Posts Tagged ‘Boston Red Sox’

Around the EL: Lars Anderson

August 7, 2009

larsAsk and ye shall receive. 

Lars Anderson was the winner of a recent poll on here, asking which Around the EL feature you’d like to see next.

The Sea Dogs slugger entered the season as the Red Sox top prospect, according to Baseball America.  During Portland’s last trip to Waterfront Park this year, I sat down with the laid-back California native for a few minutes and asked him a number of questions…

(Note: Friend and colleague Kira Jones, who works for MiLB.com, was also there for part of the interview and asked one of these questions as well…)

Mike Ashmore: The Boston Red Sox picked you in the 18th round in 2006, certainly a bit lower than I’m sure you thought you might go.  Thinking back to the day you got selected, what comes to mind?

Lars Anderson: “At the time, I was really indecisive about if I wanted to play pro ball or if I wanted to go to school.  I kind of felt some relief, because I was supposed to go a little higher than that and I slipped.  So I was like, ‘OK, I kind of want to go to school.’  Then the Red Sox picked me.  I was on my way to baseball practice and my brother called and said, ‘Hey, how do you like Boston?’  And I thought that was cool, so it just worked out nicely.”

Ashmore: Baseball America has got you rated as the Red Sox number one prospect this season.  Does being held in such high regard like that weigh on your shoulders at all, or do you not really think about it?

Anderson: “I try to not pay attention to that, and I think I would be able to do that, but people remind you of it.  So it’s there, and it’s a matter of managing that.  I don’t think it reflects on me as far as how I am as a ballplayer or as a person, it’s just a subjective opinion of the organization.  I don’t even know if that person who made that list has seen me play.  So it’s pretty arbitrary.  I know a lot of guys in this organization are at the top of their game, so I don’t really know how accurate that whole thing is.”

Ashmore: Can you give me a little scouting report on yourself for someone who hasn’t seen you play?

Anderson: “Offensively, when I’m going really well, I’m quiet, my swing is easy and I’m driving the ball up the middle and in the gaps.  When I struggle, I’ll start to pull off of balls.  And I think that’s true for a lot of hitters.  I like hitting fastballs, but I think I’m getting better at hitting offspeed stuff.  They always say that the best offspeed hitters are the guys that hit the fastballs, so it seems like it’s a nice approach to take.”

“Defensively, I’m pretty pleased with some of the strides I’ve made.  There’s some situational stuff that I’ve made mistakes on that it’s good to have that happen now.  There was a play last night where that happen, and I was like OK, next time I’ll be a little bit more aware of that.  I feel fundamentally a bit more comfortable on the field, which is great.  I’m working hard at it.”

Ashmore: You got to play in the Eastern League All-Star Game here in Trenton recently.  What was your experience like?

Anderson: “It was great.  I wish the All-Star break was about four days long so I could have a couple days to myself, but it was fun.  It was really cool meeting up with all these guys and kind of picking their brains and seeing where they’re at.  I really had some good connections.  A lot of times they’ll just come through first base and you’ll have a brief conversation, but there I was able to connect with them a little bit more.  That was a cool thing for me.”

Ashmore: You came into tonight’s game hitting around .270, and a lot of people consider that struggling for you considering what you’ve hit in the past.  Does that seem ridiculous to you at all?

Anderson: “No, it’s not.  I know I can do better than what I’m doing, and I always feel that way.  I think I’m going to look back on this year, regardless of what happens in the next month and a half, and be like, ‘Wow, that was a huge year for me, I learned a lot.'”

Ashmore: In reading a lot of scouting reports on you, it seems a lot of people feel like you can hit in the big leagues right now.  Is that an asssessment you’d agree with?

Anderson: “I don’t know, I haven’t really had much experience.  I had a few at-bats in spring training, but it’s just a handful.  I feel like if I was locked in, I could probably hold my own.  I don’t know.  I’m sure if they execute their pitches…those guys get big leaguers out, so it would probably be tough.  I don’t know, I’d like to try.”

Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com

All 15 Year Team: Outfield

March 30, 2008

Michael Coleman / Photo by Mike Ashmore (2005)

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

What can I tell you about David McDonough, our featured writer, that I haven’t copied and pasted five times now?

Well, Dave is…ummm…Irish.  So he’s got that going for him.  Outside of that, McDonough’s entering his 15th season of covering Thunder baseball.  One of the most helpful people on press row, Dave’s been up close and personal with just about every single player on the entire ballot, and provides unique and interesting stories that you won’t be able to find anywhere else.

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

Andy Abad: When your manager says to the organization, “Get him out of my sight,” it’s probably not a good sign. To Andy Abad’s credit, he overcame that stigma to become, if not a big league star, a least a valued minor leaguer.

Andy was a not particularly successful first baseman/outfielder in his third pro season, batting .240 for the Thunder, when he got into a bar brawl in Trenton one night in 1995. He denied everything, and then admitted to manager Ken Macha the truth of the matter. Macha was disgusted with his 22-year-old outfielder, primarily for lying, and banished him to Single-A Sarasota in the Florida State League, from where so few return.

