Posts Tagged ‘Trenton Thunder’

2008 Baseball America Top 30 #11-15

March 25, 2008

The Thunder Thoughts breakdown of Baseball America’s Top 30 Yankees Prospects for 2008 returns today with a look at prospects #11-15.  As you know by now, the Thunder’s new lead broadcaster, Steve Rudenstein, is on board to provide some analysis for this.

Steve’s done a great job of providing his expert analysis on each player, and I’ll throw my “Thunder Thoughts” in there after each of his player breakdowns.

As for Steve’s work, you should definitely know by now that the below commentary are opinions solely from Steve Rudenstein, and do not represent the opinions of the Trenton Thunder (Double-A affiliate of the New York Yankees) and the New York Yankees.

#11 RHP Mark Melancon – Another selection with enormous potential but limited experience, Melancon did not pitch in 2007 due to Tommy John surgery in November 2006. At 23 years old, and only eight professional innings under his belt, this is a crucial year for Melancon. As a closer at the University of Arizona, he displayed an incredible level of competitive fire. His work ethic and fastball/curveball combo give the Yankees hope they can groom him into a closer-of-the-future, but keeping him healthy is the primary objective. If Melancon performs well early in the season, he could end up in Trenton some time during the summer.

Ashmore’s Thunder Thoughts: Melancon and Jose Tabata are the two kids I can’t wait to see play this year.  But while Tabata will start the season with the Thunder, Melancon is ticketed for Tampa to start the year to avoid the cold weather up here at the start of the year.  So, perhaps as early as May, Melancon will get promoted to Double-A, barring any injury.  And for someone coming off of major surgery like he is, that’s not necessarily a given.A lot of people are projecting a Joba-esque meteoric rise through the system for Melancon, but as of right now, he’d seem to be blocked by more than a few pitchers currently vying for bullpen spots.

#12 RHP Humberto Sanchez – There was much more buzz about Sanchez a year ago. He was the most highly regarded prospect the Yankees received from Detroit in the Gary Sheffield trade. However, Sanchez never made it to the mound in 2007. He suffered forearm tightness in spring training and eventually would have Tommy John surgery and miss the season. He won’t be ready for game action until mid-season 2008. Sanchez had a live fastball and a nasty slider prior to the injury. He put great numbers at Erie (Double-A) and Toledo (Triple-A) in 2006. Will his conditioning and health allow him to get back to a high level at the end of 2008? We will wait and see.

Ashmore’s Thunder Thoughts: Sanchez is another guy you could see in Trenton this year…in fact, I’ve heard it’s a very strong possibility.  As Steve mentioned, Sanchez had a lot of hype around him last year, but the fact is he’s yet to throw a meaningful pitch under the Yankees employ.  The Yankees will take it easy with Sanchez’s rehab schedule, but it will be interesting to see what effect his injuries have had on him.  One of the more electric pitchers in the league during his first stay with Erie, I wonder what kind of shape he’ll be in when he comes back…both his arm and his whole body.  Conditioning has always been an issue for Sanchez…and the Yankees have little tolerance for such issues regardless of your numbers, just ask Paul Thorp. 

#13 RHP Dellin Betances – Like Brackman, the sizeable Betances has as high a ceiling as any pitcher on this list. A New York native, the 6’7” Betances was taken in the eighth round of the 2006 draft. Unfortunately, he only threw 25 innings at Staten Island last season before being shutdown with forearm tightness. It is unclear whether or not he will need Tommy John surgery. Betances will turn 20 in mid- March and is still learning how to pitch and is still growing into his body. The Yankees are hopeful he won’t be shutdown with surgery in 2008, and will log more innings and continue to develop.

Ashmore’s Thunder Thoughts: Betances is probably a few years away from appearing in a Thunder uniform, and that’s something that could be delayed even longer if his injury problems continue to persist.  Betances quickly emerged as one of the most discussed prospects in the New York-Penn League last year, but the Yankees have received just 48 innings over a season and a half out of one of their brightest young stars.Phil Hughes, Brien Taylor, or somewhere inbetween?  Waaaaaaaaay too early to tell.

#14 RHP Daniel McCutchen – McCutchen, who exhibits a bulldog mentality on the mound, burst onto the Yankees’ radar in 2007. With a 50-game MLB suspension behind him from the previous year, he ranked second in the Minor League System with 14 combined wins between Tampa and Trenton with a 2.47 ERA. He won two post-season starts for the Thunder including the Eastern League Championship clincher against Akron. His fastball runs up to the plate in the low-mid 90s and has an excellent change-up as an out pitch. As with Marquez, McCutchen’s confident demeanor on and off the mound, makes him someone to keep your eye on going forward.

Ashmore’s Thunder Thoughts: There’s no doubt that McCutchen benefitted from last year’s experience in the Bronx after helping the Thunder win their first EL title.  No, he didn’t get into any games, but he was a part of a development program last September, joined by Alan Horne and Jeff Marquez.McCutchen is very likely to return to the Thunder as their Opening Day starter, and will probably be the first pitcher called up to Scranton if an opening pops up.  And if last season is any indication, an opening will pop up…

#15 RHP Kevin Whelan – Another prospect the Yankees acquired from the Detroit in the Gary Sheffield trade, Whelan had an uneven year in 2007. Coming off a 27- save season in Lakeland (High-A), he got off to a good start in Trenton. His splitter had Eastern League hitters completely baffled. Once mid-season hit, the Yankees decided to send him to Tampa and give him an opportunity to start. When Whelan returned to Trenton, his command deserted him. He ended up with 42 walks in 54 IP by season’s end in Trenton. The Yankees are still high on Whelan. A former catcher at Texas A&M, he is probably best suited to stay in the bullpen with his split-finger fastball.

