Perhaps the 2014 Double-A Trenton Thunder’s 67-75 record wasn’t impressive, especially coming off an Eastern League Championship in 2013.
But with a look below the surface, one can easily see what a success the season was at the level known for separating suspects from prospects.
“We didn’t win as much as we have in the past, and it’s nice to have winning with development, which comes first,” said veteran Trenton manager Tony Franklin. “We had a young team this year, with a lot of players experiencing the Double-A level for the first time.
“Naturally were there were some struggles, but also a lot of success. Development is our job, first and foremost, and this was an excellent year for that. Many guys played well, improved and moved up. I was real pleased with our year.”
There were several players who forced their way to higher levels, beginning with second baseman Rob Refsnyder got a lot of people excited in his 60-game stint in Trenton, hitting .342 (78-for-228) with an impressive OPS of .933. The 23-year-old, a fifth-round pick by the Yankees in 2012, went on to bat .318 (164-for-515) between Trenton and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
“Rob showed a lot of confidence and was real comfortable at bat,” said Franklin. “He deserved his promotion and knows what he has to work on. He improved a lot while he was here.”
Refsnyder is working hard over the winter to improve his defensive skills at second base. There could be a battle between he and Jose Pirela for the Yankees ‘ second-base job in Spring Training.
Two outfielders pushed their way into recognition as well, forcing promotions, Taylor Dugas and Jake Cave.
Dugas showed a hustling style of play in 54 games at Trenton, batting .294 (75-for-177) and was pushed to Triple-A SWB, where he hit .305 (53-for-174). At both spots, his outfield play was strong.
“Taylor played real well for us, and, after his promotion showed something as his average actually improved,” said Franklin. “In development, that’s a real accomplishment.”
Cave, another hustling type, a former high-school pitcher who threw a 94-mph fastball, came to Trenton when Dugas went to Scranton. The 21-year-old, a sixth-round 2011 pick who missed the entire 2012 season with a right knee injury, batted .273 (48-for-176) in 42 games as an excellent lead-off hitter. He drew comparisons to a past Thunder star.
“Cave really reminds me of Brett Gardner when he was in Trenton in 2007,” said a scout from a National League team. “He has a lot of the same makeup.”
Cave is still growing, and hits a lot of shots into the gap, as did Gardner in his development days. He’ll start in Trenton in 2015 and appears poised for a breakout year.”
The efforts of Dugas and Cave left fellow outfielder Mason Williams in the Diamond Dust. Williams, showing little aptitude at the plate, hit just .223 (113-for-507) with a paltry .593 OPS. What is so frustrating is Williams, defensively, tantalizes with a game that legitimately major-league ready, playing the best center field in Trenton since Austin Jackson.
Catcher Gary Sanchez, the Yankees’ top prospect heading into 2014, improved both on and off the field. He matured and began to take the game more seriously after an early suspension and batted .270 (116-for-429) with 13 homers and 65 RBIs. He is ready for Triplr-A in 2015.
“Gary learned a lot about the game, and what he needs to put into it to succeed at the major-league level,” said Franklin.
Greg Bird impressed almost all observers after his promotion to Trenton after Peter O’Brien was traded to Arizona for Martin Prado. He showed an advanced approach at the plate, power and excellent defense in 27 games in Trenton, batting .253 (24-for-95) with seven homers.
“I just want to keep working to get better,” said Bird. “My goal is to be be the first baseman for the Yankees.”
Outfielder Tyler Austin hit over .300 in July and August, only to have his season end a week early due to “personal reasons” after bating .275 (109-for-396). He is off to a strong start in the Arizona Fall League, which could decide if the Yankees expose him to the upcoming Rule 5 Draft.
Shortstop Ali Castillo was superb in the field and picked up his hitting to bat .254 (104-for410) with 17 stolen bases. He could make himself a factor at his position in the future.
The lead pitching story in Trenton – and perhaps the Yankees organization – was right-hander Jaron Long, the son of Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long, who, displaying a darting sinker-slider combination, was 7-2, 2.35 with the Thunder and 12-5, 2.18 overall among the Thunder, Tampa and Charleston. His strikeout/walk ratio was an impressive 122-22 as his sinker dominated hitters at three levels.
“And Jaron got better at each level,” said Franklin. “He showed stuff that can play in the major leagues.”
Among starters, lefty Matt Tracy was 8-2, 3.26, while righty Zach Nuding was 7-2, .271. Both also spent time at Triple-A Scranton, where such success was not duplicated. Right-hander Bryan Mitchell was 2-5, 4.84, but pitched better at both Triple-A and with the Yankees.
Left-hander Jacob Lindgren showed an awesome array of pitching skill in eight Trenton appearances, registering a 1-1, 3.86 mark to conclude a 2-1, 2.16 overall mark from the Gulf Coast League to the Thunder after being drafted out of Mississippi State this past June. He struck out 48, walk just 13 and held opposing hitters to a .135 average overall.
Left-hander Tyler Webb and right-hander Nick Rumbelow also displayed raw talent, and earned promotions to Triple-A Scranton, while left-hander James Pazos, displaying a fastball that hit 95 mph, was 0-1, 1.50 in 28 appearances and 42 innings and emerged in Trenton. He held Eastern League hitters to a .190 average.
So this was not an 80-plus-win season in Trenton, but, as Franklin mentioned, it was an excellent development season.