Hammerheads Add Another Reliever, Send Thomasson to Big Easy

The Jackson Hammerheads‘ seemingly endless quest to bolster their bullpen continued today, as they acquired left-hander Tobias Dennis from the New Orleans Sazeracs in exchange for C Hong Thomasson.  It’s the second trade within two months between the two teams, who swapped starter Yu Chen for reliever Boss Walker in June.

“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.

Sazeracs, Hammerheads Trade Hurlers

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.

Boss Walker

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.”

Yu Chen

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.”

Smokies Strike Twice at Deadline

king_j11
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.

Jackson, California Roll the Dice on a Deal

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.

Hal Gilreath
Hal Gilreath

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.”

John Lassen
John Lassen

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.

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.

PBL Transactions, 6/15/15 – 6/21/15

The following transactions occurred in the Patriot League over the last week:

 

 

Knoxville Smokies

Knoxville Smokies: Called up 2B Danny Kurland. Demoted CF Arnold Carranza.

 

 

Salt Lake SamuraiSalt Lake Samurai: Activated C DeAndre Turnbull from the disabled list. Placed 2B Quincy Gaytan on the 15-day disabled list.  Called up 2B Gabriel Montalvo.  Demoted 1B Dwayne Parillo.

 

Silver City OutlawsSilver City Outlaws: Called up LF Marlon Hintz. Demoted DH Teddy Olivas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PBL Transactions, 6/8/15 – 6/14/15

The following transactions occurred in the Patriot League over the last week:

California Sharks

 

California Sharks: Called up 1B Jamal Gerke and RP Herman Moret.  Demoted 1B John Lassen and RP Milan Constant.

 

Jacksonville Dragons

Jacksonville Dragons: Activated SP Kyle Palmer from the 15-day disabled list.  Called up RP Jamel Janke.  Demoted RPs Elias Rosado and Michael Youngblood.

 

 

Knoxville Smokies

Knoxville Smokies: Called up RP Jose Mariata.  Demoted RP Sheldon Follis.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PBL Transactions, 6/1/15 – 6/7/15

The following transactions occurred in the Patriot League over the last week:

California Sharks

 

California Sharks: Signed free agents 1B Jamal Gerke, SS Grant Knepper, CF Conrad Mojica, SP Kerry Lopez, and RPs Osvaldo Barret and Jason Richter.

 

Jackson Hammerheads

Jackson Hammerheads: Signed free agents C Carlos Asperzol, 3B Elmo Milliner, LF Monty Walcott, DH Dexter Jester, SP Nico Library, and RF Cortez Petrik.  Waived 1B Coy Tighe. Activated 1B Pete Ciancarulo from the 15-day disabled list.  Placed DH Alex Jaramillo on the 15-day disabled list.  Called up LF Monty Walcott.

 

Jacksonville Dragons

Jacksonville Dragons: Signed free agents 1B Neal B. Thomas, CF Rondei Isua, DH Isaias Miguel, SP Juan Pascos, and RPs Lauren Gilpatrick and Jamel Janke.

 

 

Knoxville Smokies

Knoxville Smokies: Signed free agents 2B Danny Kurland, CF Arnold Carranza, DH Jerome Arch, and RPs Rodolfo Darville, Oscar Madison, and Norman Sater. Claimed 1B Coy Tighe off waivers. Called up CF Arnold Carranza. Demoted SS Lorenzo Arias and RP Edgar Provenza.

 

Milwaukee Bear Claws

Milwaukee Bear Claws: Signed free agents 2B Quirico Rodriguez, RF Bruce Rew, DH Hans Coghill, and RPs Rodolfo Elmonte, Mike Manigault, and Antonio Schieber.

 

 

Orlando Calrissians

Orlando Calrissians: Signed free agents 2B Jeffrey Matter, LF Sang LeLeux, DH Casey Helmers, SP Ali Godari, and RPs Shab Mickolas and Courtney Vanepps.  Activated CF Glen Madden from the 15-day disabled list.

