DARKHORSE CANDIDATES WHO COULD CLAIM 2011 THUNDER ROSTER SPOTS

Thunder fans are already familiar with many of the players who will make up manager Tony Franklin’s 2011 Thunder roster.

             Obviously Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos will anchor the starting pitching staff.  Melky Mesa and the possible return of Dan Brewer are the outfield stalwarts. Austin Romine quite possibly will return at catcher, while David Adams and Corban Joseph will anchor the middle infield.

             Those players give the Thunder as solid a core to start as any 2011 Eastern League team and the prospect of having most of the above prospects in his clubhouse and dugout certainly has Franklin excited.

            “I know we’ll have a lot of good players battling for playing time,’’ said Franklin, who will be returning for his fifth season and will assemble the rudiments of the 2011 Thunder in Tampa March 7.

            “I know it’ll be a good mix,’’ Franklin said. “Some of the younger guys, like Betances and Banuelos got a lot of valuable experience at the end of last season. And the guys at Tampa won another (Florida State League) championship last season.

             “They’ll be looking to put together another good season.’’

             The core aside, Franklin will be looking to call on players fans are not familiar with. Will someone emerge like Brandon Laird did in 2010?  There are several candidates who may not contribute the production of Laird, but could help this upcoming Thunder club.

             Here’s a position-by-position look at who might surprise in spring training and be given a ticket to Waterfront Park. We’ll look at the pitchers next week.

CATCHER

             If Romine is pushed back to Double-A with Jesus Montero starting at Triple-A Scranton, he’ll obviously be the opening starter.  Jose Gil, who hit .236 (25-for-106) is a capable backup.  It’s doubtful Gary Sanchez will be ready for Trenton until 2012 at the earliest, but Mitch Abeita, who hit .273 (70-for-256) at Tampa in 2010, could be in the picture.

FIRST BASE

             A solid spring training could land a darkhorse this position. Candidates include Trent Lockwood, who hit .257 (75-for-292) for Tampa in 2010, and Addison Maruszak, who hit .284 (69-for-243) with the T-Yanks.  Luke Murton, brother of former big-leaguer Matt Murton, hit .282 (112-for-397) with 12 homers and 55 RBI at Class-A Charleston.

SECOND BASE    

             Really no darkhorse here, as Adams, who batted .309 (47-for-152) and drove in 32 runs in 39 games prior to breaking his ankle, will likely return. He also did not commit an error in 39 games. Also around will be Joseph, who batted just .216 (24-for-111) on 31 games with the Thunder, but had an All-Star season in Tampa, batting .302 (115-for-381) in the Florida State League.

SHORTSTOP 

            Spring training will decide what happens here. Luis Nunez, who batted .241 (108-for-449) could return, but Walter Ibarra hit .301 (74-for-246) at Tampa last season – and filled in with the Thunder in 2008 – deserves a shot. There also is Jose Pirela, who batted .252 (125-for-497) at Tampa.

THIRD BASE

             Again healthy, Brad Suttle, who batted .272 (140-for-514), with 33 doubles, 10 homers and 80 RBIs could be a key performer with the Thunder. He bounced back after missing all of 2009 with injuries and surgery. Joseph may get some work here as well if Adams is on the roster.

OUTFIELD

             Mesa will be the starter in center field after his Florida State League MVP season in 2010. He batted .260 (116-for-446) with 19 homers and 74 RBIs and stole 31 bases.  The feeling is Brewer, who hit .270 (137-for-508) with 10 homers and 84 RBIs could return as Laird patrols an outfield position in Scranton and the acquisition of Jordan Parraz, also likely to play at Triple-A.

             Damon Sublett, who batted just .214 (24-for-172) in an injury-truncated 35-game season, will return.  An interesting candidate is Ray Kruml, who has outstanding speed and stole 42 bases between Charleston and Tampa and is a bit older at 25. 

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              IT WON’T BE LONG:  The Yankees will gather with their roster and spring-training invitees in Tampa Feb.  13. The minor-leaguers are scheduled to report March 7, with intrasquad games at the Himes Avenue Complex March 17-18.

             The initial minor-league Grapefruit League games will take place March 19.

             Usually the Double-A working group, which will eventually become the Thunder, does not receive its full complement of players until right before camp breaks in April, but the earlier games give hopefuls a chance to state their respective cases.

             Many minor-leaguers receive looks in the major-league camp and play in many of the Yankees spring-training games. Players can also switch working groups for a day or play in games at different levels on a given day.

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             WINTER-LEAGUE ROUNDUP:  Playoff time has arrived in all the Caribbean Winter Leagues, leading to the Caribbean World Series in Mayaguez, P.R., a two-hour-drive from San Juan.

             Two former Thunder players helped Culiacan edge Mazatlan, 4-3, in the Mexican Pacific League playoffs. Jorge Vazquez tied the game in the eighth inning with a double for the Tomateros before Sergio Gastelum singled to score Ramiro Pena, who pinch-ran for Vazquez.

             Other players with Thunder connections involved in Winter League play include:

  • Outfielder Justin Christian hit .356 (90-for-253) with Mochis, which also won its opening playoff game.
  • Catcher Jose Gil batted ..247 (19-for-77) for Caribes in the Venezuelan League.
  • Infielder Walter Ibarra hit .303 (47-for-155) for Hermosillo, which lost its first MPL playoff game.
  • Infielder Luis Nunez hit .361 (13-for-36) in limited action with Zulia of the Venezuelan League.
  • Lefty reliever Wilkins Arias was a solid 3-0, 3.21 in 17 games with Aguilas of the Dominican League, that included the serving of a suspension for pitching in a game in which he was apparently not on the active roster.

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               FROM MAINE TO OHIO AND VIRGINIA:  Chris Tremie will manage Akron in 2011, while indications are Wally Backman will be the skipper at Binghamton, although the Mets have not officially announced his appointment … Although new Red Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez came via trade from San Diego, he was originally a Marlins draftee and played in Portland in 2002, batting .266 (135-for-508) with the Sea Dogs in their final season as a Florida affiliate.

              BaseLines appears weekly on www.trentonthunder.com .  Comments are suggested and welcomed below, or at jed.weisberger3@gmail.com. Follow on Twitter @jedleyq

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