TRENTON, NJ – When the Eastern League season’s final month began, the Trenton Thunder roster looked completely different than it did when the team took the field for the start of their final home stand of the season.
Center fielder Slade Heathcott, one of the top prospects in the New York Yankees farm system, is gone, likely out for the season due to patellar tendinitis in his right knee. Fellow outfielder Neil Medchill was activated from the disabled list after missing two months with a knee injury, only to be promoted to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Mid-season signee Andrew Clark had provided an offensive spark for Trenton, but recently hit the disabled list with right shoulder soreness.
These are just some of the casualties from 38 transactions made by the Thunder during August. Of course, not all moves are bad moves. Joining Trenton for this final stretch are the New York Yankees’ two top prospects: catcher Gary Sanchez and center fielder Mason Williams. With Sanchez’s power in the cleanup spot and Williams’ blazing speed in the leadoff spot, each promises to help provide a new dimension for the Thunder offense.
“It’s new to them,” Franklin said of Trenton’s newest pairs of budding stars. “How well you adjust or how quickly you can adjust, figure out what these pitchers are trying to do to them, it’s going to make all the difference in the world.
“I think Gary’s a good baseball player,” Franklin added. “I think Mason’s a good baseball player, and I think they’re going to be able to handle it just as well.”
Joining Williams and Sanchez from Tampa is outfielder Ben Gamel. Long an overlooked player within the Yankees farm system, Gamel strikes me as a fourth outfielder at the big league level someday. The left-handed hitter produced a fair .272 batting average with Class-A Advanced Tampa and was successful on 21-of-26 steal attempts. Despite not having the name recognition of Williams, Heathcott, or Tyler Austin, Gamel has risen quickly through the system and could be a valuable addition down the stretch run.
The turnover is not just limited to the Thunder lineup. Reliever Manny Barreda returned from Tampa for his second stint with Trenton this season, and was joined by starting pitchers Bryan Mitchell and Scottie Allen. Two additional relievers, Diego Moreno and Pat Venditte, joined the Thunder from the Tampa Yankees earlier in the month.
The best known names of this group are Mitchell, a talented 22-year-old right-handed pitcher who has already been forced to undergo Tommy John surgery, and Venditte, baseball’s only active “switch-pitcher.” Mitchell struggled in Tampa this season, but still is considered to have some of the best raw pitching talent in the system. He was effective in his first start with the Thunder, tossing five innings and allowing two runs in a no-decision. Venditte has pitched just four games since returning to the Thunder locker room for the first time since 2011, taking the loss twice while allowing four runs and nine hits in just 6 1/3 innings of work.
Despite all the new faces, Tony Franklin does not expect a drop in production from his team, which currently sits in second place in the Eastern League’s Eastern division.
“They’ve been playing for another manager for the past four, five months and his style of play,” Franklin told me. “I don’t particularly know how Luis [Sojo] runs his ballclub. But they come here, and they don’t know [my style]. They don’t know what I’m going to do. I try to explain to them why they should do things and why they shouldn’t do certain things, and that’s a heck of an adjustment period.”
Players who have spent their entire season in Trenton, such as first baseman Kyle Roller and starting pitcher Nik Turley, have taken up leadership roles to help the new additions to the clubhouse adjust to their first steps of the “upper levels.”
Roller acknowledged that while he’s still learning himself, he tries to help out the new additions as much as he can.
“Any kind of tip I can give them, I will,” the 25-year-old first-baseman said. “But they’ve adjusted to the game up here very well.”
Turley is in a unique position to help out pitchers such as Bryan Mitchell and Scottie Allen, as he was in their shoes at this time last season after being promoted from Tampa with high expectations just prior to the Eastern League playoffs.
“Most of it is just learning by experience,” Turley observed. “I’ve talked to them a little bit already, but they’re good guys, they work hard, and they’re smart…I have no doubt that they can succeed at this level.”