Archive for April 3rd, 2012

Know Your Role: Heyer Finally A Starter To Begin Season

April 3, 2012

Craig Heyer made 24 starts for the Thunder last season

For a few seasons now, Craig Heyer has gone into the year wondering where his next inning would come from.  Would he be starting?  Would he be filling one of who knows many roles in the bullpen?  But 2012 is different.  At least for now.

The 26-year-old righty is beginning the year as the fourth starter for the Trenton Thunder, and although he told reporters countless times that he just wants the ball no matter what last year, he can’t be upset with finally knowing when he’s going to get it at the beginning of the year.

“I think for once, I do have a role out of the gate,” said Heyer through a smile.  “I’ve been a spot guy at the start of the year for the last few years, and now they said why not do this for now.  So, we’ll see.  I’m excited about it.  I’m throwing in the fourth game and I think it’s going to be a fun season.”

This is the Scottsdale, Ariz. native’s sixth season in the Yankees organization, and he’s made at least one start in each of the past five.  He made six in his first year in High-A Tampa in 2009, 12 the following season and then 24 last year in his Double-A debut.  Heyer, who reiterated that he’s happy with whatever role the organization put him in, has something else to look forward to this season as well: A cutter.

“I like it, it gets the guys off of my sinker a little bit,” said Heyer, who will throw the pitch for the first time this year. 

“It keeps the lefties from diving out over the plate and I’ll try to go back in with that and give them a different look.  I’d been pretty much the same pitcher for the last four or five years of my career, and I figure that I’d try to change something.  The sinker-cutter is going to be my go-to, and hopefully I can get some ground balls and go through games quickly.”

The cutter has been known to put unnecessary stress on pitchers at times, but Heyer insists that there won’t be any problems.

“With my arm slot, it’s actually kind of easy,” he said.  “I’m not trying to be overconfident with it, but I kind of picked it up pretty quick.  We’ll see how it goes this year, I’m excited to get out there.”

Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com // Twitter: Mashmore98

Almonte On The Rise

April 3, 2012

Zoilo Almonte will be the biggest position player prospect to watch this season in Trenton

Zoilo Almonte has made a slow, but steady climb through the Yankees minor league ranks for the majority of his career.  The climb should continue, but the “slow” part of it may not if he can get off to a hot start this season.

The 22-year-old Dominican-born outfielder was promoted from High-A Tampa to Double-A Trenton last season with minimal hype, and had a pretty non-descript 46 game stint with the Thunder to finish out the season.  He hit .251 with three home runs and 23 RBI in 175 at-bats, and posted a .686 OPS that was .019 below the collective team total.

But tools don’t always translate into numbers, at least not right away, and Almonte has always had those.  While he doesn’t have a standout attribute, he’s quite well-rounded, and he really got the attention of the organization with a strong spring training this season.

“The (attention) really doesn’t cross my mind.  I am here to work hard and keep getting better,” said Almonte through a translator.

Almonte spent some time with Alex Rodriguez and former Trenton Thunder star Robinson Cano in spring training, and both he and the Yankees can only hope that he’s better off for it.

“Watching them I see the discipline and focus they bring to their job, how professional they are in how they go about their business,” Almonte said.  “Off the field they showed how to conduct yourself off the field and how to try and be as good of a person as you can because that’s really important, too.”

In a system that Baseball America consideres the sixth-best in all of baseball, Almonte is rated as the Yankees 19th-best prospect, ahead of David Phelps and teammates David Adams and Chase Whitley.  Of the six outfielders among the top 30 prospects in the system, Almonte is the furthest along in the system and was added to the Yankees 40-man roster in the off-season.

“It feels good,” said Almonte about being considered a prospect.

“Hopefully if I keep working hard I can keep progressing forward.  (The) main thing I have learned is mental strength – how to get through a whole year, stay focused and improve.  I’m just going to do what I have been doing – go up to the plate and have as good of an at bat as I can and try to hit the ball solid. My only goal every year is to work harder than I did the year before and not only get better but improve my approach. Last year was a good year and this year I am going to be as strong of an approach as I can. I want to get better at running the bases, but really across the board – defense, batting average – I am looking to improve in all areas.’’

Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com // Twitter: Mashmore98

Media Day: Phelps Talks Pitching

April 3, 2012

Left-hander Shaeffer Hall will be the Thunder's Opening Day starter

A few members of the media were able to catch up with Trenton Thunder pitching coach Tommy Phelps this afternoon, and as always, he had some interesting things to say…

On new arms: “We’ve got some good, young arms coming in.  Some of them, I haven’t seen a whole lot, so it’ll be fun to watch them pitch and see them in their roles.”

On Brett Marshall: “Marshall has been very good.  He’s got some very good secondary pitches, and he moves his fastball around.  He’s got a little saavy-ness to him, he’s pretty good.  Marshall has a good four-seam, and a two-seam fastball that’s been known to touch 95, 96.  He’s got a good slider, he’s tightened it up.  And a good changeup.  I mean a really, really good changeup.  He can use any of those pitches and throw them in any counts.  It’ll be fun to see him pitch against these older hitters.” 

On the closer situation: “You’ve got your multiple-inning guys; Whitley, Claiborne, those guys will have a tendency to be at the end of the game.  Pope will come into some games there.  Arbiso’s probably going to be like he’s been in the past, the number nine guy, the spot starter/long guy.  We’ve got a new guy, (Lee) Hyde, I’ve seen him pitch one inning.  We’ll see where he fits in, he’s our only lefty in the bullpen.”

On Shaeffer Hall: “One of the things we try to stress with our starters is when we’re on the mound, you want your position players and everyone to feel like we’ve got a chance to win today.  So and so is pitching, and he throws strikes and he attacks, he works fast.  ‘Shaeff’ has that mentality, and he is very prepared every game before he goes out.  That’s a big plus for him, his makeup.” 

On Kelvin Perez: “Kelvin Perez has got a really good arm with really good stuff.  We’ll see what he’s got.  I haven’t really seen him pitch very much.  I saw him pitch four years ago down in extended when I was down there, and he’s good a really good breaking ball.  He’s just starting to throw a slider.  We’ll see where his command and his pitchability is, but stuff-wise, he’s got plenty of stuff.”

On Cory Arbiso’s new curveball: “He’s had the curveball coming two years ago, and he used it a little bit last year.  It’s just another pitch to add in there early in the count and maybe get a chase late in the count.  But his big secondary is his changeup, and his slider is next to follow after that.”

On pitchers not yet with Trenton who impressed him in camp: “There’s a few guys.  There was a Cuban guy we signed, (Rigoberto) Arrebato, a little lefthander that was pretty good down there.  A lot of their starters; Turley…they’ve got a bunch of good, young pitchers coming up.  Pinder, who was impressive.  Montgomery.  A lot of those guys down there had impressive stuff.  A lot of them will be up here sometime, hopefully.”

Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com // Twitter: Mashmore98

The Transformation Of Cody Johnson

April 3, 2012

Cody Johnson is looking to rebound after a tough 2011 season

Cody Johnson knows the impression he makes on people who’ve seen him play for a while: He either strikes out or hits a home run.  He’d just prefer not to read about it.

“I try not to read anything.  It’s hard to take anything good or bad from it,” he said. 

“You’re either going to feel great or you’re going to be mad, so if you try and just ignore it and do what you do every day, you’ll be better off.”

Johnson, still just 23 years old, is a big man with big expectations.  6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, the Southport, Fla. native can send the ball a country mile with a simple flick of his wrists.  But, all too often, a seemingly all-or-nothing approach provided way too much of the latter.  The former first round pick of the Braves has hit no fewer than 17 home runs in each of his past five seasons, but also has an astounding 823 strikeouts in 2,284 career at-bats. 

