All 15 Year Team: Third Base

So far, we’ve taken a look at the Thunder’s All 15 Year Team nominees for catcher, first base, second base and shortstop.

Third baseman are next up on Thunder Thoughts, and there’s some talented candidates to look at.

David McDonough is the featured writer in our position-by-position breakdown of the Thunder’s All 15 Year Team, and has covered the team since their inception in 1994. He brings a smooth and unique writing style, not to mention a knowledge of the team’s history and players that few others have. In short, few are as qualified as he is to be doing this.

The following is Dave’s breakdown, mine will follow after all of his are done…

Wilton Veras: The future looked so bright for Wilton Veras when he played for the Thunder in 1998. Signed as a 17-year-old out of the Dominican, he was just 20 years old when he got to Trenton. He started off with a bang and a whimper, with a great April and an 0-for-May. Then Thunder hitting coach Dave Gallagher worked with him, and by the end of the year, Veras had put together a 16 homers, 67 RB1s, .291 year. He was a popular teammate, good with the press, and everyone started talking about him as the next Red Sox third baseman.
 
He was still the Thunder third baseman in 99 – hey, he was still only 21, but the Red Sox brought him up for 36 games in the second half of the season. Whereupon Sox manager Jimy Williams fell in love with him and decreed that Veras would be his starting third baseman in 2000.
 
Big mistake. Veras was overmatched in the big leagues, and was so demoralized that when he was sent down to Triple-A he struggled horribly – for the next year and a half. He even ended up back in Trenton in 2002, where he tore the ball apart – a .336 average in 68 games. But it was too late. The word was out that Veras didn’t have it. By 2004, he was playing Indy ball for the New Jersey Jackals, and has never gotten back to organized baseball. Thunder fans still remember what a promising player he was, and to this day, when the Red Sox start talking about bringing up some hot prospect at a young age, Boston fans on message boards all over the Net raise their fingers and type a warning, “Remember Wilton Veras.”
 
Eric Duncan: Nobody has worked harder than the 2003 first round draft choice from Florham Park. The Yankees thought he was ready for Double-A at age 20, but he wasn’t. He did get 19 homers in 2005, but he struck out a lot and has never hit for average, He got a shot at Triple-A in 2006, but struggled and landed back in Trenton. He’s also battled injuries and a lack of confidence. He’s a first baseman now, but he’s fallen off of the radar as far as being a prospect. Right now, he’s the other Duncan.
 
Kevin Youkilis: Youk got a lot of publicity when Oakland GM Billy Beane announced his craving for the “Greek God of Walks” in Moneyball. Youkilis has fit perfectly into the Red Sox game plan. Problem is, for our list, he only played 44 games for the Thunder, in 2002, the Red Sox’ last season in Trenton. He was great, batting .344 and getting his trademark 31 walks. By the way, he’s Jewish, not Greek, although he says he never had a Bar Mitzvah. After the 2007 season heroics, Red Sox fans would probably chip in to pay for one.
 
Shea Hillenbrand: Shea actually spent only 35 games at third for the 2000 Thunder, and 65 games at first. In 1999, he was the Thunder catcher until he got hurt. Basically, he was a defensively challenged hitter, so third base is as good a place as any to put him. And he was an outstanding hitter. His .323 average was third in the Eastern League in 2000, and his 171 hits is still a club record. He was the only Trenton post-season All-Star that season.
 
He also feuded with his manager, was thrown out of three games, and was surly with the press – when they could find him, and expressed disdain for the fans. All that changed in 2001 and 2002, when he had a couple of good years with the Red Sox, where he feuded with the GM instead of the manager, and popped off to the press instead of hiding from them. He was traded to Arizona in 2003, then to Toronto (where he changed his routine and feuded with both the manager and the GM) and has since been the property of the Giants, the Padres, the Angels and the Dodgers. Not an easy man to love.
 
Not On the Ballot: Todd Carey: Okay, he wasn’t the greatest third baseman in Thunder history, but he wasn’t bad. He made the Eastern League All-Star team (when Trenton hosted the game) as a Thunder player in 1996, when he hit 20 homers. A smart guy, too – a graduate of Brown University, he now works in the financial district in New York. Deserves a mention.
 
Dave’s Vote Goes To: Shea “Misery” Hillenbrand. Just can’t ignore that season. Sorry, Wilton.

Ashmore’s Thunder Thoughts: As I sit here writing this, I still haven’t decided who I’m voting for.  It’s difficult, as there’s three big leaguers and a first round pick to choose from.  Hmmm…

Wilton Veras: There may be no better example of a career getting derailed thanks to be rushed through the system than Wilton Veras.  The most recent example I can think of would be Jeff Fiorentino, who the Orioles ridiculously called up straight out of A-ball.

