Smokies and Jackson Hammerheads would be the most active teams at the deadline, since they’ve been by far the most prolific dealers all season long.  Unsurprisingly, they kicked off the deadline swap meet by making a trade with each other.

But then the Hammerheads struck a deal with the California Sharks, one that threatened to make Jackson owner/whiz-kid GM Steven Butler the king of the deadline.  But Smokies boss Jeremy Mills wasn’t about to let Butler steal his crown without a fight.  In the final hours before the deadline passed, Mills made a pair of deals that may or may not have made the Smokies the team to beat in the East, but definitely ensured that Mills remained the top trader.

“We’re always looking for ways to make the team better,” said Mills, still visibly twitching from the adrenaline that trading always gives him.

The first deal that Knoxville struck was with the East’s last-place team, the Orlando Calrissians.  The Smokies acquired a pair of left-handed pitchers, Rick Tomblin and Tom Trane, from Orlando in exchange for LF Titus Maben, lefty reliever Oliver Jones, and a 3rd-round draft pick.

The Smokies have the best team ERA in the league (3.47), so it might seem odd that they were looking to add pitching.  But they opened a hole in their rotation when they traded knuckleballer Todd Warrant to Jackson in their earlier deal.  In Tomblin and Trane, they get a pair of possible replacements, although both had a rough ride with the Calrissians.

Rick Tomblin
Rick Tomblin
Tom Trane
Tom Trane

Both Tomblin and Trane began the season in Orlando’s rotation, but both were bounced out after the Calrissians suffered through a disappointing April.  The 22-year-old Tomblin compiled an 0-1 record and a 15.26 ERA in three starts before being banished to the minors.  The 29-year-old Trane was sent to the bullpen after being bumped from the rotation, but he struggled in that role as well before going down with an oblique strain, then winding up in the minors on his return.  Overall, Trane compiled an 0-2 record with a 9.82 ERA in nine appearances with Orlando.

“Tom and Rick are both solid hurlers,” said Smokies manager Snuff Wallace.  “They ran out of chances with Orlando, but I’m sure they’ll both be ready to help us lift that championship trophy.  Rub a little of the Snuff magic dust on ‘em, and they’ll be good.”

According to team sources, it is likely that Trane will work out of the bullpen for Knoxville, giving the Smokies another long-relief arm to supplement Jerry Tile.  As for Tomblin, he seems destined to bump the recently-acquired Nico Library out of the rotation.  Although Knoxville insists that Library will get a start against Jackson, his unimpressive minor-league numbers suggest that he is not destined to remain with the big club for long.

Titus Maben
Titus Maben
Oliver Jones ORL
Oliver Jones

Meanwhile, the Calrissians have made no secret of their desire to rebuild around young players.  While they did make the somewhat curious decision to part with a young arm in Tomblin, the Calrissians received several promising pieces in return.  The 23-year-old Maben headlines the package coming to Orlando.  Although he scuffled in limited action with Knoxville, compiling a .125 average in 32 at-bats, Maben profiles as a quality corner outfielder and potential top-of-the-order bat.  The Calrissians have had major struggles in the outfield, and now they have another prospect to join teenage slugger Bart Law in their stable.

In the 19-year-old Jones, the Calrissians land a capable, hard-throwing young arm that might bring some stability to their wobbly bullpen.  The young southpaw began the season in Salt Lake, where his numbers suffered from overuse.  He was dealt to Knoxville in June, and was slotted into a lower-usage role that allowed him to thrive.  He compiled a 1-1 record with a 3.71 ERA in 16 appearances with the Smokies.  Like a lot of young pitchers, Jones struggles with his control – he has allowed 48 walks this season while recording only 26 strikeouts – but he is considered a highly promising prospect in an area where Orlando is sorely lacking.

“We really wanted a look at a young outfielder, and we liked Maben,” said Calrissians owner Brian Aufmuth.  “But it was the draft pick that pushed us over the edge.  This gives us a real shot to build for the future.”

After completing the deal with Orlando, Mills turned around and struck a bargain with the California Sharks, acquiring LF Rucky Virella in exchange for 3B Max Ortiz.

Rucky Virella
Rucky Virella

The Smokies were looking to add a young player after dealing away several prospects in recent deals, and Virella fits the bill.  The 24-year-old is a versatile young player with decent pop.  After a brief stint with California at the start of the season, he has spent most of the year with the minors, where he compiled a .234 average with 6 homers.  He is capable of playing all three outfield positions and first base, although he does not have a reputation as a good fielder.

Max Ortiz
Max Ortiz

Meanwhile, the Sharks were looking to strengthen their infield, and Ortiz provides what they were looking for.  The veteran can play either corner infield position, and he is known for a solid power bat.  He was relegated to pinch-hit duty with the Smokies, putting up a .208 average in 48 at bats, but he should get much more opportunity with California.  The team plans to start him out in a platoon with Johnie Oller at first, and if he thrives, he may also split time with struggling 3B Karl Mote.

“I am delighted to have Max on our team,” said Sharks manager Eduardo Aponte, who was teammates with Ortiz in the Mexican League several years ago.  “He is a delightful storyteller, a dangerous bat, and he will be a good mentor for our younger players.”

With the deadline now past, Mills and the Smokies are officially done dealing for the season.  Now they’ll just have to wait and see if these tweaks were what the team needed to stay on top, or if the revolving clubhouse door will wind up dooming them.

