Saturday, March 31, 2007

Taking it to the limit

No, this post isn't an ode to The Eagles. And I hardly feel like singing.

Right now, I'm sitting in a Starbucks in Clearwater. In less than three hours, I will board a flight home to New Jersey still without knowing the entire Thunder roster. The Yankees are apparently waiting until at least tomorrow, the end of spring training, to finish their minor league rosters.

Manager Tony Franklin gave me lists of players who potentially fill the remaining holes on the roster. But I get the feeling that there could be more shifting around tomorrow before camp breaks, and even a move or two on Monday or Tuesday. If only the Yankees decision makers would show some consideration towards us scribes who have preview stories to write. Grrrrr.

Here are the players I know are on the team, as of today:

Outfielders (4): Brett Gardner, Justin Christian, Matt Carson, Shawn Garrett. The first three all played in Trenton last year. Garrett is a veteran who has spent the last two seasons in Triple-A with the A's, Cardinals, and Phillies.

Infielders (3): Cody Ehlers, Gabe Lopez, Ramiro Pena. Kevin Howard could also come back to be the starting third baseman, but he still hadn't been moved to Double-A as of today; the other candidate is Aaron Baldiris. I've also been told that Carlos Mendoza and recent acquisition Juan Francia are also candidates.

Catcher (1): P.J. Pilittere. He'll be the starter. My guess is Jason Brown returns once again as the backup.

Starting Pitchers (5): Chase Wright, Jeff Marquez, Alan Horne, Brett Smith, and Jason Jones. Expect Wright to get the ball for Thursday's opener.

Bullpen (2): Kevin Whelan, Gerardo Casadiego. From what I've been told, as many as seven guys are candidates for the other five spots. My guess is Scott Patterson (who was called up for the major league game today), Jeff Kennard, Paul Thorp, Edwar Ramirez, and Michael Gardner. But this could change entirely due to the wild card here - Ron Villone. He has reportedly received a minor league offer to pitch for Triple-A Scranton after losing out on a major league spot to Sean Henn. If Villone accepts, I'm afraid Charlie Manning will get squeezed out of Triple-A once again.

So that's 15 out of 24 players. This really sucks when you're trying to write preview stories.

Oh well. Talk to you again tomorrow, after I get home, start my laundry, and hopefully find out more.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Here's what we know

On the second to last full day of spring training, Thunder manager Tony Franklin would only confirm Brett Gardner for his opening day roster. That makes 1B Cody Ehlers, C P.J. Pilittere, SS Ramiro Pena, and pitchers Chase Wright and Jeff Marquez, and relievers Kevin Whelan and Gerardo Casadiego as the "confirmed" members of the opening day roster.

Obviously, common sense can figure out some other likely selections. With the news today that Jeff Karstens will begin the season on the DL, the starting rotation appears to be locked into place - Wright, Marquez, Brett Smith, Alan Horne, and Jason Jones (though not necessarily in that order). Wright, who pitched solidly for the Yankees today in Lakeland (six innings, three runs), is the favorite to be the Thunder's opening night starter.

Since Kevin Thompson, Kevin Reese, and Bronson Sardinha will be the Triple-A starting outfield, Justin Christian is an obvious guess to return to the Thunder outfield. The same would seem to be true for Gabe Lopez, but he's been in Triple-A camp (and not playing much) all week. More indications are pointing toward Howard going to Triple-A and former Mets farmhand Aaron Baldiris starting at the hot corner for the Thunder.

Paul Thorp, Scott Patterson, and Jeff Kennard are three guys who could either go to Triple-A or return to the Thunder bullpen.

Here are the positions still to be settled:

*Right Field
*Reserve outfielder
*Second Base
*Third Base
*Fifth and sixth infielder
*Backup catcher
*Three middle relief spots

Yankees set roster

The Thunder still featured a work group today consisting largely of players who definitely won't be on the team when camp breaks on Sunday. But the Yankees roster is set.

*Will Nieves will be the backup catcher, beating out veteran Todd Pratt.
*Thunder alum Sean Henn will join Mike Myers as the team's lefty relievers, beating out the struggling Ron Villone
*Josh Phelps will be the righty in the first base platoon, beating out Andy Phillips

The Henn and Nieves picks are surprising only because of Joe Torre's tendency to favor veterans over youngsters who may be performing better. But while Henn hasn't been dominant in spring training, Villone has an ERA of over 14. The Nieves-Pratt debate from all accounts was very close. Phelps was the obvious choice over Phillips.