Ashmore’s Thunder Thoughts: It was just an odd year for Whelan last year.  The decision to send him down to Tampa to start was somewhat puzzling, as was his return to the bullpen when he came back to Trenton.Whelan certainly had some things he needed to work on, as the numbers probably didn’t indicate just how much he was struggling.  Likely to start the year in the Scranton bullpen, it’s very possible Whelan could be back with the Thunder at some point as well…but that picture will be clearer when the Yankees determine just how many of the pitchers they sent back to minor league camp they’ll actually keep.

Ashmore Note: At one point or another, the hype machine has been working overtime on all five of these pitchers.  I know everyone loves to think that all these guys are going to pan out…but what are the odds that all five make the big leagues by 2010?

Click on the appropriate links for prospects #16-20, #21-25 and #26-30.

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

All 15 Year Team: Second Base

March 14, 2008

Robinson Cano / Photo by Mike Ashmore (2006)

Thunder Thoughts look at the All 15 Year Team nominees continues with a look at the four finalists at second base.

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…

David Eckstein: Cream of the crop. One of the most popular players in club history, Eck was the quintessential lead-off man – always on base, always a danger to run, always scoring runs. His OBP was .440. He was the catalyst of that 1999 club which won a club record 92 games. All Eckstein did was bat .313, score 109 runs (a club record) and steal 32 bases. He played a good second base, and was a great bunter.

All of which tells you nothing unless you saw him play. Eckstein is about 5’7 and weighed 165 on a good day when he was dressed warm. He was a walk-on at Florida, and he always played like a guy who was one step from a seat in the stands. He hustled in his sleep. He ran everywhere. He was always the first one on the field, and he played with a deep, intelligent concentration. He made everyone around him a better player.

I once asked why he sprinted from the dugout out onto the field at the beginning of every game. He smiled and said, “That’s my last warm-up. The other guys sometimes pretend they are gonna race me, but I always get there first.”

I also remember an exceedingly rare day when Eckstein’s name was not in the line-up. I poked someone and said, ‘Ten bucks that Eckstein coaches first.” Sure enough, in the bottom of the first inning, there he was on the coaching line. No way was he going to sit still.

So why did the Dan Duquette-era Red Sox let him go on waivers – waivers! – to the Angels in 2000? Because they had their collectives heads up the dark place, and were so wedded to the idea that a little guy didn’t have the tools. So Eck went off to become the first ex-Thunder player to wear a championship ring (with the 2002 Angels) and was the World Series MVP in 2006 with the Cards – at shortstop, mind you, a position nobody – including me – thought he could play. While the Red Sox went through a series of second basemen like Todd Walker and Mark Bellhorn.

Waivers, for God’s sake.

Freddy Sanchez: I have Freddy down as a shortstop, so more about him later.

Robinson Cano: Ex-Thunder manager Bill Masse once said that Robby Cano (whose dad pitched in the Yankees organization) had so much talent, he seemed somewhat bored in the minor leagues. That sums up Cano at Trenton really well. He is probably the most talented guy all-round to play second for the Thunder, as he did in parts of 03 and 04, but he did sometimes act as if his mind was elsewhere – maybe at Yankee Stadium.

This was mostly evident in his occasional fielding lapses – what is this round thing I have in my hand? – but he did hit well in Trenton. He didn’t have the power he would show in New York; however, he had 20 doubles in 04, and you just knew he would rise to the challenge when he got to the big leagues. Which he has, of course. If you want to vote for the ex-Thunder who will probably look back on the best big-league career, Cano’s your man.

Lou Merloni: Likable Lou was another little hustling sparkplug, who seemed destined to spend his career in Double-A, with a couple of trips to Triple-A. I confidently expected that by now he would be coaching baseball at his alma mater, Providence College. Instead, he is with his fifth organization, and has gotten parts of nine years in the big leagues, with time off for half a season in Japan.

Lou played for the Red Sox affiliated Thunder in 95, 96, and 97, and played second, short and third. Second base is as a good a category as any to put him in. By his third year here, at age 26, he could hit Double-A pitching pretty good. Everyone admired his work ethic, too. And it didn’t hurt that he was Nomar Garciaparra’s best friend, or that he was from Framingham, MA. In late 98, he went up to the Red Sox to keep Nomar company, and he’s been a useful fringe player ever since – a guy you keep at Triple-A until you need him to fill in for some injuries. He’s gotten in as many as 194 at bats in a season in the Show. He is 36 now, and he played the whole 2007 season in Triple-A for the A’s without a call- up, so his time may be over.

Not On The Ballot: Angel Santos: a heavy set little guy (listed at 5’11) who played a decent second base for the 2000 and 2001 Thunder. He could hit a little bit, had some power (14 homers in 2001) and could run (26 stolen bases that year). He got a cup of java with the Sox in 01 and with Cleveland in 03. A great ballplayer? Maybe not, but probably in Merloni’s class.

Dave’s Vote Goes To: The Eck, who else?

Ashmore’s Thunder Thoughts: I’m sure you’re all sick of me telling you that I first started following this team as a fan back in 1999, right?  But that experience helps me in these All 15 Year Team things, and I think you just may see the first consensus vote so far.  Without further ado…

David Eckstein: Eckstein was my favorite player on that ’99 team, and for good reason.  He hustled.  But he didn’t just hustle on the field…I can remember him sprinting from the dugout to get onto the field, like he literally couldn’t wait for his chance to play.

