“The Sultan strikes again!” exulted Hammerheads owner/whiz-kid GM Steven Butler. “They might as well FedEx us the championship trophy, because it’s going to be ours!”
Dennis has been the Sazeracs’ most reliable fireman by far this season. In 59 innings, the 26-year-old southpaw has gone 0-2 with a 3.20 ERA and a .661 OPS against. New Orleans selected Dennis in the expansion draft from Knoxville, where he went 7-2 with a 4.35 ERA in 2015.
“We really appreciate everything Tobias Dennis has done for us,” said Sazeracs owner Jeff Wiggins. “We’re glad to give him an opportunity to go after another ring.”
Dennis seems likely to work the late innings for Jackson. He joins a pen that’s crowded from the left side, however; Walker, Hilton Sircy, Rick Sheen, Josh Nichols, Brett Pollan, and Woody Flowers are all left-handed; closer Bobby Boniface is the only righty currently in the Heads’ relief corps.
“I can get both lefties and righties out,” said Dennis. “I’m up for whatever role they want to use me in.”
In trading Thomasson, Jackson sends out a fan favorite, albeit one who received little playing time behind Clarence Doyle. The 27-year-old Thomasson appeared in only 15 games for the Hammerheads this season, batting .276 with a .902 OPS. He has a reputation as a strong hitter but a weak fielder. For New Orleans, which has struggled to generate offense behind the dish, Thomasson could be just what the doctor ordered. Starter Prince Carlo has hit .244 with a .583 OPS, while backups Dave Chavez and Dustin Gould have combined to post only a .143 average.
“Hong will always hold a special place in Jackson hearts,” said Butler. “We wish him well in the Big Easy.”
Butler then turned to the camera and raised his voice. “But back to business… look out Knoxville, you slack-jawed [SOBs]!” the owner/whiz-kid GM hollered. “What you gonna do when the Heads run wild on you. brother????!!!” Butler then ripped off his shirt and flexed his muscles, showing off a tattoo on his right bicep of a bald eagle attacking Smokies manager Snuff Wallace.
At this stage of the Patriot League season, most teams have a good sense of their shortcomings and the areas where they need help. The Jackson Hammerheads, for instance, have struggled to identify consistent lockdown arms in the bullpen. Meanwhile, the New Orleans Sazeracs are desperately seeking stability in their rotation. The teams have struck a deal to try to address their respective weaknesses, with New Orleans shipping veteran left-handed reliever Boss Walker to Jackson in exchange for starter Yu Chen.
The 35-year-old Walker has been used primarily as a lefty specialist by New Orleans this season, with a 1-0 record and a pair of save to go along with a 4.41 ERA. He split last season between Salt Lake and California, providing some much-needed stability for the left side of the Sharks’ relief corps. For Jackson, a team that’s already well-stocked with lefty relievers, they’re hoping to use Walker as a late-inning weapon against lefties and righties alike.
“We’re very excited to bring The Boss here to Jackson,” said Hammerheads owner/whiz-kid GM Steven Butler. “He’s got the kind of experience and attitude we’re looking for in the late innings. He’s the key piece to solving our bullpen puzzle. The rest of the teams in the East should just save us all some time and give up now. I’ll send them all tickets to our championship parade.”
Walker is a native of Mississippi, but he will miss the Big Easy. “New Orleans is my favorite city in the world,” said Walker. “But Jackson’s a better team, and I’m all in to get me a ring. Besides, we’ll be through town pretty often, so I’ll have plenty of chances to get my jazz and jambalaya fix.”
Chen represents an intriguing buy-low opportunity for the Sazeracs. The 28-year-old Korean lefty came to Jackson last season in the disastrous Eddie Battin deal, and failed to establish himself as a fixture in the Hammerheads’ rotation. After going 4-3 with a 5.23 ERA in 2016, Chen was exiled to the bullpen down the stretch. He got another chance to start this season, but flamed out quickly and returned to relief exile.
Chen’s numbers this season testify both to his poor performance and his limited use: 0-1, one save, and a 9.39 ERA in only 16 1/3 innings of work. Butler had been shopping Chen aggressively around the league, but found few takers.
The Sazeracs, though, are in desperate need of rotation help. They’ve had a solid top two in Darius Tice and Matthew Erickson, but otherwise they’ve been plagued by injuries, ineffectiveness, and an addiction to the local nightlife. One season-opening start, Norm “Rattler” LaForce, landed in alcohol rehab.
