Tony Franklin Reflects on Most Improved Thunder Players

After hoisting the 2013 Eastern League Championship almost one year ago, the Trenton Thunder closed out a disappointing 2014 campaign by getting swept in a four-game set by the last-place Reading Fightin Phillies on Monday. Following the 7-3 series concluding defeat, Manager Tony Franklin met with the media for the final time before heading home to his California home for the winter. In a season filled with inconsistency and under achievement, Franklin was able to take away lots of positives moving forward into 2015.

Thunder Manager Tony Franklin

Thunder Manager Tony Franklin

“There is going to be a lot of disappointment in this game,” Franklin said. “That is just the nature of this business, but you need to be able to get back on the horse and get going again.”

Franklin said that the brightest spot in a tough season was the development and improvement of the young talent that grew and matured under his tutelage. When asked who he thought had made the biggest strides from the start of the season to its conclusion, Franklin specifically pointed out catcher Gary Sanchez, outfielder Ben Gamel, shortstop Ali Castillo, and starting pitcher Jaron Long.

Sanchez, the Yankees top-position prospect, finished the season as the team leader in home runs (13) and RBI (65) in his first full-season at the Double-A level. There is little doubt about the legitimacy of Sanchez and his bat; the criticism continues to swirl around his defense behind the plate. Franklin believes that Sanchez has put forth tremendous work in order to improve his footwork and game-calling ability.

“Our catcher is just 21-years old,” said Franklin. “He hit third for us most of the year, he came in with a lot of attention on him and put up a really nice year for us. He wasn’t very good defensively earlier in the year but I think he made tremendous improvements as the year went on. I am very pleased with the way Gary held out and performed throughout the year, very pleased.”

In a season that saw the Thunder use 61 different players, the one constant in Franklin’s lineup all year long seemed to be Gamel. The scrappy 22-year old all-star led the team in both games (131) and at-bats (544) in his first full-season with Trenton. Gamel hit .261 with two homers and 51 RBI and had a team-high 142 hits and 31 doubles while playing a stellar defense across all three outfield positions.

“Gamel had to be the most un-lucky hitter that we had all year long,” admitted Franklin. “I have never seen a guy hit as many line drives as he hit this year and it seemed like every last one of them was caught. This guy put an all-star season together, which he was, and he showed it.

Perhaps the most overlooked and undervalued player on the Thunder roster is Castillo. The 2013 Eastern League Championship MVP is often heralded for his slick fielding, but Castillo quietly improved to finish the season with a very respectable .254 average with 17 stolen bases. The Venezuelan-native hit .326 in August and recorded 29 hits in the month; that is one more than he had in the months of April and May combined. Castillo worked tirelessly on his approach with hitting coach Marcus Thames and it was evident in the way he finished the season.

“Ali Castillo hit .190, .200, .203 and ends up hitting over .250,” said Franklin. “Man, that is some-kind of batting; I am very, very pleased for that kid. I think he is a tremendous defensive player and I think he could find himself at the major league level defensively right now, either at shortstop or second base. The thing for him is that he had to hit and I think what Marcus [Thames] did with him to get him over .250 was tremendous. This kid is celebrated as a Little League World Series champion and an MVP of a championship series and I think that he is going to celebrate a World Series at some point in his career.”

If it were not for the constant attention and deserved praise surrounding top-prospect Luis Severino, Long would have been heralded much more  for the season that he put together in Trenton. The son of Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long, Jaron posted seven wins in just ten starts for Trenton after winning five games in eight starts between Charleston and Tampa earlier this season. The scouts like to talk about his lack of velocity and stuff but the advantage that Long has over many of elite arms in the league is his advanced command of the strike-zone. In 155 career innings, Long has issued a mere 25 walks to the opposition.

“I think people in the organization believe that this kid can pitch,” Franklin said of Long. “There is always speculation that he doesn’t throw hard but he throws just fine for me. He put together a very good season in the time that he was here.”

Franklin added, “these guys stand out in the forefront of my mind for what they did. Hopefully they can continue to play well and keep putting numbers up on the board so they are good enough to be recognized and play in the big leagues.”

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