I remember how small he was.  I don’t know what he’s listed at, and quite frankly don’t care, because I don’t think whatever the numbers are would paint an accurate picture of just how undersized this guy looked compared to everybody else.  It almost looked like somebody had let their little kid run on the field.

As Dave wrote, the fact that Eckstein was let go on waivers show you how horrific a job the Red Sox did of managing their farm system at that time.  There’s a scroll sized list of awful, awful moves they made…but this one’s near the top.

Freddy Sanchez: Of the 124 games Sanchez played in Trenton, 113 were at shortstop.  He’s a shortstop, people…at least in this competition he is.  Writing about him here would waste your time and mine.

Robinson Cano: Say what you want about Bill Masse, but he always had a certain way of putting things.  Such was the case when I asked him about Cano in 2006…

“For all the bad things you hear about baseball with the steroids and the black marks on the game, Robby Cano is what’s good about baseball,” Masse said.

“He loves to have fun and he’s always got a smile on his face.”

And even during his rehab assignment that year, which I’ve seen a handful of guys gripe their way through (Helllllloooooooo, Paul Lo Duca), Cano was all smiles.

Back from the time I briefly got to see him in 2004, you could tell he was going to be something special, and he certainly hasn’t disappointed in the Bronx.

Lou Merloni: When you’re nicknamed “The Mayor,” you’ve got to be a pretty popular guy.  Of the 1,245 games that Merloni’s played over his 15-year-career, I’ve seen a grand total of one.  And I was 12, so it’s safe of you to assume that I remember next to nothing about Merloni’s time in Trenton.

Since his three year stint with the Thunder, he’s played for Boston, San Diego, Cleveland, and the Los Angeles Angels in the big leagues.  However, he’s also worn eight different minor league uniforms and even one in Japan since then.

It’s been a long road for Merloni, but the road to the big leagues did, in fact, run through Trenton for him.

Not On The Ballot: Gabe Lopez.  Played in 326 games at second base over three seasons for the Thunder.  He rubbed some people the wrong way, but I thought he was an all right guy and an all right player.  He even made the All-Star team in I believe 2006.  But he was never a prospect, and is out of the Yankees organization after six seasons.

My Vote Goes To: David Eckstein.  How could it go to anyone else?

Yankees Send Five Thunder Alums Down

March 11, 2008

Per Peter Abraham’s blog, the Yankees have assigned Juan Miranda to Triple-A Scranton, and reassigned Austin Jackson, Colin Curtis, Jose Tabata and P.J. Pilittere to minor league camp.

Chad Jennings reports that Pilittere might start the year in Trenton, now that the Yankees have signed Chad Moeller for organizational depth.  This was something I wrote about when it came out that Cervelli had broken his wrist…as I said then, Pilittere had a nice year, but I don’t think a Triple-A spot should have been set in stone for him.

Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com

Best of 2007: Moment #8

March 6, 2008

Moment #8 – Alan Horne wins Pitcher of the Year
August 25, 2007
Trenton, NJ

Brad Taylor (left) hands Alan Horne the 2007 EL Pitcher of the Year Award / Photo by Mike Ashmore

The following is an excerpt from my August 30, 2007 article in the Hunterdon County Democrat

Two days before his start, Trenton Thunder pitcher Alan Horne was named to the Eastern League postseason All-Star team.

One day before his start, Alan Horne was named the Eastern League Pitcher of the Year.

During his start, Alan Horne showed why he deserved both of those honors.

With a chance to clinch the Northern Division title on the line, Horne spun six masterful innings in Trenton, holding the Binghamton Mets to one run on four hits, giving his team a chance to win a game they eventually lost in fourteen innings, 3-2.

However, with the team’s magic number at one before the start of the game, and with Portland losing their game to New Hampshire, the Thunder secured the division with eight games left to play in the regular season.

“The guys have been fantastic all year, they’ve played well,” said Thunder skipper Tony Franklin.

“I congratulated them and I thanked them, because they really came to work with a purpose every day.”

But where would they be without Horne?

In a year where the Thunder have used no fewer than 25 pitchers, Horne is one of just four to have stayed the entire season.

With a 12-4 record, a 2.91 ERA, and league leading strikeout total of 161, there seemed to be no other choice for Pitcher of the Year honors.

“I’m very excited about it, there are a lot of other very good pitchers in this league they could have given it to,” Horne said.

“I’m definitely proud to represent our team on the All-Star list, and now as Pitcher of the Year. It’s just awesome, I don’t really know what to say about it.”

Horne is only the second pitcher in Trenton Thunder history to win the award, with the much-maligned Carl Pavano being the first.

“Well, hopefully I’ll have a little better path down the road than that one,” joked Horne.

With his breakout 2007 season behind him, Horne looks to 2008 with a chance to crack the big league roster at some point.  It would appear as though he’ll start his season in the rotation at Triple-A Scranton.

Recapping the Top 20 so far…

#8 – Alan Horne wins Pitcher of the Year
#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

All 15 Year Team: First Base

March 4, 2008

Thunder Thoughts look at the All 15 Year Team nominees continues with a look at the four finalists at first base.