Henn's selection means that Charlie Manning is ticketed to start the season in Triple-A. I'm happy for him; he's a great guy and this is the first time he's really gotten a shot at that level. After spending most of the last four seasons in Double-A, he deserves that chance.

Today could be the day

Sorry for the lack of posts yesterday. The big news around the Thunder yesterday was that there was no news.

That should change as soon as today, as the Yankees will set their major league roster and start the final tricke-down process that will set the minor league rosters. Kevin Reese and Kevin Thompson were optioned to Triple-A after last night's spring training game in Dunedin, so Justin Christian should be back in Thunder camp today, ready to go north with the Thunder. It will be interesting to see who fills the other spots. Here is where I see the openings, entering today:

Infield: Third base, second base, and the two reserve spots. I've talked about Gabe Lopez and Kevin Howard, but both have been in Triple-A camp all week. Another name I've heard is Aaron Baldiris, a former Mets prospect.
Catcher: Backup catcher.
Outfield: Right field and the reserve spot. Matt Carson will likely get one of those, but I hope the Yankees send someone better for the starting position.
Bullpen: Three middle relief spots and closer. As I reported in Wednesday's paper, the Yankees plan to use Kevin Whelan in multiple-inning stints, like J.B. Cox and T.J. Beam were mostly used last year. That means they need a closer. Gerardo Casadiego has been in Thunder camp for several days, which leads me to believe he's a candidate for a Thunder bullpen spot.

My main in today's paper was on West Windsor native and Peddie grad Fernando Perez, who is the 15th-ranked prospect in the Devil Rays farm system. He's ticketed for Double-A Montgomery in the Southern League this season. Very nice, and extremely bright kid.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Some major league action

After filing my pieces for tomorrow's paper, I went to the major league game at Legend's Field. I got to say hello to a few Thunder alums that I covered who have since made their way to the show. Jeff Karstens said his elbow is doing better. He'll play catch tomorrow, and Joe Torre said that he could still go north with the team, instead of starting on the disabled list.

Karstens' replacement, Darrell Rasner, got shelled by the Astros - nine hits and seven earned runs in only 4 2/3 innings. Ron Villone, whom Torre ran into the ground last year (the same way he did Tanyon Sturtze and Steve Karsay in the past), fared no better, retiring none of the three batters he faced before being lifted for Sean Henn, who gave up another hit before mercifully ending the inning.

Torre said he would be open to only taking one lefty reliever (Mike Myers), though it seems hard to believe he would actually do that, since they have to face David Ortiz 19 times a year. Henn has performed better than Villone overall, but Henn has the option, and Torre tends to favor experience. If he does take Henn, Charlie Manning is pretty much assured of getting a spot in the Triple-A bullpen.

The other two major positions for the Yankees to resolve are backup catcher and the righty in the first base platoon (Josh Phelps or Andy Phillips). I expect Torre to go for experience again, meaning he'll take Todd Pratt, which means Will Nieves goes to Triple-A. That could mean the end of Omir Santos's run in the organization, as P.J. Pillitiere is ticketed to be the starting catcher for the Thunder and it's hard to see Santos being a backup here or a third-stringer in Triple-A.

Cox undergoes elbow surgery

This bit of news doesn't really affect the Thunder, since he wasn't expected to be ready to start the season anyway with Triple-A Scranton. But according to one report, reliever J.B. Cox underwent surgery this week to repair a ligament in his right elbow. Note that it was repaired, not replaced, as in Tommy John surgery. He could return this season, but likely not until at least the latter part of the summer.

As I wrote in my notebook in Tuesday's paper, Cox first experienced elbow problems when he returned from the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Cuba last September. The Thunder had planned to reactivate him for Game 3 of the Northern Division Championship Series at Portland, but he complained of a stiff elbow and didn't pitch at all.

A change in plans?

Steve Swindal may no longer be the heir to the Yankees.

