THUNDER PITCHING STAFF LOOMS AS STRONG ONCE AGAIN

Thunder Pitching Coach Tommy Phelps (right) should have a wealth of pitching at his disposal in 2011. (Schofield)

TAMPA, Fla. – Thunder Pitching Coach Tommy Phelps walked over with a smile and handshake.

“What’s the weather like in Trenton? Do you still have snow up there? He quipped.

Informed the forecast called for the temperature to reach into the 70s in the Greater Trenton area Friday, and Thursday night was certainly on the mild side, he remained quite unimpressed.

“That may be today and tomorrow,’’ said Phelps, a native of Valrico, Fla., who graduated from Robinson High in Tampa in 1992. “But I know it will be cold when I get there.’’

Phelps also knows the Thunder pitching staff will sizzle.  The amount of talent that will both start the season in Trenton, and later arriving at Waterfront Park is immense.

To begin with, a lot of attention, right from the start, will be focused on lefty Manny Banuelos and righty Dellin Betances.

“I can’t wait to have those kids, for as long as we have them,’’ said Phelps.

Neither Banuelos nor Betances can wait to get to Trenton as well. Both are having a great time in spring training – still stationed with the Yankees – but know where an exciting 2011 will start.

“I saw a bit of what the Eastern League was all about at the end of last season,’’ said Banuelos.  “I can’t wait to get back there. It brings me closer to my dream of being in the big leagues.’’

Betances is also anxious. He wants to show that he can pitch 150 innings and has put his injury situation in the past.

“Injuries have held me back,’’ Betances said. “Now, however, I’m healthy and I want to make all my starts this season. I’ve also worked very hard to improve my defense, make the plays I need to when the ball is hit to me.’’

Phelps agrees defense is the final piece of the puzzle for Betances as long as he stays healthy.

“The pitches are there,’’ he said. “His defense is the main part of his game we need to bring along.’’

After Betances and Banuelos, Phelps is pleased with the work of righties Graham Stoneburner, Craig Heyer and lefty Shaeffer Hall. Righty Cory Arbiso is also in the mix.

“We’ll see how it all shakes out toward the end of spring training, but I expect all those guys to be in Trenton this year. And I like what we have below.’’

One performer who has stood out is righty Chase Whitley, who served as Staten Island’s closer in 2010, but has a starter’s array of pitches.  The Yankees are looking at his possibilities quite closely.

While Whitley will likely start at Class-A Advanced Tampa, he has impressed Phelps while performing with the Double-A Working Group, the embryonic form of the 2011 Thunder.

“I really like Whitley’s stuff,’’ said Phelps after his effort in an intrasqaud game Thursday.  “He’ll likely be at Tampa as a reliever, but we’ll see how things progress.’’

Thunder skipper Tony Franklin is also excited, once again, by the pitching his club might be blessed with. Two Eastern League Championships and another League Championship appearance have been accomplished with a backbone of pitching.

“If you don’t pitch, you don’t win,’’ said Franklin.  “It’s as simple as that. We’ve been blessed with great arms, and it looks like we will again this season.’’

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

LEFTY WITH A GOOD HOOK: Also in the Thunder mix, as a bullpen specialist, is 27-year-old southpaw Naoya Okamoto.

He was signed by the Yankees after having pitched in Japan and Mexico, and has a slithery breaking pitch that freezes lefty hitters.

As the Yankees evaluate him, don’t be surprised if he begins the season as a situational reliever for the Thunder.

Baselines is providing daily spring-training reports from the Thunder camp in Tampa, Fla. Comments are welcomed below, or at jed.weisberger3@gmail.com.  Follow on Twitter at @jedleyq.

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