But Abad did come back, half-way through the 1996 season. He was more thoughtful, more serious and incidentally, a better hitter, batting .277 in 213 at bats. He never shook the journeyman status, though. He batted .303 in 45 games in 1997 for Trenton, and went on up to Triple-A, where he showed some power. He’s bounced around Triple-A ever since, with time out for a year in Japan, and has gotten 198 big league at bats with Oakland and the Red Sox. He spent 2007 with the Brewers Triple-A club, batting .316 in 83 games, and is known as a model citizen.

Raul Gonzalez: So many of the players on the Thunder list were veteran minor leaguers having good seasons in their third or fourth go round of AA ball. Gonzalez was one of the best. At age 25, in his third full year of AA, he knocked 103 runs, still a club record, with the 1999 Thunder. He batted .335, second best in club history, and had 33 doubles. He was a AA All-Star and he was also a very good mentor to the younger players, too.

It was his only year in the Red Sox organization. He played through 2006, hit well in Triple-A, and got a fair amount of time in the big leagues with the Mets in 2003, as well as odds and ends with the Cubs, Reds and Indians. He finished up in Indy ball in 2006.

Melky Cabrera: Melky won’t turn 24 until late in 2008, and he still may turn out to be one of the best players to come out of Trenton. He was only 20 when he played center field in for the Thunder in 2005, and hit well enough for May and June to go up to AAA Columbus, and then on to New York on July 7.

He flopped badly in six games, and thank goodness that George Steinbrenner was making fewer and fewer decisions for the Yankees, or we probably never would have heard of Melky again. Instead, cooler heads like Brian Cashman’s prevailed, and Melky was sent back to Trenton – where he was still one of the younger players in the league. Finishing the year with a Trenton August, he righted himself, and was in New York again for the 2006 season. He had a good year for a 23-year-old in 2007, batting .273 in 150 games for the Yankees, and with Johnny Damon no longer able to play center field, Melky’s future should keep getting better and better.

Michael Coleman: If only Michael Coleman had been as good as Michael Coleman thought he was. Actually, he was pretty damn close. He was highly recruited as a high school football player (Alabama offered him a scholarship), but chose baseball when the Red Sox came calling. He was only 21 when he played an excellent center field for Trenton in 1997, and he batted .301 with 14 homers, 58 RBIs and 20 stolen bases in 102 games. Baseball America voted him “Best Defensive Outfielder” in the Eastern League. He batted .367 with five homers and 21 RBIs in July, and the Sox promoted him to Triple-A Pawtucket.

He hit well in 28 games for Pawtucket, too, and earned a trip to Boston in September. But Coleman had had an attitude problem since Day One. He had never been shy about revealing when he thought he wasn’t being moved up fast enough – which was almost always. When he arrived in Boston with his self-appointed nickname, “Prime Time”, demanding to pick his own uniform number, he rubbed a lot of the veterans, including Mo Vaughn, the wrong way. “Who named him that?” demanded Vaughn. “…to get a nickname, you’ve got to put some time in.” It didn’t help that Coleman struck out 11 times in 24 at bats.

That was about it for Coleman. He spent all of 1998 in Triple-A and even his 30 homers at Pawtucket in 1999 rated only a 2 game stint in Boston. He got shipped off to the Reds with another Red Sox disappointment – Donnie Sadler – in the winter of 2000, and in the spring of 2001, the Yankees picked up him, along with another famous flop, Drew Henson. The 12 games that he got into with the 2001 Yankees was his last glimpse of the big leagues. He drifted off into Indy ball, although curiously enough, all three of the organizations he played with in organized ball – Boston, Cincinnati and the Yankees – re-signed him at one point or another. In 2005, the Yankees, having signed him out of the indy Atlantic League, sent him to Trenton, eight years after the debut in this town that had seemed so promising. The 29-year-old went through the motions for 42 games without much fanfare. 2006 was the last time he played pro ball. But he was awfully good that first time around in Trenton.

Brett Gardner: He’s fast and he can hit okay. He plays with great intensity. He’s the highest drafted player ever out of the College of Charleston. Baseball America lists him as the #8 prospect in the Yankees system.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Brett will be a big-leaguer, but I am not yet convinced that he’ll be an everyday player. He didn’t hit Eastern League pitching all that well his first time through (a .272 average in 217 at bats in 2006) and his vaunted base running wasn’t always wisely chosen – although he did steal 28 bases, and 18 more when he came back last year and hit .300 at Trenton in 203 at bats. He missed a month with a broken hand last season, but finished up well with Triple-A Scranton and then batted .343 in the AFL. He hasn’t got a great arm but covers plenty of ground in center field. If fellow centerfielder Austin Jackson has a good season in Trenton this year, and Melky Cabrera continues to develop, Gardner could be traded. And if hard work is the key, he will definitely be in the big leagues soon.