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 writing style, and 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…
 
Tony Clark: The first franchise player in Thunder history, Tony was the face of the team in its first year, the one season of Tiger affiliation. You have to remember, that was a truly bad team, the worst ever at Waterfront. What a relief to get that designation over with in the first year! The team went 55-85 and finished 33 ½ games out of first. Even the 2002 team, which finished last and played at times with a less than full roster, won 63 games.
 
So all hail Tony Clark, who hit 21 homers and batted in 86 runs in 107 games, which was pretty good considering there was never anybody on base in front of him. He slugged at a .503 rate, and is also the first player to hit a ball into the Delaware, a grand-slam, I believe. And was a super guy with the fans, the media, and the community. No wonder his was the first number ever retired by the Thunder.
 
David Gibralter: Numbers can be deceiving. Yes, the Rock hit 24 homers and had 97 RBIs for the 1999 team. He hit .299 and had two grand slams that year.
 
But.
 
It was his third year in the Eastern League, and with the Thunder, and he had only been mildly successful in his first two years. He struck out a lot those years. And his 97 RBIs had a lot to do with having David Eckstein and Raul Gonzalez (who had a club record 103 RBIs) in front of him, and veteran Izzy (3 ½ minute home run trot) Alcantara behind him.
 
Gibralter had genuine power. I remember him hitting a ball up onto Rte 29 once. And he has the club record for grannies – five in three years. But basically I remember him as a guy who missed more than he hit, especially in the clutch. 1999 was a career year for him – he kicked around the minors for ten years without even getting out of Double-A.
 
Ryan McGuire: The best forgotten man of the Thunder, McGuire hit .333 in 414 at bats for the 95 team, the first year of the Red Sox affiliation. The 23-year-old had a good glove, too, but the 3rd round draft choice (out of UCLA) was overshadowed by other prospects, like Nomar Garciaparra and 20-year-old pitcher Jeff Suppan, who went straight from Trenton to the Red Sox, the first Thunder player to accomplish that.
 
Other factors have kept Ryan from looming large in Thunder fans’ memories. He had little power, only seven homers. Do I date myself if I compare him to Mark Grace? (I have to date myself, no one else will.) And 1995 was his last season in the Red Sox organization. The Red Sox had a pretty good hitting first baseman named Mo Vaughn, so McGuire was shipped off to the Montreal Expos in a deal that brought Wil Cordero to Boston. There was no place more obscure to play in the 1990s than Montreal. The other reason McGuire is forgotten is that he never hit in the big leagues. In parts of six seasons with the Expos, Mets, Marlins and Orioles, he hit a combined .211 in 368 games. He w as out of baseball by age 31, but he did have that good year in Trenton.
 
Shelley Duncan: There wasn’t one reporter out of Trenton who didn’t have a feel-good moment when Shelley Duncan hit a run-scoring single in his Yankees debut last July. It’s hard not to cheer when one of the good guys finally gets to the big leagues at age 27 – and proves he belongs there.

Shelley put up some good power numbers in his year and a half at Trenton – a league-leading 34 homers in 2005 and 19 homers in 92 games in 2006.
 
Now, let’s be honest – he was almost 26 when he got to Trenton and his average was never anything to brag about (.240 in 2005 and .256 in 2006). And he struck out 140 times in 2005. So he probably wasn’t the best first baseman ever to play here, and he’ll probably never play regularly in the big leagues. But he could be a really good role player for the Yankees and a really good clubhouse presence. You won’t meet anyone in baseball who doesn’t like Shelly.
 
Not on the ballot: Juan Diaz: Juan Carlos Diaz is one of those “What if?” players. He only played 50 games for the Thunder, but man, could he rake.

Diaz defected from Cuba in 1996, and was signed by the Dodgers. The big man (listed at 6’3, 230) clubbed a lot of homers in A ball before his contract was declared invalid for reasons that still remain obscure. The Red Sox signed him in 2000 and at 26, he found himself in Trenton, where for a month and a half he was unstoppable. In 198 at bats, he hit 17 homers, and had 53 RBI in those 50 games. He batted .313 and slugged at an alarming .652 rate. He hit one ball over the center field scoreboard that came down in Bordentown two days later. And Big Juan was surprisingly agile at first.
 
When the Red Sox promoted him to Triple A later that season, he continued to mash. He had 7 homers and 17 RBIs in 13 games before he smashed up his knee running the bases. He was out for the season, and, although no one knew it, it was a major downward turn. Over the off-season, Diaz, unable to exercise, discovered American fast food. He ballooned up over 260 pounds, and reported the next year vastly out of shape. He still had some power, but he wasn’t the same player, and he and his belly have been bouncing around baseball ever since. He’s been with a few organizations, has played Indy ball, and keeps being sighted in places like Mexico and, I think, Taiwan. He was 34 years old last Sunday. But for 50 games in the summer of 2000, he was as good a slugger as Trenton has ever seen.
 
Dave’s Vote Goes To: Tony Clark. You just can’t underestimate his impact in getting the franchise off to a successful start.

Ashmore’s Thunder Thoughts: Some of these guys I’m pretty familiar with, and some of them I’m not.  I remember David Gibralter as one of the more popular players on the Thunder, saw Juan Diaz hit many a bomb in Trenton, and covered Shelley Duncan in Trenton in 2006 and occasionally in the big leagues in 2007.

Tony Clark: On the baseball side of things, Tony Clark was perhaps the only reason to come see the Trenton Thunder during their horrific 1994 season.  On a team that went a putrid 55-85, Clark was one of the few bright spots, hitting .279 with 21 home runs and 86 RBI.  Clark and Trever Miller are the only two players from that team still playing in the big leagues.

