After defeating the Reading Phillies 5-4 yesterday, the Trenton Thunder punched their ticket to the Eastern League Championship for the fourth time in six years where they will take on the Western Division Champion Akron Aeros; who rallied from 2-0 series deficit to advance to the championship round. Trenton will open the first two games of the series on the road beginning tomorrow night at Canal Park before playing the back end of the series at Waterfront Park beginning Friday.
Double G Sports caught up with Stephanie Metzger of Indians Prospect Insider and Justin Lada of the Lake County Sentinel, who both cover the Aeros for their respective outlets to get an experts perspective on what exactly the Thunder will be dealing with in this series.
Double G Sports (DGS): What kind of team are the Aeros, are they a veteran, experienced club or more of a young team filled with youth?
Stephanie Metzger (SM): The Aeros are definitely more of a veteran team. A lot of these guys have been in the system for a few years and are older than the standard AA-level age. Some of these guys have some solid playoff experience, like Ryan Rohlinger, who actually has a World Series ring from his run with the SF Giants.
Justin Lada (JL): The Aeros are a little bit of an older team. They have several position players with a lot of minor league experience and a few with major league experience. (Ryan Rohlinger, Michel Hernandez)
DGS: Are you surprised to see the Aeros in the ELCS after trailing Bowie 2-0 and honestly having lost a lot of guys over the course of the season to Columbus and the big club to still sustain enough success to reach this point?
SM: Honestly, I am a bit surprised. At the beginning of the year, the Akron roster looked a bit lackluster to me since most of the organization’s highly-regarded prospects are down at the A-levels while other guys were promoted to Columbus, but they had a fantastic start thanks to Jared Goedert and Tim Fedroff, and this Akron team just seems to find ways to win. They’ve had a core group of dependable hitters all year in Thomas Neal, Nick Weglarz and healthy Chun Chen and they always seem to have a guy that steps up and comes through. When they were down 2-0 in the series to Bowie, I wasn’t sure if their offense would bounce back after facing Dylan Bundy, but guys like Adam Abraham have come through and really made an impact.
JL: Given how much Bowie lost this year, I was surprised to see Akron down 0-2 but not shocked to see them come back because of the experience on the team. Losing guys like Thomas Neal and Juan Diaz hurt their lineup, so there was a question of who would fill the big void left by them.
DGS: What do you think the biggest strength of the Aeros is? What area of the game are they most vulnerable?
SM: It’s tough to pick out strengths and weaknesses in a team that has a lot of good and a little bad in every aspect of the game, but at this point in time, the Aeros’ starting rotation is definitely the strength to me. Carlos Carrasco only pitches one inning per outing, with Brett Brach piggy-backing, but those two have been a good combination. TJ House has had a tough year, but he’s typically dependable for six or seven innings, and Toru Murata and Danny Salazar are guys that one can easily have faith in.
As far as weaknesses go, there are a couple bullpen arms that have struggled as of late that may keep me feeling uneasy, but the bullpen can’t necessarily be considered a weakness. Guys like Trey Haley can be dominant and unhittable, but struggle to get themselves out of trouble when unable to spot their pitches, which can turn into disastrous late innings.
JL: The Aeros bullpen is their best asset. With Preston Guilmet at the back end, to guys like Bryce Stowell, Shawn Armstrong, Rob Bryson and Trey Haley, they have the ability to shorten the game. Their defense is also very stout and they do a good job with the fundamentals, as far as bunting runners over and getting them in without needing a big hit. So far this post season, their starting pitching has been a disappointment. They also do have a lot of hitters who strike out a lot.
DGS: What kind of season has the Aeros rotation had? Who are some of the key arms that Trenton will be facing?
SM: The Aeros rotation has been fun to watch, though the loss of Steve Wright and TJ McFarland hurt. Giovanni Soto, who has been shut down for the season, also had a notable year and Danny Salazar is one of the organization’s highest right-handed pitching prospects. Toru Murata has had a quietly good year Paolo Espino is a straight-up strikeout machine.
JL: Pitching has been the key to the Aeros season. After an injury to start the year, Paolo Espino has had a great season and since being inserted into the starting rotation late in the year, Toru Murata has been very good. It’s possible Carlos Carrasco could be with the Aeros this round, after making two rehab appearances in the last round. One time prospect Hector Rondon is also with the team for the remainder of the post season and has flashed the stuff that made him a prospect before having two arm surgeries.