 

Salt Lake Samurai

Salt Lake Samurai: Signed free agents 1B Lawrence Briski, 2B Gabriel Montalvo, SS Dario Rickard, DH Lazaro Matherne, and RPs Jose Mariata and Bryce Sereno.  Traded RPs Rick Wilkins, Oliver Jones, and Jose Mariata to Knoxville for SP Grant Fore, DH Matthew Weigel, and RP Norman Sater.  (See story here.)  Placed C DeAndre Turnbull on the 15-day disabled list.  Called up RPs Jimmy Okamura and Norman Sater.

 

Silver City Outlaws

Silver City Outlaws: Signed free agents 3B Narciso Rodriguez, CF Sebastian Melora, DH Charley Ingraham, and RPs Irving Godlewski, Duke Newlin, and Ron Wall.

 

 

 

Smokies Make Another Big Deal

Knoxville Smokies owner/GM Jeremiah Mills has a fever.  And the only prescription is more trades.  The man is constantly working the phones and sending emails, looking for ways to improve his team, looking for ways to keep things fresh, sometimes looking for deals just to satisfy his pathological need to trade.  Mills isn’t afraid to make a big deal if he thinks it will make his team better.  And once he decides he wants a player, he stops at nothing until that player is his.

Those two tendencies came together in a major trade between the Smokies and the Salt Lake Samurai.  Knoxville shipped out their former ace, Grant Fore, along with minor-leaguers Matthew Weigel and Norman Sater, to Salt Lake in exchange for relievers Oliver Jones and Rick Wilkins and prospect Jose Mariata.

“I feel like we have a strong team,” said Mills, “but there’s always room to improve.  And you never know what kind of deals are out there unless you ask.  That’s why I’m always asking.”

The Smokies are currently in hot pursuit of the Jackson Hammerheads atop the East, and one weakness that Mills has identified in his team is the bullpen.  After a promising start, the relief corps has faltered in recent weeks.  Mills is hoping that Wilkins and Jones can provide the Knoxville pen with some badly needed depth and strength.

Rick Wilkins KNX
Rick Wilkins

Wilkins, a 31-year-old righty, is on his third stop of the season.  He opened the year with the Silver City Outlaws, but landed in manager John Jarha’s doghouse after a particularly poor outing.  Last month, the Outlaws shipped him to Salt Lake in exchange for reliever Cliff Humphrey.  After feeling he never got a fair shake in Silver City, Wilkins thrived in Salt Lake.  In 11 appearances, Wilkins posted a 3.71 ERA and compiled a 12-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

“I’m thankful to the Samurai organization for giving mt the chance to prove myself,” said Wilkins.  “I was gathering dust [in Silver City], and it felt like I might wither away.  The Samurai let me do what I do best.  Every player want s to compete for a championship, and I’m glad I’ll get to do that with the Smokies.  But I’ll always remember my time here.”

The versatile, rubber-armed Wilkins could fill a number of roles in the Knoxville bullpen.  He is likely to get a number of late-inning opportunities, complementing or possibly even supplanting Sheldon Follis as the team’s primary setup man.  He may also provide some long relief, taking some of the pressure off of Jerry Tile.

Oliver Jones
Oliver Jones

Jones, a 19-year-old lefty, has less promising stats than Wilkins.  In 22 appearances with the Samurai, Jones compiled an 0-3 record and a 6.89 ERA.  He has struggled quite a bit with his control, allowing 25 walks against only 12 strikeouts.  But he started the season in promising fashion before hi numbers nosedived, and many analysts attribute his swoon to overwork.

“[The Samurai] were riding him like a rented mule,” said one scout of Jones.  “God bless the kid, he kept going out there and never complained.  But someone needed to rescue him before his arm fell off.”

The Knoxville bullpen has only one incumbent southpaw, Tobias Dennis, who has also struggled recently.  The Smokies front office hopes that the two can split opportunities and take some of the pressure off of each other.

Jose Mariata
Jose Mariata

Wilkins and Jones figure to help Knoxville compete this season.  But according to sources with the team, the real prize for Mills in this deal was Mariata.  He has coveted the 20-year-old righty from afar for some time, and it’s easy to see why.  Mariata has an arm that makes scouts drool; his fastball has been clocked at speeds up to 103 MPH.  He is an extremely raw prospect who is still learning to harness his talent, but he profiles as a future closer, according to scouts.

“He just plain throws smoke,” said one scout.  “He has Aroldis Chapman stuff, plus.  He could wind up being the best player in this deal in the long run.”