Adam Hyzdu: Adam signed with the Red Sox on April 26, 1996. He reported to Trenton half-way through the next night’s game, persuaded the crack Thunder security staff to let him in, introduced himself to manager Ken Macha, was inserted into the game as pinch-hitter, and promptly hit a home run. It was that kind of a season for the ex-first round draft choice of the Giants. In what is probably the best all-round year a Thunder player has ever had, Hyzdu batted a club record .337 with 25 homers and 80 RBIs in 374 at bats. He was also a pretty good left fielder, and made the All-Star team. Not bad for a 24-year-old who had been released by the Reds organization that March.

Adam hit well in Triple-A the next year, but the Red Sox saw no place for him. He was in the DBacks system for a year, and played in the Eastern League again in 2000, when the Pirates signed him as a free agent. He tore things apart, leading the league in homers and RBIs. He got some at bats in the majors with the Pirates every year from 2000 through 2003, and the Red Sox even re-signed him and gave him 10 at bats in 2004 and 16 in 2005. He sipped the coffee twice more, with the Padres and Rangers, and spent 2007 in Japan. He hit 280 minor league home runs, and in parts of seven big league seasons, he had a total of 358 career major league at bats. A lot of guys would love to be able to say that.

Trot Nixon: Was anyone ever tougher on himself than Trot Nixon? He felt the burden of being the Red Sox number one draft choice very keenly. Here was a guy who, if he went 2 for 4 would spend hours worrying about the two hits he didn’t get. Add to that the fact that he was already experiencing the back problems that would shorten his career in Boston, and you have one worried warrior.

Fortunately, everyone in the Red Sox organization knew what Trot was going through, and he had a lot of support from manager and coaches. At age 22, he played 123 games in 1996 with Trenton, batted .251 with 11 homers, played an excellent right field, and started, very gradually, to let up on himself. It took a couple of decent years in Triple-A for him to get his game together, but he ended up as a fan favorite at Fenway for his determined style of play and his slugging against right-handers. The injuries have caught up with Trot, who played for Cleveland in 2007. As of this writing, he has signed a minor league contract with the DBacks. Red Sox fans will always remember him as a part of the 2004 championship team.

Dernell Stenson: Part of the tragedy of Stenson’s violent death in 2003 was that the Cincinnati Reds really felt he was at last coming into his own as a ballplayer. Dernell was the original tools guy – a very raw young hard hitter when he was drafted by the Red Sox in the third round in 1996. He was in Trenton by the start of the 1998 season, and was called the Best Hitting Prospect in the league by Baseball America. The 20-year-old hit 24 homers in 138 games for the Thunder and scored 90 runs.

He also struck out 135 times, and, just three years removed from being a high school pitcher, had a lot of trouble playing the outfield. That seemed to prey on Stenson – throughout his time in the Red Sox system, his struggles with the outfield, and later first base, seemed to affect his overall game. Each year, he’d hit some homers, but never seemed to put together that one season the Red Sox were looking for. Baseball America called him the Sox’ top prospect in 99 and 2001, but that’s what he stayed – a prospect. He also ran into some off-the-field personal problems.

After he had spent 3 ½ years at Triple-A Pawtucket, the Reds claimed Stenson on waivers. They let him play at Double-A again, and felt he had gained enough confidence to bring him up to the big leagues for 37 games at the end of 2003. They spoke of having him in their plans for the 2004 season. But on November 5, 2003, in Chandler, Arizona, while Dernell was playing fall baseball, he was robbed and murdered. He was the first ex-Thunder player to lose his life. At 25, he should have had years of living and baseball ahead of him.

Kevin Thompson: The fleet outfielder can run like the wind, but has never hit consistently. He stole 47 bases in 86 games for the 2003 Thunder, and was caught only eight times, but he only batted .226 in 328 at bats. He did better in 04 and 05 (.329 in 81 games for the Thunder) but there are other more talented players ahead of him in the system. He got a few games in with the Yankees in 06 and 07 before the A’s picked him up during last season.

Not On the Ballot: Justin Christian: Signed as an undrafted free agent out of indy ball, Justin stole a club record 68 bases for the Thunder in 2006, and has 28 multiple hit games. He wasn’t hitting well in Trenton in 07 (.235 in 65 games) when he was promoted to Scranton in July, where he took off, bating .325 in 40 games. A clubhouse leader, he could help someone off the bench. It’ll have to be soon, though – he turns 28 in April.

Dave’s Votes Go To: Gonzalez, Hyzdu, Coleman

Ashmore’s Thunder Thoughts: This is where it starts to get really, really difficult.  There are just so many options when it comes down to the outfield, starting pitching and bullpen.  As far as the outfielders go, eight of the nine guys on there made it to the big leagues after they played in Trenton.  The ninth, Brett Gardner, was in serious contention to make the Yankees this season and will almost undoubtedly be in the Bronx at some point in 2008.

Andy Abad: The way he pissed everyone off after his little bar incident is a somewhat legendary tale over at Waterfront Park.  Fausto Andres Abad — the kids call him Andy — has pretty much played everywhere you can imagine, including a stint in Japan in 2000.

He’s put on 16 different uniforms in his career, but only three of those have been in the big leagues.  With a whopping 5,381 minor league at-bats to his name, he has just 21 in the show.  He got one of them with Oakland in 2001, 17 more in Boston two years later, and got his final three with the Reds just two seasons ago.

