TRENTON, N.J. – As the Trenton Thunder prepare to defend last year’s Eastern League championship title, ARM & HAMMER Park will see many familiar faces on opening night. Altogether, the Thunder will return nineteen players who were with the team last season, though the lineup will still differ quite a bit from the one that last took the field in Harrisburg for the clinching game of the Eastern League Championship Series six months ago.
Last season, the Thunder won a title by having good defense and pitching and getting key hits in big offensive situations. However, they also had many more players who could change the game with one swing of the bat. As they prepare to enter 2014, only one player – Gary Sanchez – hit more than ten home runs last season. However, the potential lack of offensive difference-makers is not cause for concern according to manager Tony Franklin, who spoke at length about the subject during Tuesday's Media Day.
“The game is not always about power, but I think we’ll hit enough home runs to help us,” Franklin told me. “I think just being able to play a consistent offensive game, get runners on, move runners over and taking opportunities to score them when the opportunity presents itself, I think that keeps us in enough games.”
That lineup will have consistency among its first four members, but seems largely undecided beyond that. Franklin named Mason Williams as his regular lead-off hitter, and Rob Refsnyder will hold down the second spot in the lineup as he makes the jump to Trenton for the first time. Franklin also indicated that Rob Segedin and Sanchez will hit third and fourth on Opening Night, but he had not decided who would hit – or even start – beyond that.
Segedin and Sanchez both spent time in Trenton last season, though never at the same time. Sanchez was given a brief look at the season’s end and was a key member of the team during the postseason, while Segedin opened the season with the Thunder, but suffered a hip injury while diving for a ball that ultimately required season-ending surgery after just 18 games.
This year, Segedin has the potential to break out and potentially be an option as a September call-up, depending on the Yankees’ third base situation. Better yet, his manager believes that the former third-round pick appears to be a new man.
“He’s healthy,” Tony Franklin said when asked about his starting third baseman. “Robby got off to a great start last year…he’s healthy and he’s back and he’s raring to go. I think he’ll show you what he’s all about by season’s end.”
While the line-up will feature two of the organization's top prospects, Mason Williams and Gary Sanchez, alongside Segedin, the interesting new addition is Rob Refsnyder, who has drawn rave reviews for his offense.
“He can hit,” said Trenton’s ace pitcher, Bryan Mitchell, who played with Refsnyder in Charleston and Tampa.
A convert from right field to second base, Tony Franklin indicated he has been pleased with the progress Refsnyder has shown defensively this spring as he grows into his new position.
“I think he’s done well,” Franklin told reporters. “It took a little getting used to, but I think he’s pretty comfortable there now.”
Franklin indicated that while Refsnyder will undoubtedly face the same adjustment period that causes many players to struggle when making the jump into the upper levels for the first time, he believes the second baseman can handle it effectively.
In addition to the top half of his line-up, Franklin also revealed his starting rotation. It came as no surprise that Mitchell, one of the organization’s top pitching prospects, will be given the ball for Opening Night. Two starters from last season’s rotation – left-hander Matt Tracy and right-hander Zach Nuding – will also be in the starting rotation.
After struggling with Tampa last season, Mitchell was lights out during a late season promotion to Trenton, and turned in arguably the best pitching performance by a Thunder pitcher all season when he struck out 10 batters in 7 1/3 innings pitched against the New Britain Rock Cats. As he enters 2014 with a spot on the Yankees’ 40-man roster, Mitchell was bursting with confidence when I spoke with him Tuesday.
“If you’re not nervous, something’s wrong,” Mitchell noted. “I’m just excited to get out there and pitch again. [There’s] a little bit of pressure, but I thrive on it.”
Joining Mitchell, Tracy, and Nuding will be Joel de la Cruz, a 24-year-old who went 6-3 with a 3.28 ERA in 33 games with Tampa last season, and what was believed to be the favorite to serve as the Thunder’s closer, Jeremy Bleich.
Bleich, a 28-year-old former supplemental pick from 2008, has overcome injuries that nearly derailed his career to return to the starting rotation.
“I know for a fact that what I went through, the ups and the mostly downs at that point during my injury, you learn a lot about yourself character-wise, and a lot about yourself baseball-wise and what you need to do to get the job done,” Bleich noted. “I think I’m similar in many ways to how I was when I first played here, but also different in others, mentally, and physically too.
After making four starts towards the end of last season, Bleich knew entering camp that he might have an opportunity to earn a spot in the Thunder rotation, but was not sure that it would ever become a reality.
“It was a possibility,” Bleich said Tuesday. “I figured at the end of last year, I think I made five or six starts…I threw pretty well, and I figured that it was a chance. Nothing’s guaranteed, and you don’t really know until the end of spring training.”