Owner George Steinbrenner's daughter Jennifer filed divorce papers Tuesday in Hillsborough County (Fla.) Circuit Court Family Law Department, Yankees spokesman Howard Rubenstein said in a statement today.

This means Swindal, who was arrested for DUI in St. Petersburg on Feb. 15, could be out of the picture to run the Yankees. According to the Journal News, Steinbrenner's other two sons have not exhibited much interest in the past in owning the team. So once he dies, the possibility exists that his family could sell the team.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Notes from Day 2

*Chase Wright has got "a pretty good chance," according to minor league pitching coordinator Nardi Contreras, to get the ball for the Thunder on opening night a week from Thursday. He was the Florida State League's pitcher of the year last season. I'm looking forward to seeing him pitch at this level.

*Talked to Phil Hughes today after he had a rough (by his standards, anyway) outing in the Triple-A game. Again, he understands that he still has work to do and that his time will come. The Yankees plan to cap him at around 180 innings this season, or roughly 30 more than he pitched last year. That cap, and the pitch counts that the Yankees enacted in the second half of last season to keep him under that limit, became a story in and of themselves last summer. Former manager Bill Masse's questioning of the idea of such limits led to his dismissal from the Yankees last October.

*Jeff Marquez got rocked in the Double-A game today: eight runs on nine hits (including two home runs and two other extra base hits) in only three innings. He should join Wright at the top of the rotation. The Yankees won't publicly commit to anyone but those two and reliever Kevin Whelan yet for Trenton's pitching staff, but regardless of the specific names, that staff will include at least four or five players who have never pitched above High-A ball. Getting them to make that transition will be one of the big challenges facing new pitching coach Scott Aldred.

*Speaking of Kevin Whelan, the Yankees plan to use him in much the same way they used T.J. Beam and J.B. Cox last year: less frequent, longer outings that better allow him to develop and deepen his arsenal, rather than just coming in for the ninth inning. That seems to be the Yankees' philosophy now for developing top relief pitching prospects; they did the same thing two seasons ago with Eduardo Sierra before they sent him (along with Ramon Ramirez) to the Rockies for Shawn Chacon.

*As I posted on here last night, Randy Ruiz was not re-signed by the Yankees, and ended up in the Pirates' camp. According to Cory Giger of the Altoona Mirror, Ruiz was indeed assigned to the Altoona Curve today, meaning he'll be playing for his third Eastern League team in as many years.

*Another Thunder alum, Mitch Jones, has caught on with the Dodgers. He'll likely be assigned to Triple-A Las Vegas.

Monday, March 26, 2007

So much for easing into things!

As expected, it was a very busy first day of camp, and I couldn't fit everything that I learned into print (hence, one of the reasons for this blog). I got over to Legends Field at 9 a.m. to get my credential, then promptly headed over to the minor league complex. It was nice getting to see the players, coaches, instructors, and head honchos for the first time in months.

I also got to meet new Thunder manager Tony Franklin and pitching coach Scott Aldred. Both seem like nice people.

*Matt DeSalvo pitched in the Triple-A game, going two batters into the fifth inning while giving up two runs on three hits and three walks. In his typical elaborate but circuitous fashion, he talked about his problems last year, which were mental in origin but quickly affected him physically. Both he and the Yankee coaches feel he's back on track after his lost season. A week ago, I would have been very confident in him being sent to Trenton to start the season. But with the rash of injuries, there is a strong chance he'll start in Scranton.

*Despite the injuries, Phil Hughes will still start in Triple-A, as has been expected from the beginning. While his fastball and curveball are major-league ready, he still needs to work some on his changeup, as was evidenced by his uneven showing in major league camp. To Phil's credit, he understands this. Shows how mature he is, despite the fact that he won't even turn 21 until the end of June.

*All of the pitching injuries (Sanchez, Wang, Karstens, Jose Veras, Steven White, and J.B. Cox) have left the Scranton and Trenton pitching staffs in flux in the final week of camp. As I wrote on here before leaving, the starting infield appears mostly set, as does two of the outfield spots and the starting catcher. But the pitching, aside from starter Chase Wright and reliever Kevin Whelan, remains very wide open. One of the candidates for Trenton's rotation, Jeff Marquez, is slated to pitch in the Double-A game tomorrow.

