Thunder Set To Defend Title
The Trenton Thunder completed arguably the most improbable championship run in Eastern League history in 2013. They used a roster of over 70 different players to narrowly qualify for postseason play as a wildcard. After beating the league’s best team, the Binghamton Mets and their ace Noah Syndergaard in the ELDS opener, the Thunder went on a magical postseason run and swept their way to the EL crown.
Seven months later, the Thunder and Manager Tony Franklin have their sights squarely focused on 2014 and the defense of their title. Trenton will open their season tonight at 7 p.m. when they welcome in the New Hampshire Fishercats to Arm & Hammer Park.
“You think about what you did the previous season, and the way it ended was absolutely spectacular,” admitted Franklin. “But, you put it behind you and start looking towards another season.” Franklin added, “I think about it from time to time but it’s officially over and we have got to get going.”
The Thunder roster will feature 19 returning members from last year’s championship squad to open the season, including the two biggest prospects in the Yankees farm system in Mason Williams and Gary Sanchez.
After getting their first taste of the Double-A level during the teams championship run last season, playing in a combined 40 games between the two of them; Franklin is looking to see both Williams and Sanchez not only put up numbers, but to figure out what type of players they need to develop into in order to make it to the next level.
“Numbers are important, there is no question that they’re important,” Franklin said. “But I don’t think they’re the most important thing. I think the most important thing for them to understand is what kind of player they can be, what type of player they could be at the major league level, and what kind of player they’re going to have to be.”
Williams hit just .153 during his 17 game stint with the Thunder last season. The jury is still out on how his offensive game will ultimately develop. But, his defensive skills in centerfield are what most would categorize as his calling card. After hitting .267 in the Arizona Fall League and receiving extensive playing time with the major league club during spring training, Williams feels as though he is ready to prove why he is so highly touted.
“I was anxious getting here in the beginning last year,” said Williams. “I didn’t really know how the game at Double-A worked but it is definitely a huge jump from A. This year I feel like I am mentally ready to be here.”
Williams added, “Me getting stronger physically and going to the Arizona Fall League made me a little bit more mentally prepared than I was coming in here last year. I feel like right now my mindset is good, I’m mentally ready and I’m excited to start the season.”
Sanchez, who was absent from Media Day on Tuesday because of a delayed departure from Tampa, figures to be the lone power threat in the Thunder lineup until Kyle Roller and Tyler Austin complete their rehab. The 21-year old slugging catcher hit .250 with two homers and 10 RBI in his 23 games with Trenton in 2013 after blasting 13 homers for Tampa. The struggles for Sanchez come on the defensive end where many question his ability to remain at the position long term because of his shortcomings there.
“I think the expectations for Gary are great,” admitted Franklin. “But, they’re no greater for him than anybody else on the team. I think that his total game needs to improve. If he were major league ready right now than he would be at the major league level. I don’t think age has a lot to do with it, you give him a chance to grow and sure up his game and by the end of the season you hope all areas have become pretty good and he makes his way to the major leagues much like Romine and Murphy have.”
Franklin says that his team would rely heavily on the teams deep pitching staff to keep them in a lot of games this season. The starting rotation was announced on Tuesday and features Bryan Mitchell at the top, followed by Jeremy Bleich, Zach Nuding, Joel De La Cruz and Matt Tracy. Mitchell will take the ball tonight and oppose Blue Jays top overall prospect in Aaron Sanchez for New Hampshire. It is a stellar pitching match-up to kickoff the defense of the coveted Eastern League crown.
“I take honor in that, I’m proud to be an Opening Day guy,” said Mitchell. “When I’m pitching good, I feel like I can pitch with the best of them, so it should be a good show.”
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