SOME HOLIDAY CHEER FROM A THUNDER FRIEND

             The voice on the other end of the phone brought both holiday wishes and a breath of spring.

           “How’s it going?’’ said fifth-year Thunder manager Tony Franklin, trying to dodge the torrents of rain that have struck Los Angeles. “Everything good?  Happy holidays to you and your family.

           “Tell all the fans my holiday wishes as well.’’

           The announcement of Franklin’s return has been greeted with smiles by many in the Greater Trenton area.  Yes, he’s the skipper the Yankees have assigned to their Double-A farm team, but he has become much more of that – a true friend.

            In fact, his return made me think of one of my favorite songs – Welcome Back by John Sebastian – better-known as the theme song from the Welcome Back Kotter comedy that ran from 1975-1979.

            The lyrics make sense here:

            “All the names have been changed since you hung around, but the dreams have remained and they’re turned around.’’

             The names have changed since Franklin first arrived in 2007 and, depending on the player, the dreams have turned around.

              For outfielder Brett Gardner the dreams are reality. Pitchers Joba Chamberlain, Jeff Marquez and Ian Kennedy may feel the same, but reality was different than dreams.  For Alan Horne and Chase Wright, matters have been a bit more nightmarish.

              “Every year, what excites me, is the new influx of young talent I see,’’ said Franklin.  “I have seen so many get better. I’ve seen struggles.

              “Our scouting department does a great job.  I’m certain will have another contending season in Trenton.’’

              “Who’d have thought they’d lead ya. Here where we need ya.’’

               That is the feeling of most fans. Franklin is coming back here, where he is needed.

               “I always have enjoyed my time in Trenton,’’ said the 60-year-old Franklin. “There are a lot of things, including a lot of relationships, that make it easy for me and for our players.  That means a lot to me.’’

              Franklin will inherit a team that easily could be on a par with last season’s 83-59 club, which reached the Eastern League Championship Series for the third time in his four seasons.

              The starting pitching will again be strong, anchored by lefty Manny Banuelos and righty Dellin Betances. Righty Adam Warren could return, while righties Craig Heyer and Graham Stoneburner are waiting in the wings with lefty Shaeffer hall.

              Switch pitcher Pat Venditte will be a key man in the bullpen, while the Thunder closer, with 2010 Tampa stalwart Jon Ortiz signing with the Oakland Athletics, will be determined in spring training. Perhaps righty Ryan Pope will start 2011 with the Thunder.

              “Maybe there is no clear closer right now,’’ said Franklin. “I don’t worry with the talented arms we have. We’ll certainly find somebody.’’

               In the infield, players looking to make the jump to Double-A are first baseman/outfielder Cody Johnson, a past first-round pick by Atlanta, and infielder Addison Maruszak, who is looking to stay healthy. At second base, David Adams and Corban Joseph will battle. Walter Ibarra and a possible return of Luis Nunez make up the shortstop picture, while Brad Suttle appears to have the inside track at third base.

               Speedy Melky Mesa could be set for a breakout season in 2011, while Dan Brewer could return as the veteran of the group. Jack Rye and Ray Kruml will try to scale the Double-A hurdle.

               Behind the plate, Austin Romine could start 2011 with the Thunder, with Jose Gil the backup.  Myron Leslie, recently re-signed by the Yankees, who hit .262 (68-for-250) in 80 games with Tampa in 2010 – and had a 17-homer, 100-RBI season in the Oakland system in 2006 – can catch and play first base.

               “I know we will have all the ingredients we need to contend again,’’ said Franklin.

               “Welcome Back” to that as well.

****************************

               WINTER LEAGUE REPORT: With the calendar turning, the Caribbean leagues will be heading toward the playoff and the Caribbean Series.  Infielder Jose Pirela, who struggled in the Arizona Fall League at .160 (16-for-89), has found his stroke for Zulia of the Venezuelan League, hitting .301 (25-for-83).  Other players with Thunder connections in Winter Baseball include:

  • Outfielder Justin Christian is batting .355 (84-for-236) for Mochis of the Mexican Pacific League.
  • Outfielder Colin Curtis is batting .240 (12-for-50) with Escogido of the Dominican League.
  • Outfielder Edwar Gonzalez is batting .318 (14-for-44) with Lara of the Venezuelan League.
  • Catcher Jose Gil is batting .243 (18-for-74) with Caribes of the Venezuelan League.
  • Infielder Walter Ibarra is batting .306 (41-for-134) for Hermosillo of the Mexican Pacific League.
  • Infielder Luis Nunez is batting .222 for Zulia of the Venezuelan League

****************************

FROM MAINE TO OHIO AND VIRGINIA: Veteran catcher Rene Rivera, who hit .319 (30-for-94) with 17 RBIs in 25 games for the Thunder in 2010, has signed with Minnesota … The Yankees signed another veteran catcher in Gustavo Molina … Binghamton has not named its 2011 manager. Many B-Mets fans are pushing for Wally Backman … Former Thunder Assistant General Manager and radio voice Tom McCarthy, now the TV Voice of the Phillies, will serve as the Master of Ceremonies for Reading’s annual  Winter Banquet Jan. 25.

        BaseLines appears weekly on www.trentonthunder.com. Feel free to comment below or at jed.weisberger3@gmail.com. Follow on Twitter @jedleyq.

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