*The Yankees decided not to retain 1B Randy Ruiz, but he may make an appearance at Waterfront Park after all. He was picked up by the Pirates, and could be assigned to the Double-A Altoona Curve if things break right. That would bring him to Trenton July 4-6.

Mark Newman told me that they didn't re-sign Ruiz because they wanted other players in their system to get those at-bats, not because of anything Ruiz did wrong, performance-wise or behavior-wise. In fact, he praised Ruiz for the way he helped turn Trenton's season around last year and his behavior.

*Another Thunder player who wasn't retained by the Yankees, pitcher Matt Childers, is in the Phillies minor league camp and will likely be assigned to Ottawa, the Phillies' temporary Triple-A locale. That franchise, which was purchased by a group led by Thunder president Joe Finley and Reading Phillies owner Craig Stein, will move into a new stadium in Allentown, Pa. for next season.

*The Thunder won the Double-A game, 7-5 over Reading, although most of the roster consisted of players who almost certainly will not be sent here. Half of my expected Trenton starting infield - Kevin Howard and Gabe Lopez - actually played in the Triple-A game today.

OK, enough blogging for tonight. Catch ya on the flip side.

Greetings from Tampa

After a relatively uneventful trip (aside from the automated shuttle between the gates and baggage claim stopping short of the terminal and needing to be restarted manually), I arrived in Tampa last night and had dinner with a friend who is in town for Yankees spring training. My hotel leaves something to be desired physically, but the location is excellent.

In about an hour, I'll head over to Legends Field to pick up my credential, then I'll go on to the minor league complex to start getting the lay of the land this morning. After that, it's off to Clearwater for the Double-A and Triple-A exhibition games this afternoon. I'll be back later tonight with the news from today (and there will be plenty).

I'm looking forward to a week of sunny, 80+ degree weather.

Here's the link to my column in today's paper.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Some wild guesses

I fly to Tampa this afternoon. Before I arrive there, here are some wild guesses for players who will come north with the Thunder a week from today. Bear in mind that, when I say "wild guesses," I really mean wild.

Infielders: Cody Ehlers, Gabe Lopez, Ramiro Pena, Kevin Howard, Grant Plumley. This is the area of the team that appears most set. Ehlers was the Yankees' Minor League Player of the Year last season and I predicted last September that he would be here to start the season (I was hardly going out on a limb, of course). Andy Cannizaro is firmly entrenched as the second baseman in Scranton, squeezing Lopez out of Triple-A once again. Pena was demoted to High-A Tampa after hitting .178 with the Thunder, then got hit with the injury bug. He'll get another chance, and at age 21, he still has time. Howard had only a so-so year with the Thunder last year. Plumley saw some time here as a utility infielder, a role he'll likely fill again. A sixth infielder, likely a DH-type, should also be assigned here before camp breaks.

Outfielders: Justin Christian, Brett Gardner, Matt Carson, Edwar Gonzalez. Barring an injury, the Triple-A outfield is set, meaning that Christian and Gardner won't get promoted right away. Gonzalez, who hit .260 last year in Tampa and has reportedly had a good camp, could compete with Carson (a combined .248 between Tampa and Trenton) for the third starting outfield spot.

Catcher: P.J. Pillitiere. From what I've heard, Pillitiere is ready for Double-A. But there is the possibility of Omir Santos getting squeezed out from Triple-A, especially if Wil Nieves and Raul Chavez are kept in Triple-A. There will obviously be a backup catcher, which could be Jason Brown.

Starting Pitching: Chase Wright is the only one I feel very confident about, especially given the injuries to Wang and Sanchez. Alan Horne, Jeff Marquez, and Brett Smith are also strong possibilities; at least 2 will likely make it, and all three could. Steven Jackson, one of the prospects the Yankees acquired in the Randy Johnson trade, was also a possibility before the injuries; now he's likely ticketed for Scranton. Matt DeSalvo is a good possibility for the fifth spot, but it could also go to Jason Jones if they decide not to make him a reliever, which one person I talked to said was a possibility.