Grant Fore
Grant Fore

The key to this deal from Salt Lake’s perspective is Fore.  The 20-year-old lefty was expected to be a building block of the Smokies franchise and an anchor of their rotation, but things never clicked for him in Knoxville.  Fore compiled a 1-3 record and an 8.18 ERA in a Smokies uniform, failing to find success as a starter or a reliever.  He lost his spot in the rotation when the Smokies acquired Jack Jacques from Jacksonville, and never really found his footing after that.

“We wanted to keep Grant, but we had to make a move that would get us immediate help,” said Mills.  “Also, Fore deserved to go to an organization that could be more patient with him.”

While the pennant-contending Smokies couldn’t afford the wait to see if Fore could turn things around.  But for the rebuilding Samurai, he represents a promising gamble.  If he can regain the form he displayed as a college prospect, Fore could become the reliable starter that Salt Lake desperately needs.

“We’re really excited to have Grant on board,” said Samurai owner/GM Sarah Buehler.  “We believe he and Toshiie Maeda can be the 1-2 punch that will make us a contender for years to come.”

Matthew Weigel
Matthew Weigel

The other two pieces coming Salt Lake’s way are low-cost veterans that provide additional depth options.  The 35-year-old Weigel came to spring training with Knoxville to compete for the DH job, but was beaten out for the position by Alex Jaramillo and has spent the season in the minors.  But for the Samurai, who have struggled to generate consistent offense, Weigel has a shot to crack the lineup before the season is out.  He spent last season in Japan, where he batted .246 with 24 home runs.

Norman Sater
Norman Sater

The 37-year-old Sater, a right-handed reliever, originally signed with Silver City, but was waived during spring training.  He pitched last season in the Atlantic League, where he posted a 2-5 record with 6 saves and a 4.82 ERA.  A former fireballer who has become a finesse pitcher with age, Sater figures to take the spot formerly held by Wilkins in the Samurai bullpen.  He may also have the opportunity to start later in the season.

Some around the league have questioned why the Samurai, who should be stockpiling youth, decided to trade two very young players (Jones and Mariata) while getting only one in return (Fore).  But the Samurai front office believes that Fore has the potential to be a franchise cornerstone, while neither Jones nor Mariata figured into the organization’s long-term plans.  If either one turns out to be a future star and Fore continues to stumble, the trade could turn into a major embarrassment for Salt Lake.  But as a team that has a long way to go to be a contender, the Samurai know they’re going to have to take some chances in order to get better, and they believe Fore is a chance with taking.

As for Knoxville, they’re clearly hoping that Jones and Wilkins can help them compete in the short term.  But they’ve got to be hoping that Fore won’t turn out to be the one that got away.

Hammerheads, Smokies Strike Blockbuster Deal

You might think that the Jackson Hammerheads and Knxoville Smokies, direct competitors in the Patriot League’s Eastern division, might not be interested in making trades with each other.  But the teams’ owner/GMs, Knoxville’s Jeremiah Mills and Jackson’s Steven Butler, have a lot in common.  They’re both active owners who are always seeking ways to improve their teams.  They’re not averse to taking risks and making big splashes.  If there is going to be a major deal this season, the Hammerheads and Smokies are by far the most likely teams to make it.

The two combined to close out the month of May with a doozy of a deal, one that was reportedly struck during a back-alley poker game between the teams’ owners.  Knoxville traded DH Alex Jaramillo, starter Yu Chen, and 1B Pete Cianciarulo to Jackson for 1B Eddie Battin and reliever Sylvester Lighty.  It’s the second trade between the two teams, after the preseason swap that sent reliever Butch Turnbull to Jackson in exchange for 3B Ronnie Aceuedo.

Eddie Battin
Eddie Battin

The prize of this deal from the Smokies’ perspective was unquestionably Battin.  “We’ve been trying to land him pretty much since Opening Day,” said Mills.  The 27-year-old Battin was a popular figure in the Hammerheads clubhouse, a man who kept things loose with a steady stream of jokes and an iPod full of upbeat country and rock-and-roll songs that he played after Jackson’s frequent victories.  Although Battin has been a bit of a disappointment with the bat, hitting .247 with 6 homers and 28 RBI so far on the season, he has earned a reputation as an excellent fielder.  He is expected to man first base in Knoxville as well, with incumbent first sacker Malcolm Bryant sliding into the DH role.

