Smokies Strike Twice at Deadline

Jeremy Mills, King of Trading

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

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

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

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

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

Rick Tomblin
Rick Tomblin
Tom Trane
Tom Trane

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

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

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

Titus Maben
Titus Maben
Oliver Jones ORL
Oliver Jones

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

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

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

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

Rucky Virella
Rucky Virella

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

Max Ortiz
Max Ortiz

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

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

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

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.