Relief Pitching: Also very tough to predict. Kevin Whelan, one of the pitchers acquired for Gary Sheffield, should be the Thunder closer. Scott Patterson was signed out of the independent Atlantic League and was a very pleasant surprise last year; the Yankees re-signed him and will likely send him back to Trenton. While Charlie Manning is currently in Triple-A camp, he's never been able to stick in Triple-A or above before, so it wouldn't shock me to see him sent back here. Another possibility is Cory Stuart.

There will inevitably be some surprises this week, as there always are. This will be especially true with the pitching.

Talk to ya in Tampa!

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Wang to the DL

The fact that the Yankees' starting rotation has injury trouble as spring training winds down is no surprise. What is surprising, however, is who has been struck.

Former Thunder star and 2006 AL Cy Young runner-up Chien-Ming Wang will start the season on the disabled list. According to published reports, Wang was diagnosed with a Grade 1 tear of his right hamstring after pulling up during a workout on Friday, and isn't expected to return until at least late April.

Combined with Humberto Sanchez's health problems, and the Yankees' minor league starting rotations are now really in flux. Jeff Karstens is now pretty much a lock to start the season in the Yankees' rotation. If Joe Torre decides to keep a long reliever, Darrell Rasner would appear to be the guy there too.

This leaves Phil Hughes, Tyler Clippard, and Ross Ohlendorf as the only certainties to start for Triple-A Scranton. Steven White and Matt DeSalvo, given their prior experience at Triple-A, would appear to be the most logical candidates to fill the other two spots. Or the Yankees could sign a free agent in this final week of spring training.

White and DeSalvo were two guys who, as recently as earlier this week, had a chance to be sent back to Double-A to start the season, if for no other reason than getting caught in the numbers game (especially in White's case). Ditto for Jeff Marquez and/or Alan Horne in A-ball. And I had heard that there was also the possibility of Jason Jones being assigned to Trenton's bullpen, which is where he finished last season.

Now all of that is up in the air. Just one more thing to make things interesting when I arrive in Tampa tomorrow night.

Friday, March 23, 2007

A familiar face

New Hampshire manager Bill Masse isn't the only former Thunder skipper to be back in the Double-A ranks this season.

Billy Gardner, Jr. will lead the Montgomery Biscuits, the Devil Rays' Double-A affiliate this season. Gardner managed the Thunder in 2000 and 2001, and spent the 2006 campaign leading Dayton, the Low-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds.

The Thunder beat the Biscuits today, 12-3, in spring training action. Former Princeton star Ross Ohlendorf pitched for the Thunder, but forget about him starting the season near his college stomping grounds. The Yankees have tagged him for Triple-A pretty much from the time he arrived from the Diamondbacks in the Randy Johnson trade.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Willkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome!

Welcome to the Thunder Report, the Trentonian's Thunder blog. I'll be using this space to supplement the newspaper's print coverage of the Yankees' Double A affiliate.

Our coverage will kick into high gear on Monday, when I head down to Florida to chronicle the assembly of the Thunder's 2007 opening day roster. But the pieces are already beginning to fall into place. The Yankees have begun making cuts from major league camp, starting the "trickle-down effect" that will help shape the rosters for all four of their full-season minor league affiliates.

One thing I can tell you right now - the Thunder pitching staff should be very good. An outstanding draft last year, along with the Gary Sheffield and Randy Johnson trades this past winter, have given the Yankees plenty of pitching depth in their farm system. A number of those prospects will make their way to Trenton this season, either for opening night or down the road.

This is great news for Yankees fans. Aside from former Thunder star Chien Ming Wang, the Yankees' pitching staff isn't exactly young. Even the great Mariano Rivera isn't going to be closing games forever. And since free agent pitching is very overpriced ($7 million a year for Jason Marquis?!?!), it really helps if you can develop your pitching from within.

As Thunder fans, you got to see some of the Yankees top pitching prospects last summer in Phil Hughes, Tyler Clippard, J.B. Cox, Jeff Karstens, and (during the two months he was here) T.J. Beam. This summer, you'll get to see even more.

More on this and other things to watch this season in the days, weeks, and months to come. It should be an interesting summer for new manager Tony Franklin's team and the 400,000 or so who will pack Waterfront Park to see it play.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Coming Soon!

Stay tuned at for the launch of this blog, starting with live updates from the Trenton Thunder at spring training in Florida.