“I know what I am…well, I know what I have been,” said the friendly Floridian.  “I’m trying to almost re-create myself and change my whole approach.  It’s been a slow process.  I can’t expect results overnight, but I just have to take what opportunities the Yankees give me this year and do the best I can with it.”

Johnson started the 2011 season as the Thunder’s five-hole hitter and everyday DH.  He ended it in Tampa.  Although he smashed 15 home runs and got hot at times with Trenton, he also batted just .226 for a team that needed much more from him.  The transformation of Cody Johnson started last season, when he says he started to change his approach both mentally and physically.  But things went downhill, he says, when the embarrassing incident involving Julius Matos took place. 

“I felt like I really lost track when we had the situation go down where we lost our hitting coach, and it was kind of hit or miss from there on out,” he said. 

“When I got sent down, I was just glad to still have a job.  I went down and got things worked out.  I was in Tampa for six weeks, and felt like I really got things turned around out and started the off-season on a good note.  I kind of spent the off-season trying to get in better shape and basically focus on what I ended the year doing and try to come back into spring training and pick up where I left off, and pretty much start back over.  I felt like I had a pretty good spring, and hopefully I can have a pretty good season.”

To have that good season, Johnson must cut down on his strikeouts, which whether he wants to read about it or not, is a simple statistical fact.  194 strikeouts were a career high for him last season, but his third trip to Double-A very well could be the charm if he can practice what he preached at Media Day.

“Mentally, it’s just knowing what pitchers are going to do me and sticking with one game plan,” he said.  “It’s not getting out of that and just staying in the strike zone, that’s the biggest thing.  I chased a lot of pitches, and it’s staying in one zone.  If I don’t get certain pitches, hey if a guy can locate on me for three pitches, I’ll tip my hat and turn around and sit down and just have to kind of sit there and wait for a mistake.”

Curiously, some of Johnson’s success at the plate may be a direct result of what he does while he’s out in the field.  Johnson played in 74 contests for Trenton last season, but was the designated hitter for all but three of them.  If he can get some playing time in the outfield, he says, it could help him clear his mind at-bat.

“I spent the off-season trying to get myself in shape to be where I know I can play in the field, and I spent spring training proving that I can play the field, at least to myself,” Johnson said.

“I’m just trying to give Tony another option for me.  I really took DH’ing for granted last year, I just thought it was going to be easy.  But it’s really a role that’s really hard.  When you’re going good, it’s easy.  You just sit there, you go up, you take your at-bat and you’re feeling great.  But when you’re going bad, it’s frustrating, because all you do is go sit on the bench and you walk around and you get frustrated.  You think too much.  You get out in the outfield, you might get out there and be mad at yourself, but you’ve kind of got to separate that and focus because you have to pay attention and play defense.  It kind of gives you that separation there.  I started getting the hang of things at the end of the year and I learned it a little bit better, so if that’s my role, I’ll take it and do the best I can with it.”

Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com // Twitter: Mashmore98

Media Day: Will Experience Equal Excellence?

April 3, 2012

At first glance, a look at the 2012 Trenton Thunder roster would show that 17 players from last year’s team will be returning this season.  That team went 68-73 and, realistically, probably wasn’t even that good.

But when Thunder manager Tony Franklin, who returns for an unprecedented sixth season in the capital city, was asked at Media Day why fans should believe this year’s team will be any better, he provided a thought-provoking answer.

“(They have) one year’s experience,” he said. 

“I think that one year or even half a season that you could spend at this level gives you a pretty good idea of what you’re going to be facing the following year.  Let’s face it, the first year here is a little unnerving for guys who are coming out of A-Ball.  At this level, you start to find out who you are and what you’re all about as far as a baseball player is concerned.  This is a very good proving ground for a baseball player.”

And for many of those returning players, this will be a make or break season in their careers.  After an injury-riddled campaign that saw him get taken off the Yankees 40-man roster, 25-year-old reliever Ryan Pope returns to Waterfront Park for a fourth season.  It’s now or never for the personable righty.