DGS: Trenton won a majority of their games against Reading in the 7th inning or later, having weathered the storm of good starting pitching to feast on their bullpen. With that being said, does Akron have a strong bullpen?
SM: As I sort of touched on, the bullpen has been one of the team’s most formidable assets through the entire season, but the loss of a few arms and some recent struggles have dropped its stock a short notch.
Shawn Armstrong has been dominant this year to the point where I don’t even worry a little when he’s on the bump. Trey Haley is erratic at times as he’s learning that he can no longer get by on just his electric fastball and works to throw his breaking pitches for strikes, but when he’s on, he’s fearsome. The two guys that currently worry me are Kyle Landis and Preston Guilmet. They’ve been solid through the season though, so chances are they’ve just had a rough week.
JL: The bullpen is the strongest part of this team. Manager Chris Tremie has a number of arms he can go with, and Preston Guilmet can go as many as three nights in a row.
DGS: What offensive player is the biggest key to the Aeros lineup?
SM: I was afraid that Thomas Neal’s promotion to Cleveland would hurt, and while I’m sure the Aeros would rather have him in Akron, the rest of the guys have really stepped up to fill the void.
Chun Chen had been struggling the past month, but he’s the one guy I’m looking at to put consistent hits up. The other guy I’m waiting for is Jesus Aguilar. He’s still making adjustments as he spent most of the year in high-A Carolina, but he’s still a constant threat. He’s struggled with breaking pitches at the AA level, but if a pitcher makes any mistakes, Aguilar can make them pay.
JL: If the Aeros get into a low scoring game, it’s guys like Jordan Henry and Tyler Holt, who can bunt for a hit, steal a base or two and score on a groundout or a sac fly. If it’s an offensive shootout, Jesus Aguilar has the ability to impact the game, as does Chun Chen.
DGS: What players right now are the hottest or in a good groove heading into the championship?
SM: I never thought I’d say this, but Davis Stoneburner. He had a disappointing regular season, but his last 10 games have been much better offensively and his current postseason average is .429 while his at-bats look much more constructive.
Tyler Holt is another guy who has played well and he’s a straight-up game changer. He finds ways to get on base and make things happen, and he’s appeared to have a good approach at the plate recently.
JL: Adam Abraham has been a shot in the arm since coming back from an injury. Davis Stoneburner also had a good series against Bowie.
DGS: What do you think HAS to happen for Akron to have a chance to win this series?
SM: The starting pitching has to put in some work and post some innings. With Carrasco only starting for one inning, Brett Brach’s role is huge. He did it on Sunday as he went 6.2, and he’ll need to continue that in order to preserve the pen. TJ House has sort of become the team work horse as he leads the rotation in innings and he typically can be counted on for six. Murata hasn’t gone past six and he’s sort of eased into pitching deeper into games. If he can also go six, the teams in better shape and Chris Tremie will have more bullpen options.
JL: Paolo Espino and TJ House both have to rebound from rough starts in round one and House’s struggles have carried over from the last week or so of the regular season.
DGS: Do you think the momentum of rallying back from being down 2-0 is going to carry over to help Akron in this series?
SM: I think the team has a good deal of confidence now that they know they can rebound when their backs are against the wall, but I also know they certainly don’t want to be in that position again. The bottom half of the lineup needs to retain their confidence at the plate and guys like Davis Stoneburner, Ryan Rohlinger and Adam Abraham need to continue to combine for hits.
JL: Winning three in a row can definitely have some carry over effect. There are a lot of veterans on this team and players with championship experience, so they should have some confidence going in.
DGS: Bottom of the 9th, 2 outs, winning run on 3rd, what player does Akron want at the dish to win the game?
SM: I suppose I’m going to go with Nick Weglarz or Adam Abraham here. Weglarz leads the team in RBIs, though he also strikes out a painful amount of times. Weglarz has wrapped up a solid 2012 season campaign though and he has become an important an anchor for this team. Abraham has quietly crafted an acceptable year considering he was in Carolina last year and he was second in team RBIs. He doesn’t strike out as much as Weglarz either, and he can definitely hit the ball out of the park.
JL: Adam Abraham, second on the team in RBIs despite missing nearly a month.
DGS: Your prediction for this series?
SM: I’ll go with Akron in five. I think Chun Chen will be the difference-maker and I think TJ House will rebound with a solid start. I’m also keeping an eye on Holt – a big playoff performance could play a pivotal role in his future.
JL: If Espino rebounds and Danny Salazar continues to pitch like he’s capable of, this team can shut any team down. Given how good the bullpen has been all year, Akron in 5.