Now 35 years old, Abad’s status for 2008 seems uncertain.

Raul Gonzalez: Gonzalez is one of the best outfielders I’ve seen at the minor league level.  I never really understood why he didn’t get more of a look than he did in the bigs. 

Sure, he was older when he finally started hitting his peak — it was his fifth year in Double-A, his third full season…but the season he put together during that magical 1999 season was the best of his career.  But he was just 25…was he really too old at 25?  .335, 18 home runs and 103 RBI should be the only numbers that matter.

It was also the only season he was a member of the Red Sox organization, and perhaps that worked out to his favor.  The following year, he signed with the Cubs and started the season in Triple-A before making his big league debut later that year.

He’d go on to play for the Reds, Mets and Indians at the highest level, but he never was able to stick or become an everyday player.

In 2005 and 2006, Gonzalez spent both seasons in Triple-A with the Cardinals and Pirates, respectively, without getting a look in the bigs.

At 34 years old, the undersized (5′ 9″) outfielder appears to be done.  At best, he was an example of the Red Sox classic mismanagement during the Dan Duquette era.  At worst, he was someone who had mastered Double-A and was left there for far too long.

Melky Cabrera: Cabrera was in Bill Masse’s lineup every day for the Thunder in 2005, outside of brief stints with Triple-A Columbus and the Yankees.

One of the better defenders the Thunder have seen in the outfield, Cabrera also put together a solid offensive year as well, hitting .275 with 10 home runs and 60 RBI.

Even being on the Yankees, it seems everything Cabrera has done has been under the radar…few probably realize that he drove in 73 runs last season in the Bronx.

Seems he’s always dangled as trade bait, too.  Yankee fans had better hope that stops, because Cabrera seems to be a pretty key part of the team’s future for many years to come.

Michael Coleman: Every time I talked to Michael Coleman, he scared the crap out of me.  And were it not for being drafted by the Red Sox, he would have went on to have people checking their pants as a football player at Alabama.  Instead: “I never made it to Alabama, I got drafted and never looked back,” he told me back in 2004.

He’s just an intimidating guy.  But he was intimidating at the plate too, and put together a monster year in Mercer County in 1997.

“I had a good year with the Thunder, I had a great time there,” Coleman said.

“I was there for the majority of the year, Dave Gallagher was our hitting coach and DeMarlo Hale was our manager. They established several guys in the big leagues and some of those guys are still in the big leagues. But I had a fun year that year.”

Coleman came back to Trenton in 2005, and left Thunder fans with one last memory — hitting a walk-off home run off of Portland’s Jim Mann in Game Four of the Eastern League Division Series to send the series to a fifth game.

Brett Gardner: The boy can run, that’s for damn sure.  Gardner swiped 46 bags in 109 games with the Thunder in 2006 and 2007, coming close to setting foot (get it…setting foot…stolen bases…I’ll stop) in Justin Christian and Kevin Thompson territory.

It’s hard to believe that the 24-year-old is entering just his fourth season of pro ball.  In contention for a spot on the Yankees roster this season, it’s harder yet to believe that Gardner won’t see some time in the Bronx at some point this season…and if not this summer, certainly in September.

If he can get some more pop into his bat, he won’t fall into the Kevin Thompson trap of being known as a guy who’s all speed and no bat.

Adam Hyzdu: Seems like any time you read one of those stories about guys with oodles and oodles (technical term) of minor league at-bats who could never really get an extended look in the big leagues, Adam Hyzdu’s name was in it.

After breaking none other than Ken Griffey, Jr’s record for home runs in a season at his Ohio high school, Hyzdu was picked in the first round by the San Francisco Giants in 1990, and never played a day in the big leagues for them.  Instead, he bounced around a few organizations and eventually got to the bigs with the Pirates.

But inbetween being drafted and his big league debut, Hyzdu wore a Thunder uniform in 1996, hitting .337 with 25 home runs and 80 RBI while doing so.  An Eastern League All-Star, Hyzdu put up similar numbers the following season for Pawtucket — but in a stunning development considering how well the Red Sox handled their prospects during this time period — never reached the bigs during his first stint in the organization.

He did return to the Sox in 2004, and even got into a playoff game for them in 2005.  A veteran of a mindboggling 1,750 minor league games, Hyzdu has just 358 MLB at-bats to his credit.
  
36 years old, Hyzdu is a free agent and is probably done after playing one final season in Japan.

Trot Nixon: Sure, Trot Nixon played for the Thunder in 1995.  You know this by now.

But for as long as he lives, Christopher Trotman Nixon will always be asked about what it was like to bring Red Sox Nation their first World Series in 86 years.

“I got the opportunity to live out one of my dreams, and also fulfill the fans dreams to win a championship in the Boston area,” Nixon told me last year.

“I’d heard all the things about the curses and this and that, so to be able to be on a team that was able to come back the way we did in the ALCS against the Yankees and then go into the World Series and take four games in a sweep of St. Louis, it was something special. I was glad I was able to be there when the curse was broken.”

Even after years of dealing with the scrutiny of playing in Boston, Nixon insists that his first season with the Indians hadn’t changed anything.

