Hammerheads Strike A Pair of Deals

There’s a new sheriff in Trade Town.

Last year, the Knoxville Smokies and owner Jeremy Mills claimed the PBL’s unofficial King of Trading title after amassing a long and impressive list of deals.  Most observers expected his high-frequency trading to continue this season.  But although the Smokies consummated the year’s first deal, since then the Jackson Hammerheads and owner/whiz-kid GM Steven Butler have stolen the show.

Steven “Sultan of Swap” Butler

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.

Tony Harris

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.”

Dustin Gonzalez

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.”

Max Ortiz

In Butler’s other deal, the Hammerheads sent 3B Max Ortiz back to his former team, the California Sharks.  Jackson acquired Ortiz from the Sharks for starter Todd Warrant earlier this month, filling a need at the hot corner.  But a couple weeks later, the Hammerheads reacquired last season’s third sacker, Kim Fleitas, from New Orleans and rendered Ortiz expendable.  So they shipped him back to his former team and acquired CF Santiago Suarez.

“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.”

Santiago Suarez

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.”

Jackson Issues Warrant to California for Ortiz

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.

Max Ortiz

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.”

Todd Warrant

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.”

Smokies Strike Twice at Deadline

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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.