TRENTON – One first felt the feeling under Tampa’s warm skies last month. It was confirmed when one got to know the mix of players making up the 2011 Thunder.
It showed again as manager Tony Franklin’s roster gathered in their Waterfront Park clubhouse for the first time Tuesday. This has the potential to be some kind of season on the banks of the Delaware.
This Thunder group is talented, with the type of flexibility and versatility few Double-A Eastern League teams have been built with over the last several years.
“I have to give the Yankees scouts a lot of credit for what I have at my disposal this season,’’ said Franklin. “Naturally we have to do it on the field, but I’m quite pleased with the mix of players we have.
“If everything comes together, this will be an excellent ballclub that certainly will be able to compete.’’
For the first time, Franklin will have a pair of lefties in his starting rotation in uber-prospect Manny Banuelos and crafty southpaw Shaeffer Hall. He has a Hun School grad, Steve Garrison, who, when healthy, has near-big-league stuff.
The right-hander will start tonight’s opener vs. the Fisher Cats in Manchester, N.H.
“It’s an honor,’’ said the 24-year-old Garrison, who grew up watching the Thunder. “When you’re a kid around here, you always want to play for the Thunder and here I am.
“After playing in the Milwaukee and San Diego systems, so far from home, it’s great to be able to pitch with a team in my home area.’’
There also are righties Dellin Betances and Graham Stoneburner, two up-and-coming flamethrowers who are ready to take the next step. And if they falter, a pair of righties – veteran Cory Arbiso and newcomer Craig Heyer, who impressed in the Arizona Fall League, can either start or relieve.
“Whatever they want us to do,’’ said Arbiso. ‘’
“The bullpen or whatever,’’ said Heyer. “If I can contribute like Cory did last season, I’ll be very satisfied with myself.’’
Then there is the bullpen, with a trio of lefties – veterans Wilkins Arias, up-and-coming Tim Norton and Japanese import Naoya Okamoto, who pitched in the Mexican League last season and has a curve that freezes left-handed hitters. And, for that matter, veteran Kei Igawa, another port-sider, is also around.
Two others to keep an eye on are ambidextrous pitcher Pat Venditte and righty Fernando Hernandez, an import from the Oakland system who had 20 saves at Double-A Birmingham in the Southern League when in the White Sox chain in 2009.
“This is a big year for me,’’ said Venditte. “It’s good to have the righty-lefty options that I have, but the key is to get people out. I know the team is counting on me.’’
Franklin feels blessed.
“I know what it was like in 2007, when I had the best pitching in the world (with Ian Kennedy, Joba Chamberlain and a healthy Alan Horne leading the way), but I have to be impressed with all this as well.’’
And catching them to start will be the talented Austin Romine, who is not upset to be back at Double-A, but determined to both help the young pitchers mature and dominate offensively and defensively.
“I know I can get to the majors from Double-A,’’ said Romine, the leader in the Thunder clubhouse. “Here, I can help the young pitchers, establish the needed relationship with them, and certainly give a better account of myself offensively.
“All I can control is how I play and how I work to make myself better.’’
Myron Leslie, in Trenton for the first time, is a solid backup.
Franklin’s team will also sport an interesting infield. Brad Suttle will likely be at first, but he can also play third and is poised for a solid power year. Corban Joseph, now healthy, wants to show his “real’’ self at second. Jose Pirela and Cuban import Yadil Mujica will both spend time at shortstop, with the upbeat and determined Addison Maruszak at third.
“Last year, I just didn’t play like myself here,’’ said Joseph, who batted just .216 (24-for-111) in 31 games with the Thunder. “This year, fans will see a different player, what I’m all about. Coming to Double-A is an adjustment, and I know I’ve made it.’’
Pirela is still harnessing his talent, while Mujica is a mystery man. Some say he is like Red Sox prospect and fellow Cuban defector Jose Iglesias with a bit more power, others say “not quite.’’ He looked good in spring training.
“Pirela will probably play most of the time,’’ said Franklin. “Mujica, however, will get his chances.’’
Then there is Maruszak, who can play any position except pitcher, having learned to catch in instructional baseball over the winter.
“To get to Trenton was my first goal,’’ said Maruszak, whose vision was improved with a laser correction. “And I’m ready for the cold. When I played for South Florida, we had a Big East trip to Cincinnati and we played in the snow.
“I’ve only seen snow twice,’’ said the native of Pinellas Park, Fla., “but if you are going to play in the majors, you have to learn to play in the cold. It’s a different game, but you must adjust.’’
In the outfield, Franklin has speed like never before. Veteran Austin Krum, who had a strong spring training, moves from center to left. Newcomer Melky Mesa, a potential five-tool player who was the Florida State League Player of the Year, takes over center.
Right field can be the bailiwick of either power-hitting Cody Johnson, the former top Atlanta draft pick whose batting style is being retooled, or Ray Kruml, who has speed some compare to former Thunder star Brett Gardner. Damon Sublett and Jack Rye are also in the mix.
“Krum and Mesa will usually be out there,’’ said Franklin. “After that we certainly can mix.’’
Either Johnson or Sublett are naturals for fill the DH spot.
There is every reason to be excited about this Thunder team. Pitching, defense and power are all there. Yet, the Eastern League is loaded this season. Matt Rizzotti, who hit .361 at Reading in 2010, is back.
Erie has top Detroit pitching prospect Jacob Turner. Altoona sports Pittsburgh catching prospect Tony Sanchez. Portland has a pair of catching prospects in Ryan Lavarnway and Tim Federowicz and impressive infielder Oscar Tejeda.
Tough righty Zach Stewart is back in New Hampshire with outfielders Adam Calderone and Anthony Gose. Ex-Thunder favorite Justin Christian is in Richmond with up-and-coming infielder Charlie Culberson.
The Eastern League has not lined up like this for the past several years. Fasten your seat belts. High caliber baseball featuring our home team and its 11 Eastern League opponents is coming your way.