“Baseball is baseball,” he said.

“We’re having a good year this season, and the fact that I’m not in a Red Sox uniform any more, it doesn’t bother me. I’m just glad to have the opportunity to play.”

Now 11 seasons and one World Series ring removed from wearing a Thunder uniform, one thing’s for sure. Trot Nixon will never forget the Trenton faithful.

“In some minor league parks, you don’t get that much support,” Nixon said.

“But we got a tremendous amount of support in Trenton.”

After a lackluster season in Cleveland, and equally iffy spring training this year, Nixon has been sent to the minors by the Arizona Diamondbacks to start the season after trying to learn first base to help his chances of making the team.

Dernell Stenson: What a shame.  I thought about just leaving it at that, because it really would sum things up, wouldn’t it? 

Who knows what would have become of Stenson had he not been tragically murdered a few years ago?  Once thought to be Mo Vaughn’s replacement over on Yawkey Way, Stenson was picked in the third round by the Red Sox in 1996.

With the Thunder in 1998, he hit .257 with 24 home runs and 71 RBI — the 24 dingers would be his career high.

At least he finally got to reach the big leagues in 2003 with the Reds, hitting .247 with three home runs and 13 RBI in 37 games.  It looked like he had a future with the Reds…a future that was ridiculously taken away from him by a few you-know-what’s who wanted his truck.

What a shame.

Kevin Thompson: Thompson and Justin Christian would probably be interchangable on this list were it not for Thompson reaching the big leagues with the Yankees.

Thompson was claimed on waivers by Oakland last September and didn’t really do too much to stand out there, instead signing with the Pirates this off-season.  He’ll start the year in Triple-A.

In 2003, Thompson set the Thunder’s single season record for stolen bases in a season with 47.  Over the next two seasons, he’d add 54 more for a total of 101 steals in a Trenton uniform.

Not On The Ballot: Justin Christian: If you didn’t have the list of guys who are on the ballot in front of you, you might be willing to make a stink about JC not being on it.  To be honest, Christian’s future with the Yankees seems pretty bleak with the emergence of Gardner.  At one point, they seemed to be pretty even, but Gardner has clearly passed Christian and established himself as the Yankees first option for an outfield call-up.

Regardless, Christian’s story is one of the more intriguing ones you’ll find in minor league baseball. Undrafted after spending time at three different colleges, he signed with the River City Rascals of the Frontier League and played there for parts of 2003 and 2004 before signing with the Yankees after hitting .450 in 120 at-bats for the Rascals.

“(River City) gave me an opportunity to play out of college,” Christian said in 2006.

“I knew when I was in indy ball that I’d have to put up extremely good numbers to get an opportunity, so it was exciting to get the chance to go to the Yankees.”

My Votes Go To: Raul Gonzalez, Adam Hyzdu, Dernell Stenson.  I was very, very close to having Justin Christian in one of these spots.  Real close.

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)
OF1: Raul Gonzalez (McDonough), Raul Gonzalez (Ashmore)
OF2: Adam Hyzdu (McDonough), Adam Hyzdu (Ashmore)
OF3: Michael Coleman (McDonough), Dernell Stenson (Ashmore)

Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com

All 15 Year Team: Shortstop

March 22, 2008

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

So of course, we’ll be breaking down Thunder batboys today.  Or shortstops, your call.

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…

Nomar Garciaparra: Arguably, Nomar has had the greatest major league success of any Thunder player, although he has not been too good in recent years. The question is, do we honor for what he accomplished in the big leagues, or what he did in Trenton? Because if we are just talking Double-A ball, he’s not getting my vote. You have to remember, we had Nomar before Nomar was No-Mah!.

Nomar showed up in Trenton in 1995 sporting maybe 165 pounds on his 6’0 frame. He was the Red Sox first round pick in 1994, and big things were expected of him. He was solid in a Thunder uniform, sporting the best glove the young team had seen at shortstop. He had good speed, stealing 35 bases. But as a hitter, he was average, showing the occasional flash of power. In 125 games, he hit .267 with 8 homers and knocked in 47 runs. Not that anyone expected him to bat in runs; he was hitting at the top of the line-up. After all, this was a skinny, speedy 22-year-old shortstop with great leather, in only his first full pro season. He was expected, when he filled out, to man his position at Fenway with élan, hit between 15 and 20 homers, and bat between .280 and .290.

Then, the next spring, Nomar showed up for work with the Triple-A PawSox about thirty pounds heavier, all muscle. Hits that had gone “crack” the year before now went “woomph.” He had 16 home runs in 43 games with Pawtucket before getting hurt, and everyone knows the rest of the story. The one-time lead-off man had become a masher. For half a dozen years he reigned supreme in Boston, where he became ‘No-Mah!”, a regional icon. He even had his number retired in Trenton, but that had a lot more to do with his great years in Boston than his year in Trenton.

