TRENTON, N.J. – Last week, Trenton Thunder manager Al Pedrique, answering a question about first baseman Greg Bird, filled his face with a wry grin.
“Back in spring training, everyone was telling me I should run away with the Eastern League,” said Pedrique. “I told them I had no idea how long I would be able to keep guys like Greg at Double-A.”
Not just Bird, but pitchers Luis Severino, Brady Lail, Nick Goody, James Pazos outfielders Mason Williams, Aaron Judge and Jake Cave, catcher Gary Sanchez and others. Then there were injuries which took left-handed starter Miguel Sulbaran and third baseman Eric Jagielo – two players who were counted on to be key contributors – out for the season at mid-season.
Opening Day, Judge was the Thunder’s clean-up hitter. Labor Day, it was hustling outfielder Mark Payton, all 5-foot-7 of him. No more needs to be said. Given a total of 200 transactions, plus constantly changing lineups in the second half of the season, and Pedrique did well to pilot his club to a 71-71 mark.
More than half the original Thunder roster of 25 – 10 at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and four with the Yankees – are in the International League postseason or a major-league pennant race.
“The satisfying part about all this is our coaching staff was able to move a lot of players along,” said Pedrique. “That is a credit go them. You see that with good players, ones you know will make the majors.
“What we did was work with the other players, who all have potential, to make them better, and I feel we did that.”
Certainly that was the case with outfielder Danny Oh, who batted .293 (71-for-242) in 67 games with the Thunder. He was the best of a lineup that had speed, rather than power as a top tool in late July and August. Oh is an excellent contact hitter who struck out just 33 times in 256 plate appearances.
“When we lost our power, we had to switch the way we played,” said Pedrique. “Our guys worked counts, stole bases and we tried to manufacture runs. It was a grind.”
With the system’s upper minors getting younger, the Yankees tried to supplement the Thunder’s loss of power with some veterans. Infielder-outfielder Rob Segedin hit .303 (27-for-89), blasting three homers and driving in 19 runs in 25 games after taking his demotion in stride.
“I’m just trying to make a contribution here and show the Yankees I can do just that,” said Segedin.
Things did not go as well for outfielder Tyler Austin, who hit .260 (20-for-77) with just eight RBIs in 21 Thunder games and was DFA, his once shining prospect star having dimmed.
The Thunder pitching staff ended with an ERA of 3.40, third in the Eastern League, despite losing much of the original rotation to promotion and injuries.
Lefty Caleb Smith had an excellent second half, finishing 10-7, 3.37 in 26 appearances (24 starts). His command improved as the season went on. Righty Eric Ruth was 9-5, 3.20 in 20 appearances (19 starts). Righty Lail was 6-4, 2,45 in 20 appearances (19 starts) and earned his promotion to Triple-A Scranton..
Right-handers Cale Coshow and Rookie Davis got a taste of Double-A and preformed well the last few weeks of the season.
Players move more quickly through the system under Gary Denbo than they did under Mark Newman. The talent level has risen immensely as compared to five years ago.
The Thunder season can be divided into two halves – one with overpowering pitching and a power-laden lineup, the other with solid pitching and a small-ball attack. It was fascinating to watch.
The result was a .500 season in which a representative group – led by Oh – played hard and got better.