Hammerheads Shake Up Pitching Staff

The Jackson Hammerheads never expected to find themselves here.  After finishing a strong second in the East last season, Jackson owner/whiz-kid GM Steven Butler made a series of aggressive trades designed to propel them to the top.  Instead, after a dreadful first couple of weeks, the Hammerheads are stuck in the cellar with a 5-10 record.

Worse yet, the biggest problem plaguing Jackson is the same issue that derailed them last year: the pitching staff.  The Hammerheads’ 6.14 team ERA is the worst in the league by a healthy margin.  The rotation has posted a dismal 6.83 mark; only first-year man Willie Lebron has inspired confidence.  And the bullpen has been responsible for a surge in ulcers around central Mississippi after a string of late-inning meltdowns.

Bob Henley

Manager Bob Henley has seen enough.  Today, the skipper announced a shakeup of his pitching staff.

“When you got the kind of talent we’ve got, this kind of start just ain’t acceptable,” said Henley.  “We’re not performing, so I’m making some changes.  And I’ll keep making changes until we get this right.”

Yu Chen
Tony Harris

In order to fix the rotation, Henley demoted Korean lefty Yu Chen to the bullpen and made righty Tony Harris a starter.  Chen was acquired from Knoxville in the middle of last season and turned in underwhelming numbers.  This season, he’s been even worse, going 0-1 with a 10.95 ERA and barely averaging 4 innings per start.  The 37-year-old Harris, acquired from Jacksonville shortly before the start of this season, has excelled in long-relief work, posting a 1.35 ERA in 7 appearances.

“What I’ve seen out of Tony is a guy who get the job done and inspires confidence,” said Henley.  “I’m not seeing that same confidence in Yu.  In my clubhouse, you do the job and you get rewarded.  Tony’s earned a chance to show us what he can do.”

Butch Turnbull

To address the relief problems, Henley sent Butch Turnbull to the minors.  The hard-throwing right-hander has appeared frequently in late-game situations, making 9 appearances already in the young season.  Unfortunately, he’s struggled badly, going 0-2 with an 8.53 ERA.

“I’ve given Butch plenty of rope, and he’s made a noose out of it,” said Henley.  “I’ve seen enough.”

Turnbull’s roster spot will be given to DH Dexter Jester.  His late-inning duties will be turned over to righty Bobby Boniface and lefties Hilton Sircy and Sam Drawdy.

A furious Turnbull responded to the move by demanding a trade.  “I don’t know what they want me to do here,” the righty fumed.  “Last year, I practically had to beg to get into games.  This year, they run me out there every night.  I don’t know if they’re trying to ruin me or what, but I’m sick of it.  I want to go to a team that will just let me pitch and quit jerking me around.”

Henley hopes the moves will put other struggling pitchers on notice.  Henley did not demote closer Rick Sheen, who’s blown 2 of 4 save opportunities and is allowing a 1.381 OPS against, or #1 starter Henry Jones, who’s gone 0-3 with an 8.10 ERA on the season.  But he stressed that no one, regardless of salary or reputation, is safe.

“Now they know I’m serious,” said Henley.  “If you don’t do your job, you’re gonna spend some time on the bench or in the minors.  No excuses.”

Leaked information from inside the clubhouse suggested that Henley is contemplating replacing Sheen as closer with Boniface; the manager said only, “Everything’s on the table if we don’t get better.”

Bullpen Chaos in Jackson

Lou Brown
Lou Hayes

All in all, things are going well for the Jackson Hammerheads right now.  The team has rebounded from a 1-5 start, winning 8 of their last 10 to surge into second in the Eastern Division, hot on the heels of the Knoxville Smokies.  But while the Hammerheads are thriving on the field, behind the scenes a rift is developing that threatens to tear the team apart.  According to clubhouse sources, manager Lou Hayes is on the verge of losing his bullpen.

Perhaps at the heart of the matter is Hayes’ relationship with closer Sheen.  The hard-partying Sheen, whose most notable Patriot League accomplishment to date has been his preseason bar brawl, reportedly lost the confidence of his manager after a lackluster spring training and a tough start to the season.  In recent games, Hayes has been using Sheen as a long reliever rather than a closer, bringing him in for multi-inning stints, usually with the Hammerheads trailing.  Hayes has repeatedly insisted that he has not removed Sheen as the team’s closer.

Rick Sheen
Rick Sheen

Sheen exploded last week after Hayes sent him out for a 3-inning, 37-pitch long relief appearance in a 6-4 loss to Orlando.   “Either I’m the closer or not,” Sheen said after that game.  “If I’m not, [Hayes] should man up and tell me.  If I am, stop running me out there like I’m the mop-up guy.”  Hayes reportedly responded to Sheen’s outburst by demanding that he attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

Although Sheen’s spat with Hayes is the most public sign of the discord, his teammates are said to be largely neutral in the matter.  Sheen has struggled to a 5.40 ERA on the season, and continues to spend far more time in nightclubs than in the film room, so he has not garnered much sympathy in the locker room.  The manager’s management of the rest of the bullpen, while far less public, has proven far more controversial internally.

Hayes says that he tend to avoid set roles for his relievers, preferring to manage by instinct.  “I trust my gut,” said Hayes.  “Sometimes guys are up and sometimes they’re down, and you’ve got to go with the flow.  If one of my relievers is in a major slump, am I going to keep running him out in big situations just because he’s my ‘8th- inning guy’?  Hell no.  Each situation is different, and I want to use the guy I think is right for a particular spot.”

