BaseLines will begin its spring-training coverage of what will emerge as the 2011 Thunder a week from today.
Experience has taught us, while each spring training is different, many facets of it are the same. There are still some members of what will be the 2011 Thunder with the Yankees a few blocks from the Minor League Camp on Himes Avenue in Tampa.
As a result, the Double-A Working Group, alias the Thunder, will be working with a lot of eventual Class-A players in its first game at Bradenton March 19 against what will become the Altoona Curve. Meanwhile, there are 10 important situations facing what will become the 2011 Thunder:
- Who’s On First? – No offense to Abbott and Costello, but this is a major question at this point. Brad Suttle appears the logical choice, especially with both David Adams and Corban Joseph likely to start with the Thunder. Interestingly, Jose Gil, the likely No.1 Thunder catcher, has also been working at first in some big-league games.
- Who’s Catching? – It looks like Gil, with Kyle Higashioka serving as backup. Gary Sanchez is at least a year away, while prospect J.R. Murphy, in Class-A ball, may not remain a catcher. With Francisco Cervelli’s injury – a rehab with the Thunder is not out of the question– it is quite apparent Jesus Montero will open the season in Pinstripes, with Austin Romine in the Anthracite Valley.
- Who’s In The Outfield? – Melky Mesa will be the center fielder. If he improves his plate discipline, he is an MVP candidate and could repeat his Florida State League honor. He has power, speed and an above-average arm. Thunder manager Tony Franklin can’t wait to get him. Otherwise, who will return? Austin Krum, Dan Brewer? Damon Sublett? Who will arrive? Abraham Almonte, Ray Kruml? Others? It’s interesting.
- Who’s In The Infield? – Apparently Jose Pirela, who had more than 50 errors last season, is the favorite at shortstop. Then we have Adams and Joseph and second and, likely third. A few others, led by Walter Ibarra, could also vie for spots on the roster at the corner positions. We’re quite anxious to see Pirela, remembering a youngster named Jeter had over 50 errors at short when he was a Class-A player.
- Will Banuelos, Betances Dominate?– While both have grabbed both headlines and interest with their Grapefruit League efforts, challenges await the pair in Trenton and the Eastern League. Both need to throw at least 150 innings. Betances needs to continue to improve his command and Banuelos must go deeper into games. The two are superb talents, but talents whose skills are just developing.
- Who Rounds Out The Pitching Staff? Depending on how matters shake out, right-hander Adam Warren could return to the Thunder, or he could join righty Andrew Brackman in Scranton. Righty Cory Arbiso returns, while righty Graham Stoneburner and lefty Shaeffer Hall are in the wings. Looking for a darkhorse? Perhaps lefty Josh Romanski.
- A Key Season For Pat Venditte – The switch-pitcher is no longer a novelty. He will be counted upon to get some key outs and close out some games. His stuff is stronger from the right side, but also can be effective from the left. How he performs will have a major effect on the Thunder bullpen, no matter who his relief mates are.
- Who Will Supply The Power? – The same question was asked last year at this time, and Brandon Laird and Brewer had breakout seasons and powered the Thunder offense. Mesa is capable of hitting 25 home runs if he controls the plate better. A healthy Suttle has the potential to hit 12-15 circuit shots. Adams and Joseph are good contact hitters, with Adams having a little power. The Thunder offense should be more than adequate.
- Could A Hitter Come Out Of Nowhere? – Former Atlanta top pick Cody Johnson, who plays first base and the outfield, has immense power. He also has recorded immense strikeout statistics. The Yankees are taking a chance on his power and, if his plate discipline improves and he dominates the Florida State League early, you’ll see him in Trenton.
- Could A Pitcher Come Out Of Nowhere? – Absolutely, especially in the bullpen. Two Staten Island fireballers might be ready to help the Thunder in 2011. Righty Tommy Kahnle’s fastball registered 98 mph last season, and he has a slider to go with it. Righty Chase Whitley recorded 15 saves as the SI Yanks’ closer last season and the velocity on his fastball is about 92-93 and increasing. He also has solid secondary pitches.
A THUNDER FAVORITE RETURNS AS A COACH:
Justin Pope, a past Thunder favorite as the club’s closer, returns to Trenton as a coach on manager Tony Franklin’s staff. Pope, 31, will assist pitching coach Tommy Phelps in handling the Thunder staff.
Pope’s Staten Island staff had the fewest walks (204) in the New York-Penn League in 2010 as he worked with Kahnle and Whitley and starters like right-hander Mike O’Brien. His final season as an active player was in 2008 with Reading.
Tim Lentych will also return for his fourth season with the Thunder.
FROM MAINE TO OHIO AND VIRGINIA: The Altoona Curve will have Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons on hand for the club’s April 15 with Richmond … The Harrisburg Senators are joining the All-You-Can-Eat Club, offering a Scoreboard Seat with all the hot dogs, slider burgers, peanuts, popcorn, and ice-cream sandwiches you can eat for $16 … Catcher Ryan Lavarnway, ticketed to start in Portland, is having a strong early spring training in the Boston camp in Fort Myers, Fla. … One Reading Phillies fan will win a 550-pound, life-sized Ryan Howard garden gnome … Akron’s 1-pound, 16-inch long hot dog earns the BaseLines Spring Training Award for the Most Challenging Culinary Item announced so far.