Clark recently signed a deal with the San Diego Padres, where he’ll likely come off the bench, as he’s done so successfully over the past few years.

David Gibralter: A disgusting, dirt covered game-used black Trenton Thunder hat sits on one of my shelves at home, a reminder of the guy who was greeted by loud cheers and came out to WWE wrestler The Rock’s entrance music.  “Gibralter” is written under the bill, and he then signed it for me when he returned for the 2000 season with the Bowie Baysox.  Seeing him in a uniform other than Trenton’s was odd, but perhaps harder to comprehend was that despite his big power numbers, (he hit 53 home runs in three seasons for Trenton) he never advanced to Pawtucket with the Red Sox, and only got one brief look at Triple-A in the Brewers organization.

After hitting 24 home runs for Trenton in 1999, “The Rock” was out of affiliated baseball by 2003.

Ryan McGuire: McGuire played just three seasons in the Red Sox farm system, and his 1995 season in Trenton was the last of those three.  He hit a career high .333 that year, and hit seven home runs and amassed 59 RBI.  Dealt to the Expos with other household names Shayne Bennett and Rheal Cormier, McGuire spent three seasons in Montreal before bouncing around with the Mets, Marlins and Orioles.  Perhaps somewhat ironically, he finished his career just a level away from returning to where it really began, as some of his last at-bats came with the Yankees organization as a member of Triple-A Columbus in 2003, the first year of Trenton’s affiliation with New York.

Shelley Duncan: Beloved by the front office, fans and media, Duncan hit 53 home runs over the course of two seasons for the Trenton Thunder.  His 34 longballs led the Eastern League in 2005, and Duncan was a catalyst on that year’s team, which ended the Thunder’s six-year playoff drought.

Duncan emerged as a team leader, and was one of the go-to guys for the media.  Soft-spoken, but always thoughtful, he was one of the more popular players on the team, and could frequently be seen mingling with fans or signing autographs down the first base line.

My fondest memory of Duncan is from the 2005 Eastern League Playoffs, when he was on base when Michael Coleman hit his walk-off home run to send the series to five games.  As Duncan was rounding the bases, he got so excited that he stopped and rolled around for a little bit, giddy that the series had been extended.  He has a genuine passion for the game and wants to win, and if the team were name the most popular player from their past 15 years, Duncan would have to be near or at the top of the list.

Not on the ballot: Shea Hillenbrand: OK, so Hillenbrand is on the ballot.  But just not at first base.  Listed as a third baseman, Hillenbrand actually played more games at first base (65) for the Thunder than he did at any other position (35 at third base and 55 at catcher).  Hildy and Damian Sapp were my favorite players on the 2000 team, and I was kind of disappointed to learn that most stories told about Hillenbrand’s time in Trenton were negative.  But I think that’s something I can expand on a bit when his name comes up on the third base ballot.

As I paid particularly close attention to Hillenbrand during the 2000 season, I can vividly remember watching him do extra work at first base with the coaching staff.  He’d never really played first base before, and I can remember them teaching him how to step into the throws from his fellow infielders so the ball would get there a split second quicker.

My Vote Goes To: Shelley Duncan.  This vote is as much for Duncan’s impact in the clubhouse as it is for what he did on the field. 

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 Shine In Intrasquad Game

February 28, 2008

Well, most of them did.  Over at his frequently linked to blog, Pete Abraham’s got the pitching line’s from yesterday’s intrasquad game.

Jeff Karstens, Scott Patterson, Steven Jackson and Edwar Ramirez pitched for “Team Goose,” while Dan McCutchen and Sean Henn laced em’ up for “Team Gator.”  Here are the pitching lines for pitchers from Thunder past.

Team Goose
Karstens: 2 IP,  1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 0 K
Patterson: 1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 0 K
Jackson: 1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 1 K
Ramirez: 1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 0 K

Team Gator
McCutchen: 1 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 1 K
Henn: 2 IP, 2 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 3 BB, 0 K

So most of the pitchers really stood out for good reasons.  For Sean Henn…well, I guess it’s more of the same.  I wonder if he’s ever recovered from getting the call straight out of Double-A.  In the Yankee clubhouse last season, Henn told me that he felt like he was ready at the time, but didn’t really feel like he’d showed it.

Three years later, and there are still questions about whether he’s a ready for primetime player.

Another thing that may be working against him, at least in the long term, would be the loss of Ron Guidry.  While did pitch on Guidry’s team, Dave Eiland is the pitching coach now, and Henn also told me last year that he credited Guidry with helping him with “certain situations and how to attack guys and what to look for and things like that.” 

All 15 Year Team: Catcher

February 26, 2008

Steve Lomasney / Photo by Mike Ashmore (2006)

As promised, Thunder Thoughts look at the All 15 Year Team nominees begins today with a look at the four finalists at catcher.

Anyone who’s followed the Thunder throughout their history is certainly familiar with David McDonough, who has covered the team since its inception in 1994. Dave is one of the most well-respected and likeable people in the Thunder press box.  For what it’s worth, he was also one of the first people who would actually talk to me when I first started covering the team.  That sounds like nothing…but trust me, that’s something.

Similar to what I did with Steve Rudenstein and the Top 30 Prospects breakdown (which will return this week with prospects #21-25, by the way), Dave’s going to be our featured writer and the following are his thoughts on Walt McKeel, Steve Lomasney, Virgil Chevalier and Dioner Navarro.  With his experience in covering the team, he brings a unique and welcome perspective to Thunder Thoughts, and I hope you all enjoy both his analysis and mine for the Trenton Thunder’s All 15 Year Team.

