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Feature Sized- Trenton Thunder starting pitcher Justus Sheffield works against the New Hampshire Fisher Cats at ARM & HAMMER Park in Trenton on Tuesday, April 18, 2017. (Martin Griff)


Stars, Heels and Stripes: Future Stars and the Underrated

Trenton, NJ-  A park located between Route 29 and the Delaware River has housed some of the Yankees best future talents through the years. The former Mercer County Waterfront Ballpark, now Arm & Hammer Park, 2017 is certainly no different. The talent show continues at “The Hammer,” as the Double-A Thunder are one of the best teams in MiLB this season; they’re stacked with top prospects like third baseman/DH Gleyber Torres and lefty pitcher Justus Sheffield. Torres has run into the injury bug, though it appears to just be minor arm soreness and caution by the big club. He was placed on the seven-day DL after entering the season with a solid showing at the plate, hitting .237/.341/.342 with nine hits, including two multi-hit performances.

Justus Sheffield could find himself in the big legue picture relatively soon. (Martin Griff)

Sheffield was on the mound for his second start last week, going against the Toronto Blue Jays top pitching prospect, Sean Reid-Foley. Sheffield’s value to the parent club can’t be overstated. They need him to fare well and prove they smartly traded him from Cleveland. All the potential is there.

“The Yankees like him at the top of the rotation,” said one MLB scout. “He’s got big upside. And he’s an excellent student.”

There’s nothing small about this observation. The excellence of a player, as a student, is paramount. Many players with top talent have found themselves stumbling, not as players in the mechanical sense, but as people. Upstairs, where it counts so much, they don’t always develop so well. Sheffield being “teachable,” as scouts like to say, only adds to his value.

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Last season, in the gorgeous light of the Florida State League, Jorge Mateo was developing his skills in the infield. He wasn’t hitting as good as hoped, but that was nothing to panic over. In High-A, rawness is everywhere. That doesn’t mean that High-A ball is a sleepwalking contest. They have to be sharp, and they’re facing more advanced talent that can more quickly figure out tendencies and get out of tough spots. Mateo’s bigger problem was a suspension for behavioral issues, which remain a relative mystery. Lots of sources, different accounts of what went down, including Brian Cashman’s public quotes that reports were incorrect. The report he shot down had something to do with Mateo questioning why he’d yet to be promoted to the Eastern League. He wanted to be in a Trenton Thunder uniform, and now, according to those varying reports. Whatever the exact truth, the whispers of worry got louder among Yankees fans, and, apparently, the team continues to be displeased; or, according to a scout, much worse than displeased.

“They don’t like him. He has Big League-itis,” the scout said.

The exact truth about Mateo’s relationship with the Yankees remains elusive. But the scout, of course, also mentions the value of the young prospect’s bat. Like many, he’s convinced Mateo won’t be a Yankee for long. Via a trade, he could likely wind up elsewhere, dictated by the depth the Yankees have.

But let’s hold on for now. First, will see time in Trenton this year? Will he get the opportunity to face more advanced pitching and show that not only can he hit smarter pitchers who can figure him out, but can he show he’s an excellent student?

For now, the Thunder roster includes guys like Torres, 1B Mike Ford, and 3B Miguel Andujar.

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Miguel Andujar needs to get better on the defensive-side of the game (Martin Griff)

Andujar, signed by the Yankees in 2011 out of the Dominican Republic as an International Free Agent, has also shown his “teachability” factor as well. He watches video the night before a game, studying his flaws, his strengths, and his results. He was known by all that worked with him in Tampa as eager to listen and learn. His patience was notable. Smart hitter, good power and, with good lift in his swing, he puts that barrel on the ball and can launch it.

“He just needs to clean up his defense,” the scout observed.

Recent Thunder graduates also got a mention that day. The scout’s considered opinion was that shortstop Tyler Wade and centerfielder Dustin Fowler are of the most underrated in the Yankees system. Both are hitting well for Triple-A Scranton.

Fowler, he said, doesn’t strike out much, steals bases and can hit, using the whole field. With Wade, he sees the intangibles mixed with solid contact, like gap-to-gap power.

“He also has great makeup,” he continued.

Makeup. When it’s all said and done, without good makeup, making it to the majors, and sticking, gets harder. They learn this at each level. Just look at the questions about Mateo. No one’s concerned much about the talent. It’s the upstairs rooms that need light or everything below, the arm, the flashy defense, the ability to come through at the plate, that won’t be enough.

In Trenton, the high level of talent continues to arrive. The learning also continues.

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