The Thunder have had the good fortune of basking in four memorable celebratory champagne showers over the course of the last two seasons. Despite running roughshod through the Eastern League and tying a franchise record with 92 victories in 2017, the Thunder were again left speechless while they were forced to endure the agony of hearing an opponent celebrating a championship victory just a few feet down the hall in the other clubhouse. After the Akron Rubber Ducks swept their way to the ELCS over the Thunder in 2016, the Altoona Curve had the same fortune in 2017.
“It was a good year, but I would give all of those records away to win a championship and bring a championship to Trenton,” admitted Mitchell. “That’s why I think that it is disappointing; we had a good year, but we didn’t have a great year because we didn’t finish it.”
The Thunder spent every day of the 2017 season in first place from April 24 on, and won their first division title since 2012. They led the league in team ERA (2.83), hits allowed (1057), runs allowed (442), and strikeouts (1160) while shattering the team record for shutouts in a season with 20. Southpaw Justus Sheffield and Taylor Widener combined to throw a postseason no-hitter against Binghamton in the division series.
Mitchell, who was named the 2017 Eastern League Manager of the Year, has now guided the Thunder to the two most successful seasons in franchise history in back-to-back years. In his two season stint at the helm, Trenton has posted a 179-103 record; one of the very best marks in all of professional baseball.
All has broken right for the Thunder over the course of the last two seasons. The stars seemed aligned well enough for the franchise to capture their first EL title since 2013, but late postseason blunders have cost them dearly.
The 2017 season for Trenton is one that will be remembered for the history making moments, high-profile prospects and a constantly changing roster. When the season opened back in April, a legitimate case could be made that the Thunder had the most talented roster in all of minor league baseball. But, between promotions, injuries and an active trade deadline by the Yankees, the roster was left barren throughout the season. Still, the winning continued despite a revolving door roster that used 225 roster moves between regular and postseason play.
Top-prospect Gleyber Torres was promoted early in the season to Triple-A as were starting pitchers Chance Adams and Domingo German. Third baseman Miguel Andujar was gone before July as was outfielder Billy McKinney. Pitcher Ronald Herrera went up to the big leagues before landing in SWB. Pitcher Josh Rogers went down with a season ending elbow injury and Sheffield missed nearly all of July and August with an oblique injury. Then came the trade deadline when the Bombers opted to be buyers and make run at the postseason. Suddenly, shortstop Jorge Mateo was dealt to Oakland, pitcher Zack Littell went to the Twins, pitcher Yefry Ramirez, the team lead in wins, was dealt to the Orioles while outfielder Tito Polo was sent to the White Sox.
No matter who was penciled in the lineup each day, the guidance of Mitchell and the culture in the clubhouse seemed to squeeze every ounce of potential out of the roster that was compiled at a given juncture of the schedule.
The two mainstays of the roster, all-stars Thairo Estrada and Zack Zehner, proved to be the heart and soul of the team. Estrada, who hit for the cycle in the ELDS, led the team in AB (495), runs (72), hits (149), total bases (194) while finishing with a .301 average in 122 games. Zehner, the all-star game MVP, played in 128 games and hit 11 homers with 68 RBI and slashed .260/.355/.408.
Outfielder Jeff Hendrix and second baseman Nick Solak came up in early August following the trade deadline and impressed in their first action at the Double-A level. Hendrix, a 2015 fourth round draft selection out of Oregon State, stepped into the leadoff spot to fill the void left by Mateo and slashed .333/.417/.375 and was five-for-six in stolen base attempts in 32 games at the Double-A level. The 22-year old Solak was drafted by the Yankees in the second round in the summer of 2016 out of Louisville and has showcased a plus-bat while working hard to improve at second base defensively. In 30 games with the Thunder, the organizations ninth ranked prospect according to MLB Pipeline, hit .286 with two homers and nine RBI.
In what was an unexpected move, Yankees top-outfield prospect Estevan Florial was added to the Thunder roster following the completion of the Florida State League playoffs just in time for their ELCS matchup with Altoona. The 19-year old Florial, ranked as the fourth best prospect in the system, according to MLB Pipeline, started just one game in the series and managed to record his first hit at the Double-A level.
Right-handed pitcher Domingo Acevedo, the Yankees seventh ranked prospect, also made his Double-A debut in 2017 and went 5-1 with a 2.38 ERA in 14 starts for Trenton. The hard-throwing 23-year old was shut down in the final weeks of the season after tossing a career-high 133 innings between three levels of the system. Once Acevedo was out of the picture, fellow right-hander Dillon Tate was promoted to Trenton and made four regular season starts before making two more in the postseason. The 11th ranked prospect in the system went 1-2 with a 3.24 ERA in 25 regular season innings.
“Compared to the Florida State League, guys are zoning in on one pitch or a certain area,” Tate said. “They’re a bit more consistent with executing their plan. Guys don’t really go outside of the zone too much and they make harder contact, too.I have to make adjustments because the other guys I’m facing are better. They’re forcing me to be better in order in order to compete at this level and then be successful at this level.”
Solak, Hendrix, Florial and Tate figure to be key components of a 2018 Thunder team that will aim to play in their third consecutive Eastern League championship series, only they will hope to be the ones soaked in bubbly once the final out is made. Just who will be their manager when the new year opens? That is the question. Following their 4-2 game three loss to Altoona last week, Mitchell admitted that he would prefer to advance up to Triple-A.
“I’m not looking to stay here forever,” Mitchell said. “I love it here, but I’m also looking to possibly advance, to do Triple-A or something like that. Who knows what comes up in the winter or how the Yankees feel. If they want me to come back here, and that’s what they want me to do, I won’t mind at all, but I’m also looking to go to a higher level if I can.”
REHABS: Here are a few shots of the various major leaguers who spent rehab time with the Thunder in 2017.