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

Walt McKeel: Walt McKeel was never going to be an impact player, and he never did get much big league time, only 11 games in parts of three seasons. In his second year at Trenton, in 1996, he was arguably the MVP on a first-place team. The 24-year-old batted .302 with 16 home runs and 78 RBIs and handled the pitching staff in excellent fashion, including Minor League Pitcher of the Year Carl Pavano. When the Red Sox rewarded McKeel by sending him up to Boston just in time to miss the Eastern League playoffs, the Thunder sputtered without him, and lost in the semi-finals. The killer was that McKeel sat on the bench in Boston, and got into one game without an at-bat.

It was McKeel’s best year in professional ball. He stayed around until he was 30 with the Red Sox, Blue Jays, Tigers and Rockies organizations, but never did much. But the Thunder would not have been in first place in the Southern Division of the Eastern League in 1996 without him.

Steve Lomasney: The pride of Peabody, Massachusetts, Steve Lomasney was always going be the Red Sox catcher of the future. The future never happened. Lomasney was a 21-year-old power hitting backstop when he got to Trenton in 1999. He had crunched 22 homers in Single-A in 1998, but he had also struck out 145 times. He hit 12 homers in 47 games for the Thunder in 1999, and everyone thought he was on his way. The Red Sox even brought him up at the end of the season, and let him get into one game, to the delight of all his family and friends in Peabody. Turns out, that was his only big league game.

Injuries on and off the field and struggles at the plate did him in. He was hurt for part of 2000. After he hit 10 home runs for Trenton in 58 games in 2001, he got the call to Pawtucket. When he floundered at the start of the 2002 season, he was back in Trenton. A completely demoralized Lomasney struggled badly, batting .210 in 109 games with an astronomic 133 strikeouts. That was pretty much it for him. He hung around for a few more years but never got out of AAA. His lifetime Minor League batting average for 12 years was .229. Just a reminder to us all how hard this game really is.

Virgil Chevalier: Every team has one or two guys you look at and think, “Well, he’ll probably never make the majors, but baseball sure could use someone like that coaching or managing.” Guys like former Thunder players Gavin Jackson (96-98), Nate Tebbs (97-99), Tom Sergio (02), Andy Cannizaro (03-05) and Anton French (02), who, as it happens, is now a minor league instructor for the Phillies. And from last year’s club, Jason Brown and Noah Hall.

Chevy was like that, too. Over the 3 ½ seasons (98-01) he played for Trenton, he grew from a shy guy to a confident veteran, to whom the young players could go for guidance. The first Native American to play for the Thunder (sorry, Joba), he had been signed by the Red Sox as a free agent after an open tryout at Fenway Park. He was originally a catcher, but played only 9 games there for Trenton. He was mostly a first baseman and outfielder. In 1999, he hit .293 with 13 homers. In all, he played nine minor league seasons, and got mentioned in “Moneyball”, although not as prominently as Youkilis. I think the exact quote was, “Who is Virgil Chevalier?” I can tell you he is, Billy Beane – a class act all the way.

Dioner Navarro: He was a top prospect for the Yankees when he joined the Thunder in 2003. He had good hands, a good arm, and when he batted .341 in 58 games for Trenton, at the age of just 19, he was considered, along with teammate Robby Cano, to be a future regular at the Stadium. Some how, it never happened. In 2005, Navarro went to the Dodgers in a three-way deal that saw Randy Johnson got to the Yankees. He never did much with the Dodgers, and last year, with the Devil Rays, he was the victim of a freak accident in June and ended up batting .227. The Rays still call him their starting catcher, and he’s only 24, but so far, he has been one more example of the fact that the Thunder have never had a catcher who went on to be a big league impact player.

Not on the ballot: Joe DePastino: Joe hit 17 homers in 79 games as the Thunder catcher in 1997, and hit .295 in 73 games in 1998. All told, in 158 games for Trenton, he had 29 homers and 103 RBIs. He’s now the manager of single-A West Michigan in the Tigers organization.

But my favorite story about DePas comes from 2000, when he was a back-up catcher for the Bowie BaySox. The BaySox hosted the Double-A All-Star game. One of the catchers voted to the team was late, and Joe was in the stands, about to watch the game. So they hoisted out, gave him his shin guards and told him he was on the squad. He didn’t play, of course, but it is written now for posterity that a catcher batting .215 in 19 games was a member of the American League AA All-Star team. Surely an inspirational story for us all.

Dave’s Vote Goes to: Walt McKeel.

————-

Ashmore’s Thunder Thoughts: As some of my regular readers may know, I started regularly following the team as a fan in 1999 before eventually covering the team as a writer in 2006.  In terms of catchers, I came in somewhere around the Steve Lomasney era, if you want to be so generous as to call it that.

With that said, here’s my look at each of the four catchers.  Also, to borrow Dave’s idea (see: steal) I’m going to take a look at someone who stands out for me who isn’t on the ballot.

Walt McKeel: McKeel was picked in the third round of the 1990 draft by the Red Sox, and became just one of 10 players selected in that round to make the big leagues.  He went from prospect to suspect to journeyman pretty quickly, as five years came between his penultimate and final Major League cups of coffee in 1997 and 2002, with the Red Sox and Rockies, respectively.

McKeel caught for parts of three seasons in Trenton, and was eventually succeeded by Joe DePastino in 1997.