“It’s no secret that we need some help in the rotation,” said Sazeracs owner/GM Jeff Wiggins. “We’re hoping that given a low-pressure environment and the chance to straighten out his mechanics, Yu will be able to rediscover the form that made him successful in Korea. Let the good starts roll!”
As part of the trade, the Hammerheads and Sazeracs agreed to exchange players to be named later. Both parties were tight-lipped on that aspect of the deal, but Butler reportedly submitted a lengthy list of conditions regarding the PTBNL exchange prior to the league office approving the deal. According to sources with knowledge of the deal, the list was notarized and ran up to 10 pages. Asked for specifics, Butler declined, saying, “Revealing those details might compromise other trades that the Sultan of Swap has in the works. But we made sure to cover all appropriate contingencies. The details will be revealed at the appropriate time.”
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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!’”
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.
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.
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.”
“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.”
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.
“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.”
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. ”
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.
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.”
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.”
If 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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Jackson Hammerheads and California Sharks have a lot in common, apart from their cartilage-based mascots. Each team is in second place in its division, trailing the first-place team by 5 games. With the trading deadline at hand, both teams had one last shot to strengthen their teams for the stretch run. They wound up making a deal with each other, with California sending 1B John Lassen to Jackson in exchange for left-handed reliever Hal Gilreath.
Unsurprisingly, the trade was proposed by Hammerheads owner/whiz-kid GM Steven Butler, one of the league’s most active wheeler-dealers. When Sharks owner/GM Colin Mills indicated that he was seeking help for his team’s struggling bullpen, Butler swung into action. After a brief negotiation, the deal was struck.
For California, the deal is as much about the future as the present. The Sharks have struggled to establish a reliable relief corps behind right-hander Jan Arzola and rubber-armed closer Eugene Grace. Veteran David Watts flamed out early and spent much of the season in the minors, pitching to an 11.13 ERA on the season. 19-year-old Luke Bond has proven gopher ball-prone, and he is currently injured. Long man Ty Shive has struggled with control. Righty Milan Constant became rusty from erratic use before being demoted. 30-year-old rookie Herman Moret was a pleasant surprise at first, but his numbers drooped as hitters figured him out. Southpaw Boss Walker, acquired from Salt Lake in a midseason swap, has been decent, but is less than durable.
The acquisition of Gilreath, a 23-year-old slider specialist, comes as part of a larger shakeup of California’s bullpen, as the team has demoted Moret, Watts, and Shive and called up Constant and journeyman Kerry Lopez to join Gilreath.
“We need a bridge to get us to the end of games,” said Mills. “We’ve seen too many games slip away late.”
Gilreath struggled in limited action with the Hammerheads, posting a 9.72 ERA and allowing 10 hits and 9 walks over 8 1/3 innings. But Sharks manager Eduardo Aponte likes the lefty’s growth potential.
“Like a lot of young pitchers, Hal has not yet mastered command and the art of pitching to situations,” said Aponte. “But if we can get his mechanics sorted, he could be a cornerstone for us for many years.”
The 32-year-old Lassen represents Jackson’s latest attempt to make up for their foolhardy decision to trade away popular first sacker Eddie Battin to Knoxville in late May. Lacy Wilczynski, who has spent the majority of the time at first since Battin’s departure, has batted .247 with virtually zero power, and the Hammerheads are desperate to get more production from the position.
Whether Lassen will be the answer remains to be seen. The LA native put up a .310 average with 13 homers last year in the independent American Association, but he was an utter flop with the Sharks. The team benched up after a month of dismal numbers, and ultimately sent him to the minors in June. In 43 games with California, Lassen batted an astounding .160 with 2 home runs, contributing nothing from an offensive standpoint other than a decent batting eye (drawing 14 walks in 103 at-bats). Lassen does have a reputation as an excellent glove man, however, a key consideration for the fielding-challenged Hammerheads.
“We bought low on John Lassen,” said Hammerheads manager Lou Hayes. “We think he’s gonna turn it around for us, and be a solid contributor with the bat and save us runs with his glove too.”
On one level, this is a minor deal, a swap of struggling players in search of a fresh start. (“What harm could it do to roll the dice?” mused Mills.) But the deal has significant upside potential for both sides. If Lassen’s numbers can rebound toward last year’s form, it could fill a major hole in Jackson’s lineup and allow them to chase down the first-place Smokies. If Gilreath can straighten himself out and start throwing strikes, on the other hand, the Sharks might benefit from this trade for years to come.