Hammerheads and Smokies Deal At the Deadline

Jackson Hammerheads owner/whiz-kid GM Steven Butler and Knoxville Smokies boss Jeremy Mills are the Pavlovian dogs of trading.  If you so much as mention the word “trade” in their presence, they spring to attention, eager to make a deal.  And despite the fact that their teams are in heated competition for the Eastern division title, they aren’t hesitant to make a deal with each other, as they’ve proven more than once.

So with the trade deadline looming, it comes as no surprise that the Hammerheads and Smokies were working the phones and actively pursuing one last big score.  Jackson was hungry, bordering on desperate, to bolster its starting rotation.  Knoxville was seeking another big bat in the middle of its lineup, and also seeking to scratch Mills’ ever-present trading jones.  Finding the trading waters chilly around the league, they wound up striking a deal with each other.  The Smokies sent starter Todd Warrant and LF Ezra Sisco to the Hammerheads in exchange for LF Track Johnson and minor-league pitcher Nico Library.

Mills called it a “win-win” deal, but others around the league aren’t so sure.  And the stakes couldn’t be higher; if the deal winds up being particularly one-sided, it might wind up deciding the division race.

“Wouldn’t it be funny if this trade winds up winning it for us?” said Butler.

Todd Warrant
Todd Warrant

For Butler’s Hammerheads, Warrant is the big prize, giving them the impact starter they so desperately needed.  This season, the 25-year-old knuckleballer put up a 9-5 record and a 2.65 ERA, the lowest mark in the Smokies’ rotation.  He will take the third slot in Jackson’s rotation, bumping Korean lefty Yu Chen, a failed reclamation project for the Hammerheads.

Starting pitching has been a major weakness for Jackson this season; ace Henry Jones and fifth starter Jordan Bergman have thrived, but the rest of the rotation has struggled with injury and ineffectiveness.  If Warrant can continue to put up strong numbers for Jackson, it will be a big win for them.  However, according to sources around the league, Knoxville had been shopping Warrant aggressively for some time, as their front office felt that his high walk totals (61 in 139 1/3 innings) and high unearned run total made him a poor long-term bet.

“Warrant was great!  We’ll miss him,” said Mills.  “I hope he does well, at least until he faces us.”

Ezra Sisco
Ezra Sisco

The 24-year-old Sisco, meanwhile, has shown himself to be a capable fielder and an excellent contact hitter, although one who lacks power.  Batting largely out of the ninth slot for Knoxville, Sisco posted a .303 average with 2 home runs on the season.  He’s also flashed excellent speed, swiping 18 bags to date.  The Hammerheads haven’t been shy about deemphasizing power, and they think Sisco’s game will be a good fit for the cavernous dimensions at Cash Carter Downs.

“He’s the kind of guy who can keep the line moving and steal a base or two,” said Hammerheads manager Lou Hayes.  “He’ll look real good in Hammerheads blue.”

Track Johnson
Track Johnson

Meanwhile, the Smokies are taking a gamble on Johnson’s ability to jump-start their offensive attack.  The burly 29-year-old compiled a .321 average and an .877 OPS in Jackson, in addition to displaying a fine batting eye and a strong outfield arm.  Although he generally batted out of the seventh slot for Jackson, he profiles as a middle-of-the-order hitter in Knoxville’s more power-friendly lineup.

“Move over, ’27 Yankees, here come the Smokies!” said Knoxville manager Snuff Wallace, visibly salivating at the prospect of adding Johnson to his lineup.  “Look at the heart of our order!  Malcolm Bryant, Eddie Battin, Jackson Campo, now Track.  We got a carload of cannons!”

Nico Library
Nico Library

The wild card in the deal is Library, a poorly regarded 23-year-old righty.  Library has spent his season to date in the minors, splitting his time between starting and relieving, and has compiled a 3-1 record and a 5.39 ERA, allowing 54 hits over 43 innings.  He is not regarded as a hard thrower, nor does he have excellent control, and he is not particularly durable.  Library’s reputation is so lackluster that some have questioned why Knoxville would ask for him in the trade.

“His only ability is availability,” said one league scout.  “I’m not sure I’d take him if you paid me.”

Although Mills was clear that acquiring Johnson was his focus, he insists that he intends to insert Library into Knoxville’s rotation.  “Embracing my inner Snuff,” said Mills with a smile.  Library’s first start would come against his former team on August 17th.  “Of course, there may be another trade in the works,” said the Smokies capo.

For Butler, this trade represents a chance to even the scales after his last deal with Knoxville went sour.  At the end of May, Jackson shipped 1B Eddie Battin and swingman Sylvester Lighty to Knoxville for Chen and DH Alex Jaramillo.  Although the trade was considered a wash at the time, it wound up being a steal for the Smokies.  Battin has raked for Knoxville (putting up a .357 average with 17 homers) and Lighty has been a solid starter (posting a 5-5 record and a 3.48 ERA), while Chen fizzled with the Hammerheads and Jaramillo struggled with injuries and has posted underwhelming numbers since.

Will this trade be Butler’s revenge?  Or will Mills wind up executing another swindle?  Or will the trade be a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing?  Only time will tell.

“At least we did something,” said Butler.  For these two transaction-crazy owners, it seems, a big deal with big risks is much better than spending the deadline on the sidelines.