“Now if it happened, I’d be ready for it,” Fiorentino told me in 2006.

Last year, I wasn’t ready for it. I hadn’t even played in 100 games, and that was my first full season and I was only there for a month. It was just unbelievable.

Although his call-up came from a level higher than Fiorentino’s, Veras wasn’t ready either.  He was one of those guys who you’d watch play, and you just knew big things were going to happen for him.  They never did.

Out of affiliated baseball after the 2003 season (!!!), Veras has toiled in relative anonymity in one of the lower level independent leagues for three out of the past four seasons.  There will always be flame-outs in baseball, but the most frustrating ones are when it didn’t have to be that way.

It didn’t have to be that way for Wilton Veras.

An added bonus?  Do a Google Image search for Veras, and a picture of Jenna Fischer comes up.  I mean, come on…

Eric Duncan: Wilton Veras, meet Eric Duncan.  Eric Duncan, meet Wilton Veras.  Another case of a young player getting rushed, Duncan was just 20 years old when he came to Trenton for the first time.  He hasn’t hit above .248 anywhere since then.

This spring, when the Yankees had around 80 guys in camp, Duncan was one of the first four cut.  He’s just 23 years old, so it’s way too early to say he’s a bust.  He isn’t.  But it is fair to say that many people expected that he’d get a longer look than he did. 

This is a huge year for Duncan, who never really did much while he was with Trenton.

Kevin Youkilis: Of the four guys on the ballot, it’s pretty easy to make the case that Youkilis did the most with his career once leaving Trenton.  Two World Series rings will do that for you.

But is his .344 average in 44 games in Trenton during the summer of 2002 enough to get my vote?  Maybe.  Had the Thunder not switched affiliations to the Yankees for the 2003 season, Youkilis is probably running away with this one.  After all, he hit .327 in 94 games for Portland that year. 

Shea Hillenbrand: I’ll be honest.  Literally everything I hear about Shea Hillenbrand’s time at Waterfront Park is negative.  And that’s carried over to the big leagues, as he’s had a few well-documented run-ins up there as well.

But he was my favorite player in 2000.  I guess I didn’t know any better.  On picture day that year (Do they still do that?), my goal was to get my picture with Hillenbrand and my other favorite player from that year’s team, Damian Sapp.  I got that and then some, as Hillenbrand insisted on taking my picture with Sapp, and Sapp insisted on taking my picture with Hildy.

Perhaps the only reason Hillenbrand is even on this list was because he blew his knee out in 1999 behind the plate.  The jersey he did that in is sitting in my house, probably reluctantly signed by him to boot.  I remember that when Joe DePastino came in with another team a year or two later, and I had him sign it since he wore the jersey as well, he started freaking out and called Shea over to check it out.

On the field, there’s no denying what Hildy did.  A career .312 minor league hitter, his .323 mark in 2000 was good for third best in the Eastern League.  But while for the most part he’s hit wherever he’s been in the big leagues as well, there’s a reason he’s bounced around as many teams as he has.

Not On The Ballot: Bill Selby.  Selby saw significant time as the Thunder’s hot corner man in 1995, and hit .286 with 13 home runs and 68 RBI.  He also made some vomit-inducing plays in the field, committing 24 errors on the way to a .885 fielding percentage.  Yikes.

Never the less, he was called up to the big leagues by the Red Sox the following season, and got into 40 games without accompishing too much.  He made some sporadic appearances with the Indians and Reds a couple of seasons later, and even hit a walk-off grand slam off of none other than Mariano Rivera, but he never really amounted to too much at the highest level.

My Vote Goes To: Wilton Veras.  In my book, Hillenbrand is a first baseman.  And what a guy does off the field is almost more important to me than what he does on it.  Veras was exciting to watch — at least for me he was — and was good with the fans from what I remember.  I have more than a few “WVeras21” autographs on my shelves.  Youkilis was about 25 games or so away from getting my vote, and Duncan…he just didn’t do it in Trenton, sorry guys.

Our ballots so far:

C: Walt McKeel (McDonough), Virgil Chevalier (Ashmore)
1B: Tony Clark (McDonough), Shelley Duncan (Ashmore)
2B: David Eckstein (McDonough), David Eckstein (Ashmore)
SS: Freddy Sanchez (McDonough), Adam Everett (Ashmore)
3B: Shea Hillenbrand (McDonough), Wilton Veras (Ashmore)

Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com

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