Despite a losing record and a failed bid to repeat as Eastern League champions, Tony Franklin’s Trenton Thunder kept playing hard even after they had been mathematically eliminated from the postseason. Franklin told us during the final homestand he stressed to his players the importance of giving it their all on every pitch, regardless of record, because it showed character, dedication, and the determination to get better. These awards, determined by Matt Kardos and myself, reflect the values that Franklin preached, as they truly are the values which help build a winning team.
MVP: Ben Gamel, OF
Also considered: Gary Sanchez, C & Ali Castillo, SS
All season long, the Thunder outfield was a revolving door of talented prospects. Mason Williams, Slade Heathcott, Tyler Austin, Jake Cave, and possibly even Taylor Dugas were all likely ahead of Gamel on the organizational depth chart to begin the season, and none could displace the 22-year-old from the lineup.
Gamel led the Thunder in hits, at-bats, doubles, and games as he earned a trip to the Eastern League All-Star game, while establishing himself as a potential major leaguer in the future. Gamel was one to hustle game in and game out, and Tony Franklin frequently spoke of him when talking about consistency. As a player who gave it his all every single day, and produced well enough that Tony Franklin was working top prospect outfielders around him in the line-up, Gamel cemented himself as one of the most valuable players in the league.
In terms of pure offensive numbers, one can argue Sanchez should have won this award. However, his mid-season benching, coupled with his not-so-improved defense helped make it easier to give Gamel the nod here.
Pitcher of the Year: Jaron Long, RHP
Also considered: Luis Severino, RHP
Jaron Long has truly come out of nowhere in 2014, just one year after going undrafted out of Ohio State. The 23-year-old son of Yankee hitting coach Kevin Long overpowered hitters in A-ball before making it to Trenton in time to make 11 appearances, 10 of which were starts.
Over 69 innings with the Thunder this season, Long went 7-2 with a 2.35 ERA and a WHIP of 1.06. In most outings which I saw him, Long was simply dominant, looking heads and shoulders above opposing hitters. His future is likely only that of a back-end starter at the big league level, but Long was the Thunder ace in the second half of the 2014 season.
I could certainly see the argument for Severino winning the award here, but this is solely for the Thunder, not for the entire system. Simply put, Severino didn’t pitch for Trenton enough to justify giving him the honor, even though he was consistently dominant on the mound.
Most improved player: Rob Segedin, 3B
Also considered: Tyler Austin, OF
Probably the biggest toss-up of the awards, Segedin gets the nod for a few reasons. Always considered a defensive liability at third base in the past, the 25-year-old returned from hip surgery looking much improved, with one scout calling it “night-and-day” from the year before.
In his last regular playing time in Trenton (2012), Segedin managed to hit just .188 over 48 games. This year, he led the Thunder in on-base percentage (.398) and was an absolute force in the middle of the line-up. Segedin totaled 92 hits in as many games, the result of a more consistent approach at the plate. His improvements on offense and defense earned him a brief look with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. While the trip to Triple-A was short-lived, Segedin looked like a much better ballplayer coming off his 2013 season-ending hip surgery, and that’s part of why he was one of two Thunder players who I placed on my season-ending Eastern League All-Star ballot.
That’s not to say Austin did not improve quite a bit. In his second season with the Thunder, Austin caught fire in early July and never looked back before a personal matter ended his season a week early. Despite definite improvements from 2013, Austin still appears to have some difficulty handling breaking pitches, which he will need to overcome in order to make the big leagues someday. He’s headed to the Arizona Fall League and is a candidate to be protected from the Rule V draft this winter.
Top mid-season promotion: Jake Cave, OF
Also considered: Luis Severino, RHP & Greg Bird, 1B
Severino was overpowering on the mound after being promoted from High-A Tampa, and Bird re-discovered his power swing once he arrived in Trenton, but neither player made the sort of impact that Jake Cave did on a nightly basis. Since his promotion, every scout I’ve spoken with has raved about Cave as a high-motor player who could be a MLB regular someday.
Despite seeing his bat starting to cool down after a hot start to Double-A, Cave’s grit and hustle made him a high-impact player at the top of a prospect-laden lineup. His style of play, much like that of Slade Heathcott and Brett Gardner, may need a little taming, but there is no reason to believe he cannot improve on the .344 on-base percentage and .798 OPS with the Thunder next season. Of course, Cave may wind up shifting to a corner next season, with Heathcott and Mason Williams also both likely to return to Trenton.
All photos are official photos from team website.