“You never want to be in the same spot for that many years,” he said.  “But it’s not my decision.  It’s one of those things where you just go out and do what you have to do and let it take its course.  For right now, you have a chip on your shoulder and you think you did enough to get out of here.  But I’ll go out there and pitch and do what I have to do and let the organization do what it has to do.”

Pope is joined by fellow returnees Cory Arbiso, Ryan Flannery, Shaeffer Hall, Craig Heyer, Josh Romanski, Graham Stoneburner and Chase Whitley on this year’s pitching staff.  Whitley is considered the biggest prospect of the group, and could move quickly if he can build off his 19 game stint in Trenton last year.

“Last season was such a year where I was learning so much, with it being my first season,” said the Yankees 15th round draft choice in 2010.

“This year, it’s taking what I learned last year, putting it on the field and seeing what happens.  I learned how to be a professional and how to go about how to work and how each and every day is just a grind.  It’s the first time I’d ever played that many games in a season, so I just need to go out there and see how it goes.”

Jose Gil is the lone returning catcher, but both the infield and outfield will each feature four familiar faces with Rob Lyerly, Addison Maruszak, Yadil Mujica and Jose Pirela manning the dirt and Zoilo Almonte, Dan Brewer, Cody Johnson and Melky Mesa out by the fences.

“We’ve got a lot of guys here, we’ve got the potential to be very good,” Johnson said. 

“But it’s only on paper until you go out and play that first game.  I’ll tell you in September, but on paper right now, we’ve got a great team.”

Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com // Twitter: Mashmore98

Media Day Quick Notes

April 3, 2012

Ronnier Mustelier prepares for his first swings at Waterfront Park

– I spoke with Tony Franklin, Tommy Phelps, Shaeffer Hall, Craig Heyer, Ryan Pope, Josh Romanski, Chase Whitley, David Adams, Cody Johnson and Zoilo Almonte today.  Not too shabby.  Stay tuned for comments from them that will be spaced out just enough to get you through Opening Day on Thursday.

– The starting rotation is, as expected: Hall, Graham Stoneburner, Brett Marshall, Heyer and Romanski.  The one question I had was wondering out loud if they might skip Romanski’s first turn since the Thunder have an off day on Easter so they’d have an extra arm in the bullpen, but buth Phelps and Romanski say that he’ll go on the 10th as planned.

– Marshall and Abe Almonte were not at the event.

– Heyer is throwing a cutter now, and Cory Arbiso has added a curveball to his arsenal.  Arbiso is noticeably more fit than he was  last season, and will be used in a similar role…spot starter and long man.

– There were no roster moves to announce yet.  The roster still stands at 27 players, and must be trimmed by two before Thursday.  Jeff Farnham is pretty much a given, but it seems likely that one of Addison Maruszak, Yadil Mujica or Jose Pirela would also be on the chopping block.  That, of course, could all change pending what happens with Scranton’s roster.

– Speaking of which, my buddy Donnie Collins tries to clear up that picture over at his blog.  But there are still some puzzle pieces that need to fall into place.

Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com // Twitter: Mashmore98

2012 Thunder Numerical Roster

April 3, 2012

SP

19 Shaeffer Hall
31 Craig Heyer
21 Brett Marshall
23 Josh Romanski
39 Graham Stoneburner

RP

30 Cory Arbiso
53 Preston Claiborne
54 Ryan Flannery
27 Lee Hyde
3 Kelvin Perez
20 Ryan Pope
48 Chase Whitley

C

13 Mitch Abeita
32 Jeff Farnham
55 Jose Gil

INF

24 David Adams
25 Walter Ibarra
15 Rob Lyerly
17 Addison Maruszak
11 Yadil Mujica
10 Ronnier Mustelier
28 Jose Pirela

OF

7 Abraham Almonte
49 Zoilo Almonte
8 Dan Brewer
44 Cody Johnson
29 Melky Mesa

COACHES

18 Tony Franklin
57 Tommy Phelps
56 Tom Slater
43 Luis Dorante

Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com // Twitter: mashmore98


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