As far as sports days go in Trenton, this should be one of the more intriguing ones. The capital city welcomes back their beloved hockey franchise in the afternoon, and…while not one of the best, one of the more interesting pitching matchups takes place at Waterfront Park later tonight.
This is, after all, a baseball blog…so let’s start with that first.
On your left is Dellin Betances. On your right? Chuck Lofgren.
One is widely regarded as one of the top pitching prospects in baseball. And, at one time, so was the other.
Lofgren, who takes the ball today for the Richmond Flying Squirrels, was twice ranked as the second best prospect in the Cleveland Indians system by Baseball America (2007 and 2008). His breakout 2006 season (17-5, 2.32 ERA in High-A Kinston) led to the-then 20-year-old being considered by some to be one of the top 50 prospects in all of baseball.
“He emerged as one of the top lefthanders in the minors in 2006,” reads the 2007 Baseball America Prospect Handbook.
“He could make his big league debut later in the year,” says the 2008 edition of the book.
Just don’t look for him in the 2009 printing. Lofgren, now 25, essentially fell off the prospect map two years ago, largely in part to a disastrous 2008 campaign that saw him go 2-6 with a 5.99 ERA in 28 appearances — just 15 of them starts after getting yanked out of the rotation. The following year wasn’t much better, as he tallied a 5.31 ERA in 17 starts at Triple-A Columbus inbetween successful stints in Akron.
Just a year removed from being considered one of their top prospects, the Indians gave up on Lofgren, choosing not to protect him in the 2009 Rule 5 draft. The Brewers drafted him, and eventually worked out a trade with Cleveland after he failed to make their big league team. One season that yielded a 7-8 record and 5.19 ERA in 28 Triple-A appearances later, and Lofgren’s time in Milwaukee was over as well.
Now, the southpaw finds himself in his third organization in as many seasons, pitching in Double-A with the San Francisco Giants. And the Futures Game alum (’07) will be making just his second appearance at that level this season, unfathomably stuck at High-A San Jose for most of the year. He pitched in 18 games there — making just two starts — and did well, holding opponents to a .198 average against while posting 2-0 record and 3.68 ERA.
Lofgren has one Double-A start under his belt this season, a successful outing against Harrisburg on July 23 in which he went 5 2/3 innings and allowed just one run on three hits, picking up the victory.
And even with all that, there will unquestionably be more interest on the guy who toes the rubber for the other team tonight. The quickest way to figure that out would be to look behind home plate, where a likely larger than normal amount of scouts radar guns are pointed towards Dellin Betances.
Betances, a big 23-year-old righty, has been the subject of trade rumors for nearly as long as he’s been with the Yankees. Rated as the system’s third best prospect by Baseball America, and arguably a number one in many organizations, it wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination to say that this very well could be the final start he makes under the Bronx Bombers umbrella.
The hard throwing Bronx-born Betances made great strides last season, with his 8-1 record in Tampa (complete with 1.77 ERA, 88/19 K:BB ratio and .169 average against) essentially proving he was healthy after struggles in that regard in previous years. While pitch efficiency has been a concern for both he and fellow top-rated starter Manny Banuelos all season long — Betances has mindbogglingly averaged less than five innings per start this season — the numbers don’t lie.
In 17 starts, Betances has held the opposition to a .199 average against and struck out 95 Eastern League batters in 84 1/3 innings of work. And despite the value he clearly carries to his own organization, he’s an extremely hot commodity to others as well. You can’t help but wonder if this will be one of those crazy days that remind you of 2008, in which Phil Coke got pulled one inning into his start just before the deadline, creating a frenzy in the press box and the clubhouse.
Setting the stage for the interesting day at the baseball stadium, however, is what’s going on the arena a few blocks away. Just weeks after the Trenton Devils folded, the beloved Trenton Titans have returned. Having covered the former for the past three seasons, it’s amazing how much people talked about the latter…and rightfully so. In their heyday, the Titans were the hottest ticket in town, packing the-then Sovereign Bank Arena on a nightly basis. They won the Kelly Cup in 2005, and shared an affiliation for much of their duration in the city with the Philadelphia Flyers, which was a perfect combination given the area’s strong fanbase of Philly fans.
But, the New Jersey Devils came in and, as part of their impossibly failed “Paint The Town Red” campaign, purchased the Trenton hockey franchise and eventually re-named them the Trenton Devils. The Titans fanbase, admittedly already dwindling, was alienated and simply stopped coming. Players, while appreciative of the support they did get, derisively referred to the crowds as “The Green Seats Fan Club,” as they always played in front of sparse crowds and thousands of empty seats. There were times where no more than 100 people were in the stands at the drop of the puck, and it wasn’t as uncommon as announced attendance numbers would lead you to believe.
Eventually realizing the disaster they’d created, the Devils pulled out of Trenton, folding the team and essentially killing hockey in the capital city. Or so everyone thought. As it turns out, talks were being held to bring back the Titans and just as importantly, bring them back as a Flyers affiliate.
While everything came together very quickly and more details are sure to come out today, the fact is that the Titans are back. I’ll be covering the 1 PM press conference at the arena, to be held on the ice, and would encourage you to check out the blog I’ve had that’s chronicled professional hockey in Trenton since 2008-09…it will be renamed or shut down and replaced by a new one in the coming days, either or.
So for me, this will be a fun day. And hopefully, I can make it fun for you too. So follow along, won’t you? See you at the rink…and the ballpark.
Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com