Trenton Thunder Season In Review

Ramon Flores had a solid season this year

The Trenton Thunder had a solid regular season in 2013, finishing the year with a 74-67 record. Despite finishing 12 games out of first, they played well when it mattered, winning the Eastern League Championship for the third time in seven years. We take a look at where was the team's greatest depth, which prospects stood out, which ones could be 'sleeper' prospects down the road, and more.

The Team

The Trenton squad a very consistent team all season long. Their longest losing streak of the season was just four games, a feat they had just twice, but finished the season on a season high nine-game winning streak, including sweeping both the divisional and championship rounds of the postseason, the first team to do so since 1991.

Pitching-wise they finished third in the 12-team league in ERA [3.63] and strikeouts [1,151], and gave up the fewest home runs in the league [85], but also walked the most batters of any team in the league [597] and had the third highest WHIP ratio [1.41].

Offensively though they had their struggles, finishing in the bottom half of the league in nearly every category. They finished ninth in runs scored [609] and on-base percentage [.324], hit the second fewest home runs [88], had the third most strikeouts [1,117], and finished dead last in stolen bases [77], slugging percentage [.364] and OPS [.687].

The Greatest Depth

As bad a season as the team offensive numbers were in 2013, the disparity between pitching prospects and hitting prospects is not as wide as one might think.

Top Pitching Prospects

The clear top two pitching prospects from the Trenton staff this season were Nik Turley and Shane Greene, the latter of which was a mid-season promotion from high-A. Turley, despite issuing a career-high 73 walks, had yet another solid season overall. He held batters to a .230 average and averaged pretty much a strikeout per inning pitched, and behind the scenes he added a new cutter to his arsenal to now give him four big league average or better pitches. He simply keeps putting up solid numbers year after year.

Greene on the other hand broke out in a big way in 2013. Always known for his plus stuff as much as his propensity for walking too many guys, he dramatically cut down on the walks [by nearly three batters per nine innings] and had a career-high 137 strikeouts in 154 innings. Now that his command has caught up with the stuff, he's firmly back on the top prospect radar.

While it wasn't a banner season for left-hander Matt Tracy, including posting a 5.51 ERA and battling an injury all season long, the fact is he did make some significant strides to an already solid game. He began throwing more sinkers, added a brand new cutter that at times looked unhittable, and there were some absolute gems pitched. His biggest bugaboo right now is finding that elusive consistency to bring it all together but he is still a quality pitching prospect.

The Trenton staff also boasted a number of high-end relief pitching prospects, including Tommy Kahnle, Danny Burawa, and Francisco Rondon. Kahnle sits in the mid-90s and tops out at 98 mph pretty routinely, and has a plus big league changeup as well. He also improved his slider and overall strike-throwing ability for the second consecutive season.

Burawa, a right-hander, lowered his arm slot a bit, still sits in the mid-90s, and like Kahnle his slider and strike-throwing ability took some big steps forward in 2013. Throw in the left-hander Rondon, another mid-90s hurler with two plus secondary pitches, the Yankees have some quality relief pitching options.

The Biggest 'Sleeper'

The Trenton pitching staff has its fair share of 'sleeper' prospects on the mound, including left-handers Fred Lewis and Jeremy Bleich, and right-handers Zach Nuding, Mikey O'Brien, and Branden Pinder.

Zuding and Pinder are two flame-throwers that have the ability to sit in the mid-90s with their fastballs and showcase big league above average to plus secondary offerings at any given moment, but both lack the overall consistency with their offspeed pitches right now to be considered top pitching prospects yet. Pinder in particular has battled some control issues and Nuding, while finally showing a consistent ability to throw strikes with his slider and changeup, lacks the plus movement right now to have that go-to secondary strikeout pitch. But both offer significant ceilings.

Bleich, a former supplemental first round pick, finally pitched in his first full healthy season in over three years in 2013, and looked good in the process. He still walks a few too many guys but the stuff has come back after his shoulder surgery, sitting in the low-90s again and boasting a quality big league curveball-changeup combination. Mostly a reliever this year, he gives the organization some options as a potential starter too.