Steve Lomasney: Rather than essentially recap what I’ve written about Lomasney in the past, I’ll simply include my 2006 feature on Lomasney from when he came back to Waterfront Park as a member of the New Britain Rock Cats.  After that, I’ll share my two favorite memories of Lomasney’s career as a fan…

—-

Steve Lomasney enjoyed his finest season in 1999 as a member of the Trenton Thunder. The starting catcher of the most successful team in franchise history, Lomasney parlayed his year into a September call-up from the Boston Red Sox, where he got into the last game of the season against the Orioles and got two at-bats.

Seven years later, and all Lomasney has is that taste of what his career could have been.

After being named the Red Sox Minor League Player of the Year, Lomasney went into the 2000 season with lofty expectations. Baseball America considered him the number one prospect in the entire Red Sox organization and he seemed to be in line for another September call-up at the very least. But injuries ended his season two months early, so that call-up would have to wait.

In 2001, the Peabody, Mass. native was up with Triple-A Pawtucket, an injury away from getting another chance at wearing the uniform of his hometown team. But it was another injury of his own that altered the course of his season and ultimately his career. Lomasney was struck in the eye with a line drive during batting practice, fracturing his orbital bone and damaging his cornea.

As a result, the call-up he was waiting for never came, and the chance of wearing a Red Sox uniform again went away with it after not re-signing with the organization following his fourth straight season in Double-A in 2002.

He caught on with the Orioles organization in 2003 and with the Reds for 2004 and 2005, spending all three seasons with their Triple-A teams. But Baltimore and Cincinnati didn’t see anything from him that warranted a big league call-up either, his struggles being capped by a meager .160 batting average in limited action with the Louisville Bats last season.

Lomasney only played for a few innings in his only big league appearance in Camden Yards, but it served as a microcosm of the reason why he‘s never been able to stick in the show. He threw out both base runners who tried to steal against him, but also struck out in both of his plate appearances.

“Three-two counts both times,” Lomasney said. “I was swinging hard, but I had a little bit of the jitters in me.”

Always known more for his glove than his bat, Lomasney entered the 2006 season with 2,790 professional at-bats. He’d struck out in 961 of them, an alarming rate of one strikeout per 2.9 at-bats.

Numbers like that won’t get you anywhere, especially the big leagues, and that’s why the 28 year-old Lomasney finds himself in the visiting dugout of Trenton’s Waterfront Park, spending his fifth season at the Double-A level.

Now with the New Britain Rock Cats, the Eastern League affiliate of the Minnesota Twins, Lomasney is again struggling, hitting just .194 with no home runs and three RBI. Having gone from the next Carlton Fisk to the next Crash Davis, he returns to the site of that breakout 1999 season at a very different stage of his career.

“When I first got here, I said I’d never been on this side of the field before,” Lomasney said, across the diamond from the home dugout he spent four seasons in.

“We had great fans and great players here, it was a great organization to be with.”

Even with his slow start, his teammates and coaches seem to be behind him.

“He’s a veteran presence behind the plate,” said Rock Cats manager Riccardo Ingram, who noted that Lomasney was working well with his other catcher, Jose Morales.

“Steve knows his role here, and his role is basically to be a veteran leader. I think he’s fitting the bill well.”

Lomasney, who’s already accumulated seven strikeouts in thirty-one at-bats this season said he’d been contacted by several independent league teams over the past few seasons, but feels his best chance to get back is by staying in the minors.

With his chances in affiliated baseball quickly diminishing, this is one opportunity where Steve Lomasney can’t afford to strike out.

My two favorite Lomasney moments involve a bench clearing brawl and a broken bat walk-off home run. 

The first occured on my Dad’s birthday in 2000 and was against the Binghamton Mets.  We were sitting on the first base side, and prospect at the time Leslie Brea was on the mound for the B-Mets.  Brea had already hit Lomasney once in the game, and then proceeded to drill him again in his next at-bat.  In what is still the only bench clearing brawl I’ve ever seen in over 400 games, Lomasney charged the mound, but never really got to his target.  Mets catcher Jimmy Gonzalez got to Lomasney before he was able to charge Brea, and after a few minutes order was restored.

I asked Lomasney about this during our 2006 chat, and he said the following:

“Well, earlier in the year, Leslie and I…he was pitching a really good game, and I hit a home run off of him and it ended up being the game winning run, but it was earlier in the game.  I don’t know if he took that too well.  I got to know Leslie after all this, and he’s a good guy, but he hit me twice.  He hit me twice, and they were both definitely intentional.  After he hit me, I kind of just looked at him, and he yelled something to me, and I basically just snapped and charged him.  I didn’t get to him, the catcher caught me, Jimmy Gonzalez.  But we cleared it and had a pretty good one for a little bit.  But that’s the nature of the game.  Guys get hit, you get hit twice, and you’ve got to have your respect.  You can’t just lay down for people.  That was the only time I ever charged the mound.  It happened, and it was just one of those things.”

The broken bat walk-off home run was against Bryan Malko and the New Britain Rock Cats.  I was sitting behind the home dugout, and I can remember watching a part of the bat go flying instead of the ball…which of course went sailing over the wall for the game winning home run.

Again, I was lucky enough to ask Steve about this as well a few years back…

“I don’t really tell a lot of people about that, because a lot of people don’t believe it.  It was unbelievable.  I knew I hit the ball good, and the bat kind of exploded in my hands.  I think part of it actually went in the New Britain dugout.  I had the handle in my hand, and I was watching the ball and I remember thinking, ‘I think I hit a home run.’  I was jogging slow, and finally it went out for a walk-off home run, and I took the handle and put it in my back pocket and finished my trot.  After the game, everyone couldn’t believe that just happened.  I didn’t know if the bat was already broken or what, but I hit the ball good and the bat just exploded.”

