TRENTON, N.J. – Al Pedrique, the 54-year-old native of Valencia, Venezuela, sat in the dugout and watched as his Trenton Thunder players trotted off the Arm & Hammer Park field after taking their team picture.
In this contingent, in their hone Pinstripes, included some of the Yankees’ top prospects – pitcher Luis Severino (1), outfielder Aaron Judge (2), first baseman Greg Bird (4), catcher Gary Sanchez (5) and third baseman Eric Jagielo (11).
“We’re glad to be here after a long Spring Training,” said Pedrique, the former Mets infielder whose team opens its 142-game Eastern League season on the road vs. the Erie SeaWolves, Detroit’s Double-A affiliate, Thursday evening. “This a very special group, the most talented team I have ever managed.
“What we have are a lot of players with big expectations. It’s my job to see we stay humble, do things right, and most importantly, consistently day-in and day-out.”
What will help is Pedrique had a lot of these players the last two years at Class-A stops Charleston and Tampa.
“I am familiar with them,” said Pedrique. “They know what I am all about, and I know what they are all about. Both I and the players know what to expect, which will make things a bit easier.”
Bird, whose status skyrocketed with an MVP performance in the Arizona Fall League and strong effort in Spring Training, has enjoyed playing under Pedrique.
“Al is a great manager,” said Bird, who will start with the Double-A Thunder and could push his way to Triple-A Scranton//Wilkes-Barre during the 2015 season. “Our group feels we grew up under him. This is going to be a fun year with this team.”
Pedrique feels there is a double-purpose to the Double-A level.
“We want our guys to get better, and we want our guys to do the little things they need to do to win. Obviously physical mistakes will happen. We can accept that. As far as mental mistakes are concerned, it’s the job of our coaching staff to make sure they don’t happen again.
Scouts will tell if a player advances to the Double-A level, part of his game is major-league ready, while other parts need work. Pedrique knows what his top performers need.
“Bird has the best plate approach for a young player I have ever seen,” he said. “He’s smart and has a plan when he goes up there. Defensively, he’s really improved at first base. His lateral movement is getting a lot better.”
As for Judge, whose Double-A season will be watched quite closely by more than a few observers:
“Aaron runs so well for a guy that big (6-foot-7, 255 pounds). He worked hard on his outfield play in Spring Training. His routes to the ball and his throws are excellent. Offensively, we know he has a lot of power. He has to be more patient and not lunge at curve balls out of the strike zone.”
Sanchez seemed a lot more relaxed and confident as he chatted with reporters, repeating Double-A after he hit .270 (116-for-429) with 13 homers and 65 RBIs in 112 Trenton games in 2014. He also led Eastern League catchers with 17 errors and 10 passed balls.
There has been a change in attitude and preparation with Sanchez.
“Gary worked very hard in Spring Training on improving his defense and communication with his pitchers,” said Pedrique. “We know the offense is there, and he knows he has to improve his defense to move on. We’re happy with how he is going into the season.”
Jagielo will platoon at third base with Dante Bichette Jr., with Jagielo getting the majority of time at the hot corner. Both will DH at times, and Bichette will fill in at first base if Bird is given a day off or is the DH.
“Eric has put a lot of time into smoothing things out at third base,” said Pedrique. “We will have a 5-2 or 4-3 platoon with he and Bichette. Dante looked very comfortable in two games in Spring Training at first base.”
In the outfield, Judge will play right field, with Jake Cave in center and Mason Williams in left. Pedrique and his staff are looking for more consistency from both Cave and Williams, who had an excellent Spring Training, as well. Taylor Dugas, a solid player in his own right, is the other outfielder.
Jose Rosario will open at second base, with Cito Culver at shortstop and Dan Fiorito completing the group as a utility player. Ali Castillo suffered a fractured finger diving for a ball the last day of camp, and could join this group in a few weeks.
“Cito has looked great in the field,” said Pedrique. “Ali ought to make his way here when he is healthy.”
With the pitching, the 21-year-old Severino is naturally the focus.
“We see a lot of maturity and confidence in Luis going into this season,” said Pedrique. Severino, who was wearing No. 45 like his idol, Pedro Martinez, Tuesday, will make his first 2015 start at Akron April 13.
In addition to the righty Severino, the opening Thunder rotation will include lefty Miguel Sulbaran, lefty Eric Wooten, righty Joel De La Cruz and lefty Caleb Smith. Lefty Dan Camarena and righty Zach Nuding were held back in camp with injuries.
The bullpen will include newcomer Johnny Barbato, a righty who could see some closer time with lefty James Pazos held back in camp. Righties Taylor Garrison, who also could get some starts, Nick Goody, Mark Montgomery, Kyle Haynes, Cesar Vargas, who had 14 saves between Charleston and Tampa in 2014, and Alex Snith, along with veteran lefty Fred Lewis, fill the bullpen.