Lewis seems to be the most big league ready of the quintet. Sitting anywhere from 91-95 mph with his fastball and topping out at 97 mph, he has a plus slider in his arsenal as well as a big league average curveball-changeup combination. Like Bleich he has been used mostly as a reliever thus far but he too could be a viable starting option if the Yankees decide to go that route.

O'Brien, a smallish right-hander, is a bit of a wild card. He has been a starter most of his career and has consistently put up solid numbers. The curveball ticks above average and the fastball-changeup combo is big league average, but there have been times where the fastball creeps up into the above average vicinity or even higher in shorter relief stints. A quality pitching prospect, his biggest problem is there are other pitching options with better stuff and higher ceilings, and that could limit his opportunities in pinstripes.

Top Position Prospects

Critics of the Yankee farm system point to the 'big three' in Trenton this year as clear evidence that the developmental process has stalled somewhat since Tyler Austin, Ramon Flores, and Slade Heathcott, while all having decent seasons in their first taste of Double-A, never really put it all together in 2013.

Austin battled a wrist injury for a good portion of the year and wound up hitting just .257 with six home runs for the Thunder, a far cry from his .322, 17 home run season the year prior. The fact is though he had just 16 post All Star at-bats and deserves a mulligan going forward. There's just too much talent here.

Neither Flores nor Heathcott made major advances in their games either in 2013, but they still managed to put up respectable seasons in their first taste of Double-A. Flores at 21 was one of the youngest players in the Eastern League this year and finished his season with a team-high and career-high 77 walks to go with his .260 average, and Heathcott, who had never eclipsed more than 300 at-bats in a season in his career before 2013 [including amassing just 220 high-A at-bats], hit .261 with 37 extra-base hits. It might not have been the progress some critics expected this year, but it was progress nevertheless.

The Biggest 'Sleeper'

There's no clear-cut biggest 'sleeper' prospect from the Trenton hitters this year but there's a solid group of candidates, including shortstop Carmen Angelini, first baseman Kyle Roller, outfielder Rob Segedin, and utility man Jose Pirela.

Angelini missed the previous three seasons with an array of injuries, including hip surgery, a broken ankle, and a broken wrist, and wound up hitting a career-high .252 with 9 home runs between high-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton. There's still plenty of work to be done but the fact that he stayed healthy for an entire year after so much time off was the biggest achievement.

Segedin was on his way to a career year, hitting .338 with 13 extra-base hits in his first 18 games before he missed the remainder of the season with hip surgery. He'll need to bounce back quickly in 2014 to get his playing time opportunities but he should not be forgotten.

Roller has never been a high-average hitter and probably won't ever be one, but he's got some serious power from the left side and he gives good at-bats. He clubbed a team-high 17 home runs in 2013, which is right along his annual average over the past three seasons. He's not a top prospect by any means but with his power potential from the left side and the short porch in right field at Yankee Stadium he could get some Shelley Duncan-like opportunities if things break right for him.

Pirela is arguably the best of the lot at this point, not only for his defensive versatility [he can plan second base, outfield, shortstop, and third base], but for his offensive consistency too. Statistically he gets off to slow starts each year even though the at-bats are always quality, and then the production heats up as the weather does. He has a solid blend of power, speed, and timely hitting, and he is a viable bench player for the Yankees going forward.

Not Just Yet

There are three players who right now might not ever get their big league chances but could also sneak up on some folks down the road -- shortstop Ali Castillo, catcher Kyle Higashioka, and pitcher Sean Black.

Castillo is an absolute stud defensively, boasting great range, a superb arm, and even better feel for the game. A smallish player, however, he doesn't offer a ton of offensive upside and that might limit his opportunities. Still, the glove could take him pretty far if things break right.

The same could be said for Higashioka, a high makeup defensive catcher who also gives quality at-bats consistently but doesn't have the production to show it. He missed pretty much all of 2013 after shoulder surgery and he's a longshot at best at this point, but there's a chance he could carve himself a Drew Butera-like big league career if he can come back healthy.

Black has none of the peripherals critics like to see -- he doesn't strike out a lot of guys and he routinely gives up more hits than innings pitched. However, primarily a sinker-ball hurler, what he does well is eat innings and keeps his team in ball games. The odds might be against it but he has the chance to have an Aaron Small-like impact someday if given the opportunity.

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