There was even some trepidation that he might be less than gracious about the number-retiring ceremony, since his relationship with the fans and press in Trenton had been a little strained. He had become annoyed one day in ’95 when he made an admittedly great play in the field, and the crowd failed to recognize it. Nomar said as much to the reporters afterward, and then was dismayed when we ran his comments. His big mistake was attempting to deny that he had said it. Some put his distrust of the press as beginning at that moment, but I think he was just always uncomfortable talking to reporters, partly out of genuine shyness.

He was always going to be a good ballplayer, but no one who saw him in Trenton in 95 could have said how good. Remember when A-Rod, Jeter and No-Mah were the great, future Hall-Of-fame triumvirate shortstops in the American League? Well, two of them are going to Hall of Fame, but injuries have knocked Nomar out of contention. As the guy in my Italian deli said to me once, “You know, I said to him, ‘You never know, you know.’”

Adam Everett: How about this: when Adam Everett hit Trenton in 1999, the player he most resembled was the 1995 stripped-down version of Nomar. He was a 22-year-old first round draft choice who was playing his first full season in the pros. He was six feet and weighed about 170. He was a great shortstop – even better than Nomar, in my opinion – who the Red Sox hoped would fill out and become a decent hitter. He played 98 games in Trenton before getting hurt, and batted .263 – about the same as Nomar – with 10 homers. And he batted at the top of the line-up, just behind David Eckstein, with whom he formed the best keystone combination in the league.

The sequel is a little different than Nomar’s. The Red Sox shipped him off the next winter to the Astros for power-hitting Carl Everett (after all, the Sox did have a pretty decent shortstop named Nomah at the time). Adam never did get heavier or become a good hitter, but he has carved out a good living as one of the top defensive shortstops in the National League. He signed a one-year contract with the Twins this off-season.

Donnie Sadler: About a quarter of the way into the 1996 season, the Red Sox announced that their fleet, diminutive (5’6) Trenton Thunder shortstop, 21-year-old Donnie Sadler, was now the Red Sox center fielder of the future. They sent him off to Florida for a couple of weeks for tutelage, and then brought him back to Trenton and installed him in front of the center field scoreboard.

And he hated it. A very shy, immature kid, Sadler liked the excitement of the infield, and hated the boredom of waiting for four or five chances a game in the outfield. After 30 games, the experiment was halted, and Sadler went back to shortstop. But the experience seemed to leave a bad taste in his month. He began to pal around with a couple of team vets who were known as malcontents. Most veterans are helpful to a young player; these guys were not. Sadler ended up with a mediocre season and a mild reputation as an unreliable guy. He became a utility infielder, bouncing around baseball, getting 416 games of big-league ball in eight years. In 2007, while playing Triple-A for the DBacks, he was suspended for 50 games for drug violations.

Can all this be blamed on one failed experiment in 1996? Probably not. But if the Sox had been paying attention, they might have realized that a shy, small town kid just a couple of years out of high school needed to stay out of the spotlight while he matured.

Ramiro Pena: There’s nothing wrong with Ramiro that good health and the ability to master Double-A pitching won’t cure. He’s got the glove, but hasn’t gotten his average over .252 in parts of the last three years with Trenton. He looked like he might be starting to hit when he broke his wrist in 2006, and hurt his shoulder in June, 2007, missing the rest of the season. In 140 games with the Thunder, he has yet to homer, and he doesn’t steal much. He’s not in Baseball America’s Top 30 Yankee prospects. The good news is, he’s only 22. But health and hitting better come soon.

Not On the Ballot: Freddy Sanchez: Freddy played 113 games at shortstop for Trenton between 2001 and 2002, and 11 games at second base, so why he is on the ballot at second eludes me. The man was an on-base machine. He holds the club record for hitting safely in 27 consecutive games, hit .327 in 489 at bats over the two seasons and had a combined OBP around .400. He’s the only Thunder player to hit 4 doubles in a game. Stole a few bases, too. And defensively, he was better than average. He was a 2002 Eastern League All-Star.

Naturally, since he was only 5’10, the Red Sox had to get rid of him. He went to the Pirates for Jeff Suppan in a multi-player trade in 2003. Suppan went on to win three games for the Red Sox, while Freddy was the 2006 National League batting champ. Meanwhile, the Red Sox have had five shortstops in five years. Not one of Theo Epstein’s smarter moves.

Dave’s Vote Goes To: Freddy Sanchez

Ashmore’s Thunder Thoughts: At first glance, some fans may look at the ballot, see “Nomar Garciaparra” and vote for him without even looking at any of the other candidates.  Not me…

Nomar Garciaparra: If you’re looking at this contest based solely on what the player did while he was in Trenton, then Garciaparra’s 1995 season doesn’t really stand out above the others.  He hit .267 with eight home runs and 47 RBI.  He also swiped 35 bags on the basepaths, and committed 23 errors in the field.

Baseball America named him a Double-A All-Star, and he was an Eastern League All-Star as well.

Get your hate mail ready Thunder fans…but as the Thunder’s shortstop, Garciaparra was kind of overrated.  It was in Pawtucket the following year where he became the complete player that you saw in the big leagues for years, before injuries eventually limited him in the field and took away a lot of his power.

While he’s gone on to great things after playing for Trenton, countless other players made more of an impact at Waterfront Park than Garciaparra did.