Virgil Chevalier: I actually don’t remember Chevy as a catcher at all.  I actually remember much better as an outfielder, where he permanently switched to in 1999.  For someone his size, he wasn’t that bad of an outfielder either.  At the plate, Chevy had some of his best years for the Thunder, hitting .293 in 1999 and .309 in 2000.  He was one of the guys who would always sign autographs for fans, and was always very friendly.

As someone who had followed the team for three seasons at the time, I can remember how weird it was to see Chevy in a B-Mets uniform in 2002.  One of his game used, signed red Thunder hats sits on one of my shelves back home as a memory of my days as a Thunder fan.

Dioner Navarro: Navarro was one of the more hyped prospects the Thunder had at the time he first put on a Trenton uniform in 2003.  Following the somewhat painful switch in affiliations from Boston to the Yankees, both Navarro and Robinson Cano gave the Thunder the star power they hadn’t had in several years.

He played pretty well behind the plate in Trenton, and was usually pretty accessible to the media by all accounts.  Unfortunately, he never really lived up to the hype that was placed on him, and has bounced around a few teams since being dealt by the Yankees in the ill-fated Randy Johnson trade.

Not On The Ballot: Damian Sapp.  Sapp’s friendly nature, willingness to sign autographs, and occasional tape measure blast made him one of my favorites from the 2000 team.  The 1996 Boston Red Sox Minor League Player of the Year, Sapp seemed destined to play in Fenway after quickly rising through their farm system in first three years.

Turns out, the only time he would seet foot in Fenway Park would be to pick up that award.

Injuries, specifically to his knees and back, wrecked any chance Sapp had at a Major League career.  He eventually ended his career with Nashua Pride of the Atlantic League, where I got to ask him about his time with the Thunder… 

“Oh, I loved Trenton. The fans, the place, the atmosphere, everything about that place I just loved. I mean everywhere from the front office to every last fan was nothing but warm and welcoming. Anything you ever needed, if they could help in any way, they would. Very faithful fans. It was a pleasure to actually get a chance to play there.”

Still only 32 years old, there had been rumors as recently as last year that he might return to professional baseball.  Oddly enough, those rumors were preceeded by one that he was contemplating a career in professional wrestling.

Mike’s Vote Goes To: Virgil Chevalier.  He deserves to be on the team somewhere, and if he isn’t going to be on there as an outfielder, then let’s stick him behind the plate… 

Other Thunder Catchers: Pedro Gonzalez, Tim McConell, Joe Perona, Matt Brown, Alex Delgado, Dana LeVangie, Jeff Martin, Richie Borrero, Bill Haselman (rehab), Chris Madonna, Chad Epperson, Damian Sapp, Shea Hillenbrand, Luis Rodriguez, Mike Figga, Kelly Ramos, Michael Rose, Andy Dominique, Andrew Larned, Dan Mooney, Omar Fuentes, Dave Parrish, Sandy Madera, Nathan Griffin, Jason Brown, Omir Santos, Tommy Rojas, P.J. Pilittere, J.T. LaFountain, Dan Conway, Joe Muich

Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com 

Best of 2007: Moment #12

February 4, 2008

Moment #12 – Tony Franklin named Thunder manager
Trenton, NJ
(OK, so this technically happened in late December 2006…)

If I were to do a Top 20 countdown of the most ridiculous moments in Thunder history, Bill Masse getting fired after the 2006 season would certainly be near the top.

After all, he led the team to consecutive playoff appearances and finished with a 154-130 record during his two seasons at the helm of the Yankees Double-A affiliate.

And to replace him, they get a guy who hasn’t managed since 2000? 

“It’s great to be a Yankee,” Franklin said in a team release.

“I’ve been in baseball for 38 years and have always thought the Yankees would be an exciting organization to be a part of and I’m glad Trenton is where I’ll get that chance.”

Yeah, yeah, yeah.  That all sounds great.  But it was hard not to be skeptical, and it was even harder to think that anyone could produce the kind of results that Masse did.

It turns out that it was the best thing that could have happened to the Thunder.

Franklin’s 83-59 record was better than any individual season that Masse put together.

More impotantly, he did what no other manager in team history could do, leading the Thunder to their first championship after so many seasons of frustrating postseason futility.

He also brought a personality and demeanor that was somewhat the opposite of Masse.  Masse was always accomodating with reporters, he was very intense and very quotable.  He wasn’t really the kind of guy who bit his tongue, and while I think everyone respected and appreciated that, it was also what got him in trouble with the Yankees organization.

Franklin, also incredibly giving of his time with the media, comes across as very laid back and quiet.  He always gives eloquent and well-thought out answers to your questions, but also isn’t going to give you anything that’s going to show up on the back page of the paper like Masse would on occasion.

While Masse’s style could be a little grating on his players, Franklin’s approach was appreciated by all that played for him.  However, the Thunder never really had any consistent struggles last season.  If this year’s team has trouble getting out of the gate, I’ll be curious to see if Franklin’s demeanor changes and he’s forced to crack the whip a little bit.

But if everyone who’s expected to be on the roster this year actually ends up in Trenton, it’s hard to believe that the Thunder aren’t the odds on favorites to repeat in 2008.

Recapping the Top 20 so far…

#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