Entering their 20th season in existence, the Trenton Thunder are off to a solid start.
In their first 11 games, they went 8-3, overcoming offensive issues and shaky pitching. They’ve come together as a team, with some unexpected players emerging early.
Manager Tony Franklin, returning for his seventh season to the newly named Arm & Hammer Park (formerly Waterfront Park), came back to new digs down the hall from the clubhouse. The office, equipped with a new larger flat-screen TV, was a gesture the longest-tenured Eastern League manager expressed appreciation for.
But on the night of the home opener, all the new gadgets and surroundings were only the backdrop to the real story: a team with a few highly regarded prospects, and returning guys that are developing at a promising pace.
“[Nik] Turley’s second game, he got off to a bit of a slow start. But he’s settled down. That indicates to me that he has enough to pitch here and beyond. We jumped out of the box with a tremendous offensive attack. That puts a scare in me a little bit, because you think, ‘Hey, are we going to be able to do this every night?’”
Turley’s start on the 15th was an exercise in patience. He worked it out as he went along, struggling at times, but mixing in a healthy dose of first-pitch strikes. He also consistently got the Akron Aeros to swinging and miss. But he was unable to pitch deep, lasting just 4 innings. He allowed 3 runs, two earned, on 4 hits. He gave up three walks, striking out 7. In the first inning, he threw all his pitches for strikes. But his inconsistency was an issue, and he often missed spots where catcher JR Murphy set him up. He threw a wild pitch in the 2nd.
“They’re youngsters at this level and they’re trying to find their way. It’s an adjustment period. The weather is a little bit cold. And baseball players just don’t like cold weather. They keep themselves above water until the weather gets better. It doesn’t get any warmer in New York.”
The three-game string of losses on the road didn’t seem to concern Franklin much. But he’s clear about what Yankees baseball is, and expects his players to know as well.
“We’re looking for a certain type of player,” Franklin said in matter-of-fact tone. “It takes determination.”
Murphy and Austin Bring High Expectations To Trenton
Baseball America ranked #4 Yankees prospect Tyler Austin and #15 ranked JR Murphy are the two names that jump off the roster.
But put the hype aside.
There is a lot of learning ahead, and Austin and Murphy are finding that out.
Austin’s results have fluctuated. Following a couple of multi-hit games, the right fielder went hitless for the next three. In four games, he’s followed that up with six hits total, including a five-RBI night. Franklin, for the record, mentioned the outfielder’s name first when asked who impressed him in Spring Training.
“I just haven’t been trusting my work, honestly,” said Austin. “I’m doing the right things during BP, and doing my work in the cage and I just haven’t been trusting it. The results haven’t been there. But yesterday I did it a little bit and hopefully I continue that.”
He’s coming off a season in which he was named the Yankees Minor League Player of the Year, after hitting .322 combined at three levels, including Trenton. He also set career highs in hits, runs, and doubles. This season has challenges out of the gate, but Austin is on it with a simple approach. Outside of taking more swings than he normally does, he’s keeping his routine the same.
Behind the plate, Murphy is also improving his skill set and continuing to learn himself at the plate in his first full season with the Thunder.
The catcher humorously commented on the cold weather playing a part in getting comfortable.
“The guys who are out there with no sleeves on, it’s like, ok, what does that guy have upstairs that I don’t. If you tell yourself it’s not cold, it’s not cold. But it’s still cold.”
Murphy has begun the season hitting .308 in the first ten games, 10 RBI, a home run, 2 doubles, and 6 walks.
His approach to catching echoes former Thunder catcher Austin Romine.
“I do a lot more studying of the defensive side. My job is to keep runs off the board for the other team. I pride myself on that.”
Austin clarifies that getting better at the Double-A level really is about working the process. In the end, the weather is a small part of that.
“They’re throwing some tough pitches up here. I’m not being patient. But I just need to carry what I’m doing in the cage, onto the field,” Austin said.
Tommy Phillips on Caleb Cotham, Thunder Pitching
“The main thing with Caleb is being healthy,” said Thunder pitching coach Tommy Phillips. “he came back last year and monitored his innings. He’ll throw a few more innings this year. The key is just for him to get out there and compete.”
Phillips said his slider is already a solid pitch, but the curveball, which he’s recently added, is still in the early development stages. His command of the pitch hasn’t come yet.
“He’s very good delivery-wise. The curveball is a new pitch. You have to see it and evaluate, but, I tell you what, it’s very good. It’s just a matter of him finding consistency with his path and his release point with it.”
Cotham sees a connection between all the aspects of his game. He talked about the focus that all that learning requires, certain that there is a key.
“For me, it’s about being a consistent person in general. I think if I take it day to day and have a consistent routine, be a consistent teammate, and my effort is consistent, then I think it’ll show up on the field. It’ll help me be a consistent pitcher. I don’t want to think a whole lot big picture-wise,” Cotham said.
Cotham is 1-0 with a 2.00 ERA. In two starts, he’s allowed just two earned runs on nine hits with eight strikeouts in nine innings.
“I’m working on the curveball. Eventually I’d like it to be a duel-pitch [combination]- curveball and slider. But I like to lean on my fastball. Last start was the first time I consistently used the curveball in a game.”
Phillips, in his fifth season as the Thunder’s pitching coach, has seen a lot of the Yankees top young pitchers come through the doors at 1 Thunder Road, and he sizes up what he’s already seen this year.
“It’s young…feels really young. They have to mature and learn how to face better pitchers. Here, it’s about learning how to command your pitches, learning when to change speeds. But a lot of good young arms.
With all that young pitching, there’s a young catcher in Murphy behind the plate. The importance of having a leader such as Murphy to work with the pitchers is paramount.
“Makes my job a lot easier,” Phillips said. “That’s the pitching coach out on the field. He’s the psychiatrist, so to say. He helps them get focused on the task at hand. It helps a lot, because he can communicate with you. JR is all those things. He’s intelligent and he’s going to help them mature as a group.”
Outfielder Shane Brown took the mound on April 9th, marking the first time since 2010 a position player has pitched for the Thunder. He didn’t allow a hit.
The Opening Day roster included three players on the Yankees 40-man roster: Outfielder Ramon Flores, and pitchers Turley and Francisco Rondon.
RHP Zach Nuding got the ball for the home opener, tossing the first quality start of any Trenton pitcher this season. He pitched six innings, allowing one earned run on six hits.
The newly named ballpark underwent renovations that include the addition of a 21’ x 68’ LED display in right field. Pitch speed is now displayed, as is instant replay. There are also new audio speakers, as well as an expanded production room in the press box.
Franklin’s two requests for his new office were pictures of Jackie Robinson and tennis player Arthur Ashe. The team presented him with a life-size movie poster of the new movie ‘42’, about the life of Jackie Robinson. He said he’s still waiting on the picture of Ashe.