Adam Everett: You could make a case that Adam Everett did more in his one year in Trenton than Nomar Garciaparra did, he just didn’t have the accolades Nomar did.

He hit just four points less than Garciaparra did, hit two more home runs and drove in seven less runs, all in nearly 30 games less than Garciaparra had to compile his statistics.

Along with David Eckstein, he also formed one of the most dazzling double-play combinations seen anywhere, no less Trenton.

It would be interesting to look at how many of the guys on these ballots never got to accomplish anything in a Red Sox uniform, and Everett would be a part of that list.  He was traded for another Everett, the controversial Carl, who went on to lead the league in umpire headbutts, inappropriate body part grabbing and odd comments.  While Carl now enters his second season of independent ball, Adam goes to the American League with the Twins after seven seasons in Houston, including one World Series appearance.

Donnie Sadler: Does every Thunder shortstop on this list have eerily similar statistics?  Sadler’s 1996 stats: .267, 6 home runs and 46 RBI.

Sadler made it to the big leagues with the Red Sox just two seasons later, and has been every bit of a journeyman since then.  Parts of three seasons at Fenway.  Splitting another with Kansas City and Cincinnati.  Another split year between the Royals and Rangers.

After that?  77 forgetable games in Texas in 2003, and 19 games over the past four seasons for Arizona.

Sadler could never hit at the Major League level, with a career average of .202 in 768 at-bats.  Not even the alleged use of performance enhancing drugs changed that, as he was hit with a 50-game ban in July of last year.

Once traded with controversial Thunder alum Michael Coleman, Sadler now finds himself without a job for 2008.

Ramiro Pena: It’s hard to believe that Ramiro Pena would be considered one of the more memorable players in Thunder history.  However, at just 22 years of age, he still has time to blossom into an Alberto Gonzalez sort of player, i.e. someone with a legitimate chance for a Major League opportunity.

But so far, in parts of three seasons with the Thunder, Pena hasn’t shown that.  514 Double-A at-bats have yet to yield his first home run, and he has just 29 extra-base hits in his entire career.  He also doesn’t steal any bases, with just 20 bags swiped in 223 career games.

In the field, he’s solid but unspectacular, and it’s going to have to be his defense that moves him up the ladder.  Hindsight is always 20-20, but it would seem as though the Yankees thought they had more than they actually did in Pena, and attempted to rush him as a result.

Not On The Ballot: Freddy Sanchez.  “Fab Five” Freddy, as I nicknamed him after his move to third base in Pittsburgh, was certainly one of the better players to ever wear a Thunder uniform.  Just imagine him and Kevin Youkilis in the same lineup…well, they almost were in 2002.  When Sanchez finally got his well-deserved call-up to Triple-A in July, it was Youkilis who was summoned from Sarasota to take his spot.

The pattern repeated itself next year, but with more disastrous results.  Youkilis was called up to Pawtucket at the end of July.  However, two days later, it was Sanchez who was traded to the Pirates…forever eliminating the possibility that the two would play together in the big leagues.  And what did Theo Epstein — who I foolishly walked right past when he was picking up his tickets for Roger Clemens’ rehab assignment — get in return?  Former Thunder pitcher Jeff “Chicken” Suppan, Brandon Lyon and Anastacio Martinez.

The Pirates got the eventual NL batting champ.

You tell me who got the better end of that deal.  But hey, that’s how most trades seemed to work out when the Thunder were affiliated with the Red Sox…

Mike’s Vote Goes To: Adam Everett.  Easily my most controversial pick to date, but he was a large part of why that 1999 team was one of the best minor league baseball has ever seen.

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)

Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com

Best of 2007: Moment #9

February 29, 2008

Moment #9 – Trenton finally beats Portland in the playoffs
September 8, 2007
Portland, ME

In their first 13 seasons, the Trenton Thunder not only had never won a playoff series, they’d never had a 2-1 series lead.

With the first two games between Trenton and the Portland Sea Dogs at Waterfront Park split down the middle and making the series little more than a best-of-three, it was obvious that Game 3 at Portland’s Hadlock Field would be the turning point.

Daniel McCutchen got the nod in the pivotal third game for the Thunder, the first postseason start of his brief professional career.

“You have to take the same approach, even though it’s going to be a little more intense than a regular season game,” McCutchen said.

“I know (Portland) has some pretty good hitters, and we have a pretty good scouting report on them. I just have to pitch to my strengths, and go right at them.”

That’s exactly what the 24-year-old righty did, allowing only one run on three hits over six innings of work, leading the Thunder to a tight 3-2 victory and their elusive two games to one series lead.

The 30th ranked prospect in the Yankees system, according to Baseball America, McCutchen retired 11 straight batters at one point in the game.

With Jeff Marquez on the mound for Game 4 with the Thunder on the brink of advancing to the championship series for the first time in franchise history, there was little doubt that Trenton would break their 13-year curse.

The 15-game winner continued the domination of Thunder starting pitching in this series, combining with Eric Wordekemper and Justin Pope on a five-hit shutout. In fact, Thunder starters allowed just three earned runs over 26.2 innings pitched (1.02 ERA).

