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Bringing the Thunder: Five Baby Bombers to Watch at Double-A Trenton

04/11/2013 10:47 AM ET
By Lou DiPietro

Kyle Roller led Class-A Tampa with 18 home runs and 85 RBI in 2012. (AP)
As they head home to begin their first season at the much-upgraded and newly-renamed ARM & HAMMER Park, the Trenton Thunder stand at 3-3 through the first week of the 2013 Eastern League schedule.

Like their big brothers up in Scranton, the Thunder roster contains a handful of the organization’s most notable future stars; outfielders Tyler Austin and Slade Heathcott are both in the Top 4 on every major outside ranking of Yankees prospects, outfield mate Ramon Flores is on the 40-man roster, and LHPs Francisco Rondon and Nik Turley and both on that 40-man roll as well.

Another 40-man rosteree, RHP Jose Ramirez, will likely join the Thunder once healthy, and there’s a chance that fellow top prospects Mason Williams, Gary Sanchez, and Angelo Gumbs could get a promotion from Class-A Advanced Tampa at some point during the season.

Obviously, however, there will be more to the team’s active roster than just that group, and among the two dozen on Trenton’s scroll right now are a handful of other players who could have a huge impact in New Jersey’s capital this year and eventually The Bronx – a quintet of which we’ve spotlighted below in honor of the Thunder’s home opener.

RHP TOM KAHNLE
Drafted in the fifth round in 2010, Kahnle has advanced one level through the system every season, and finds himself back in Trenton to start 2013 after joining the Thunder last fall for their postseason run.

Last year, Kahnle was 2-1 with a 2.45 ERA and six saves in 30 games for Class-A Advanced Tampa and made one appearance for the Thunder, striking out 74 batters in 57 overall innings to bring his career totals to 211 K’s in 154 IP, or a 12.33 K/9 ratio.

The native of Latham, N.Y., joins seven of his fellow 2010 draftees (and potentially a few more) in trying to help the Thunder return to the Eastern League Championship Series this season, but if he continues his bullpen dominance, he could earn a call to Scranton sooner rather than later – especially if fellow strikeout machine Mark Montgomery, who is currently at Triple-A, ends up in the Bronx at some point.

1B KYLE ROLLER
Roller is another 2010 draftee, coming in the eighth round, and he put up a solid overall season in Tampa in 2012, hitting .266 and leading the team with 18 homers and 85 RBIs. That earned him his first taste of Major League camp this spring, and also a promotion to Trenton to begin 2013.

First base is a bit of a log jam in the Yankees organization right now, so he will more than likely end up spending the entire season in Trenton; that said, however, Roller is off to a hot start, hitting .300 with a home run and six RBIs through the first six games, and he could be the middle of the order force (similar to Luke Murton in 2012) that carries the Thunder back to the playoffs.

OF NEIL MEDCHILL
This summer looks to be one of redemption for oft-injured 25-year-old Medchill, who earned his first promotion to Trenton last year, but had it quickly taken away. After a strong start in Tampa, Medchill came up to Trenton and hit .276 with five homers in his first 17 games with the Thunder, but went on the DL with a severe lower left leg injury – his third season-interrupting injury in four years – and missed the remainder of the year.

Entering 2013, Medchill had yet to really blossom because of all the setbacks, but he hit .368 with two homers, eight RBIs, and a 1.244 OPS in the first week of this season, and should continue to get plenty of playing time as part of a four-man DH/outfield rotation with Heathcott, Austin, and Flores. With the outfield also being stacked in the organization and three top prospects in his own, Medchill is another who could spend all year at Double-A, but join Roller in providing a solid middle-order punch.

C J.R. MURPHY
As John Flaherty pointed out in a pre-season preview, Murphy’s name is starting to get mentioned a lot more when discussing the organization’s catching depth, and with him being the everyday guy at Trenton this year, he seems to be second in line behind Austin Romine as the heir apparent to the Yankees’ backstop gig.

Murphy split 2012 between Tampa and Trenton, hitting .248 with nine home runs and 44 RBI, and as Flaherty noted after seeing him in Major League camp this spring, his defense has improved a lot as well. He’s hitting .278 with a homer and three RBI through the first week of 2012, and as a promotion to Triple-A likely hinges on the fates of Romine and/or Tampa catcher Gary Sanchez, Murphy could get comfortable in Trenton and be a stabilizing force for a young Thunder rotation that collectively had all of two Double-A starts entering the season.

RHP CALEB COTHAM/LHP MATT TRACY
Jose Ramirez is expected to join Trenton’s rotation at some point when he is healthy, meaning one of the current five starters will be bumped. Zach Nuding and Nik Turley seem penciled in to stick in Trenton all year, so barring someone’s promotion – which seems unlikely given the group’s inexperience above Class-A – or the end of the experiment of putting Rondon into the rotation, it’s almost certainly going to be Cotham or Tracy headed back to Tampa when Ramirez is ready.

Their 2012 numbers were similar, but numbers aside, Tracy has several advantages on paper that make him more likely to stay; specifically, he’s a lefty, he skipped a level completely (moving from Staten Island in 2011 to Tampa in 2012), and he was the guy that got called up for a spot start in Scranton last September when Adam Warren and Justin Thomas were promoted to the Bronx.

However, Tracy lasted just one-third of an inning in his first Double-A start, allowing five runs on three hits and four walks against New Hampshire on Monday, while Cotham threw five innings of one-run ball and struck out five in his debut against that same Fisher Cats team a day later.

What seemed a formality last week could end up being a horse race, with both men having two or three more starts to show they belong.

Follow Lou DiPietro on Twitter: @LouDiPietroYES

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