“I hate to see Eddie leaving here,” said Hammerheads CF Damian “Black Hammer” Deason.  “He’s been our heart and soul.  Maybe the deal makes sense on paper, but that’s a big loss for us.”

Sylvester Lighty
Sylvester Lighty

Lighty also represents an intriguing piece for the Smokies.  The 35-year-old right-hander started the season in Jackson’s crowded bullpen, but when starter Luke Danton went on the DL with a rotator cuff injury, Lighty slid right into the rotation and thrived.  He posted a 4-2 record and a 3.77 ERA with the Hammerheads in 13 appearances, including five starts.  He is expected to join Knoxville’s starting staff.

“It’s an good opportunity, that’s how I think of it,” said Lighty.  “I’ve got a lot of friends here [in Jackson], and I think this team’s got a real shot at winning it all.  It’s hard to walk away.  But I love starting, and if the Smokies are giving me a chance to start, that’s something to be excited about.  And I’m sure there’s some cool guys there, too.  It should be fun!”

Alex Jaramillo
Alex Jaramillo

Jaramillo, the biggest name heading to the Hammerheads in the deal, has been the Smokies’ full-time DH for most of the season.  The 25-year-old slugger has put up fairly solid numbers, batting .266 with 10 HR and 34 RBI.  Unlike Battin, he does not have a reputation as a clubhouse favorite.  Knoxville teammates considered him to be somewhat egocentric and aloof, and he reportedly clashed with Smokies manager Snuff Wallace on a number of issues, most notably his spot in the batting order.

“I don’t know if anybody here’s going to be sorry to see him gone,” said one Knoxville player.  “Alex is in a lovefest… with Alex.”

Jaramillo is expected to serve as the Hammerheads’ designated hitter, which will trigger a series of rearrangements in the lineup.  Erin Arispe, who has served as Jackson’s DH since returning from a DL stint for a hamstring problem, will return to his season-opening position in right field.  Lacy Wilczynski, who has been manning right since Arispe’s injury, will replace Battin at first base.

Yu Chen
Yu Chen

Chen represents the biggest question mark in the deal, and perhaps the player with the most upside.  The 27-year-old Korean lefty struggled mightily with the Smokies this season.  He missed an early-season start with a back injury and seemingly never got himself back into working order after that.  In eight starts with Knoxville, Chen posted a 1-4 record and a 6.60 ERA.  Like Jaramillo, Chen had a difficult relationship with Wallace.  The manager felt that Chen was difficult to communicate with (in fairness, Chen is a recent immigrant who is not fluent in English) and that he was less than diligent in working out and staying in shape between starts.

The Hammerheads hope that new pitching coach Eddie Harris can get Chen straightened out and get him back to the workhorse form he showed in Korea, where he posted a 24-9 record and a 3.22 ERA in 40 starts last season.

Pete Cianciarulo
Pete Cianciarulo

Cianciarulo, a 32-year-old New Jersey native, who has failed to perform in limited action with the Smokies, was generally regarded as a throw-in to the deal.  He is currently on the disabled list, and is expected to be sent to the minors by the Hammerheads once he gets back.

It’s unquestionably a major deal, but the question must be asked: Did either team really get better?  It may be addition by subtraction for the Smokies, who got rid of two players the manager had soured on.  But it’s far from clear that Battin will perform any better offensively than Jaramillo, and Bryant had been doing a fine job defensively at first.  Lighty seems like a good bet for the rotation, but he’s only seen limited action there.  As for the Hammerheads, they’re rolling the dice by bringing two players of questionable character into what has been a tight and happy clubhouse.  Will the positive atmosphere in Jackson rub off on Jaramillo and Chen, or will it be the other way around?  And is Chen capable of producing the results he did in his home country, or have the years and innings taken their toll on his arm?

Jackson’s Butler, one of the architects of the deal, shrugged when asked about the impact.  “I’m not sure whether either team got better from a talent standpoint,” Butler said.  “It’s really just dragon-chasing.”

The trade leaves the Hammerheads one man over the roster limit, and the Smokies a man short.  As of the time this article went to press, neither team had announced a corresponding move.