For relievers, who rely on roles to establish a routine, Hayes’ go-by-the-gut philosophy is chaotic.  But worse yet, say players, is the fact that in practice, Hayes seems to lean heavily on a couple players – especially Sheen and lefty Brett Pollan – while other relievers are virtually ignored.  The result is that Pollan and Sheen are exhausted, while others grow rusty from disuse.

Butch Turnbull
Butch Turnbull

Right-hander Butch Turnbull falls in the latter camp.  Expected to be a key piece of the Hammerheads’ relief corps when he was acquired from the Smokies in spring training, Turnbull has yet to appear in a regular-season game.  Reportedly, Hayes has provided Turnbull with no explanation for the sidelining.  After yesterday’s game, according to sources, Turnbull confronted Hayes in the locker room.  “Why the hell did you get me if you’re not going to play me?” Turnbull shouted.  “I’m a player, not a spectator.  If you’re not going to use me, then trade me.”  Hayes ordered Turnbull into his office, where the two remained for 20 minutes.

“It makes no sense,” said one reliever of Hayes’ decisions.  “If we weren’t getting work because all our starters were throwing complete game, that would be one thing.  But that’s obviously not the case.  Why are we sitting?”

Luke Danton
Luke Danton

Perhaps most controversial of all is Hayes’ treatment of veteran starter Luke Danton.  The left-hander was a fixture in Jackson’s rotation, yet on two separate occasions, Hayes brought him in to relieve in between starts.  Hayes claimed that on both days, Danton was scheduled to throw on the side anyway.  But with a crowded 8-men bullpen and several relievers already begging for work, the decision seemed strange to many.

“Talk about a vote of no confidence in your pen,” said the same reliever.  “You bring a starter in on his throw day?  Twice?  And it’s not an emergency?  That’s insane.”

Some on the team feel that Hayes’ overuse of Danton led directly to the strained rotator cuff that has landed the starter on the disabled list.  Both Danton and Hayes disagree with the assessment, but some in the Jackson clubhouse hope that the injury will lead the manager to reconsider his bullpen usage.  “This could be a scared-straight kind of moment,” said one reliever.  “It’s awful for Luke that he went down, but this could be good for us in the long run.”

The manager’s postgame comments suggest that he may be taking steps in that direction.  “We’ve been scoring a ton of runs,” Hayes said.  “But we’ve been giving up a ton too, and that’s what we’ve got to fix.  I think we’ve got the personnel here.  It might just be a matter of how we’re using them.  I’m not afraid to change it up if it’ll help. It’s early and we’re still feeling it out a bit.”

That seems to be the right sentiment.  But it leaves a lot of unanswered questions.  Is Sheen still the closer?  Will Pollan get a break?  Will Danton’s injury put an end to the starters-in-relief experiment?  Will Turnbull and the others finally get work?  The fate of the pen, and perhaps the Hammerheads’ season, hangs in the balance.

PBL Transactions, 11/22/15 – 11/28/15

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

California Sharks


California Sharks:
Claimed free agent SS Melian Gonzalez, RP “Rocket” Ron Scott, and RP Ron Wall.  Waived 3B Elmo Milliner, RP Shab Mickolas, and RP Jason Richter.

 

Jackson Hammerheads

 

Jackson Hammerheads: Claimed free agent 2B Erasmo Crofoot. Waived RP Antonio Schieber.

 

Jacksonville Dragons


J
acksonville Dragons: Claimed free agent Cs Carlos Asperzol and Raleigh Gajewski and RP John Longroofan. Waived 1B Lawrence Briski, SP Charles McNally, and RP Lauren Gilpatrick. (See story here.)

 

Knoxville Smokies


Knoxville Smokies:
Traded MR Butch Turnbull to Jackson for 3B Ronnie Aceuedo. (See story here.)

 

 

Silver City Outlaws


Silver City Outlaws:
Claimed free agent RF Kent “Tex” Whittier.  Waived RP Norman Sater.

Knoxville, Jackson Complete PBL’s First Trade; Wallace Goes Wild

Butch Turnbull
Butch Turnbull
Ronnie Aceuedo
Ronnie Aceuedo

The Patriot League’s first trade was struck yesterday between the Jackson Hammerheads and Knoxville Smokies, rivals in the league’s Eastern Division.  The Hammerheads acquired middle reliever Butch Turnbull in exchange for third baseman Ronnie Aceuedo. The hard-throwing Turnbull, 26, compiled a 2.66 ERA to go with a 5-8 record with 7 saves last year, splitting time between two independent leagues.  Aceuedo, 33, played last season in for the Puebla Pericos of the Mexican League, where he compiled a .276/.336/.429 slash line.

The trade didn’t sit well with Smokies manager Snuff Wallace.  When notified of the deal, Wallace was overheard cursing out Smokies owner/GM Jeremiah Mills both for neglecting to consult him and for trading away one of his valuable bullpen arms in exchange for an “old as dirt” third baseman.  According to witnesses, Wallace’s tirade lasted over 15 minutes and was peppered with “extensive and highly imaginative cursing.”

Mills defended the trade, noting that Turnbull was slated for mop-up duty with Knoxville and that Aceuedo provided the Smokies with important depth and flexibility at the hot corner. He also pointed out that the trade saved Knoxville $600,000 against the salary cap. “We did our homework before making this deal,” Mills said.

By the time the team held a press conference announcing the deal, Wallace had changed his tune.  “We’ve now got three stellar third basemen in the organization,” Wallace remarks, noting that he believes any of them could start every game the team plays this year.  He stated that he had talked things over with Mills and that his relationship with his GM is fine.  “I trust him as far as I can throw him,” Wallace joked, “which I think is about 5 feet.”

Reached for comment about the deal, Hammerheads manager Lou Hayes had the following response:

 

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