And just like that, the Trenton Thunder would be headed to the Eastern League Championship Series.

The first two games of the series, held in Trenton, seemed to be where the Thunder needed to make their mark. Chase Wright, who made two starts for the Yankees earlier this season, started the series opener, and Eastern League Pitcher of the Year Alan Horne was on the bump for the second game.

Wright outdueled top Boston prospect Justin Masterson in the first game, getting a little revenge against the Red Sox — who hit four straight home runs off of him in his last big league start.

“I’ve faced them a couple of times since I’ve been back, and they’ve roughed me up a little bit, so when I saw that I was going to get a rematch, it was nice to be able to go out there and beat them,” Wright said.

Masterson, drafted in the second round out of San Diego State just last year, looked like the inexperienced pitcher he is, having a difficult time locating his pitches in his five innings of work.

It was an assessment he didn’t necessarily agree with.

“I did exactly what I wanted to do,” said Masterson, who picked up the loss after allowing two runs on seven hits.

He also walked a batter, hit another, and threw a wild pitch.

“I actually felt pretty good out there. I gave up seven hits or something like that, but four or five of those never left the infield. Every hit was at least a ground ball, and that’s exactly what I want to do,” said Masterson, who got 10 of his 15 outs on the ground.

Noah Hall, who started the season with the independent Somerset Patriots of the Atlantic League, found his way back into the starting lineup after a long stretch on the bench late in the season, and provided a key run scoring single in the win.

“It feels good,” Hall said.

“This season has really worked out well. Having done well in my short time playing, maybe I’ll get another opportunity next year.”

In Game 2, Horne and Sea Dogs knuckleballer Charlie Zink matched each other frame for frame, with the Thunder ace carrying a no-hitter into the sixth inning, and Zink giving Portland seven strong innings of his own.

The contest lasted over four hours, with Portland scoring the eventual game-winning run on a wild play to give them the 3-2 win.

With two outs in the 13th Inning and a runner at first Base, Portland right fielder Jay Johnson singled to give the Sea Dogs runners on the corners. Andrew Pinckney then hit a ball off the glove of the diving first baseman, Cody Ehlers. The ball deflected back to the pitcher, Kevin Whelan, who flipped the ball back to Ehlers, who dropped it, allowing the runner on third to score.

The Thunder’s first playoff series victory helped get rid of the bitter taste left in the mouths of Trenton fans after the past two seasons, as they’d lost to the Sea Dogs in the first round of the playoffs in 2005 and 2006.

What made that pill even more difficult to swallow was that Portland was the affiliate of the Boston Red Sox.  Even at the Double-A level, the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry is an intense and important one.  And this time, it would be the Yankees who’d come out on top.

Recapping the Top 20 so far…

#9 – Trenton finally beats Portland in the playoffs
#10 – Shelley Duncan’s Impact With The Yankees
#11 – The emergence of Austin Jackson
#12 – Tony Franklin named Thunder manager
#13 – Matt DeSalvo’s MLB debut
#14 – Phil Hughes rehab appearance
#15 – Tyler Clippard’s MLB debut
#16 – Brett Smith’s no-hitter
#17 – Chase Wright’s MLB debut
#18 – Chase Wright’s opening night start
#19 – Paul Lo Duca and Endy Chavez rehab in Trenton
#20 – Jeff Karstens rehab appearance

Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com

Thunder Alums: Youkilis Re-Signs With Red Sox

February 11, 2008

Kevin Youkilis, who spent about a month and a half in a Thunder uniform at the end of the 2002 season, has avoided arbitration and signed a one year, $3 million deal with the Boston Red Sox.

For you Yankees fans who come here every day, you might remember Youkilis best for being the target of two Joba Chamberlain pitches that sailed over his head on August 30th, leading to the fellow Thunder alum receiving his first career ejection and suspension.

Youkilis posted the highest batting average of his minor league career in Trenton, hitting .344 with five home runs and 26 RBI in 44 games as the team’s everyday third baseman for the majority of the second half of the season.  In just his second season of professional baseball, he was somewhat error prone at the time, averaging an “E-5” every four games.

When the Yankees took over as the Thunder’s big league affiliate in 2003, Youkilis remained in the Eastern League with the Boston organization as a member of the Portland Sea Dogs.  His first four games with Portland were played in Waterfront Park, while his final two games were against the Thunder at Hadlock Field.

Youkilis, now a member of two World Series teams, played seven times for the Sea Dogs at Waterfront Park, and played against the Thunder a total of 13 times.  In Trenton, he was 4-for-28 with four RBI and five walks.  Overall, he was 9-for-43 with five RBI and nine walks. 

Considering that was the season where he earned his “Greek God of Walks” moniker, his base on balls totals are actually a little low.

Additionally, various reports have Tony Clark and the San Diego Padres close to agreeing on a one-year deal.  Clark was a member of the inaugural Trenton Thunder team in 1994, and his #33 is one of three retired at Waterfront Park.  The others are Nomar Garciaparra and Jackie Robinson, whose #42 is retired throughout professional baseball.

Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com