The New Hampshire Fisher Cats get down to serious business quickly when they send right-hander Aaron Sanchez — considered the best prospect in the Blue Jays organization — against the Trenton Thunder tonight at Arm & Hammer Park in New Jersey.
Might as well test the best right out of the gate.
The Thunder won the Eastern League championship last season, and 19 wannabe-Yankees on the current Thunder roster were part of that title.
Trenton has won three of the last seven Eastern League playoff championships and has been to the playoffs seven times since the Fisher Cats came into existence in 2004.
The Fisher Cats plan to do some damage of their own in the Eastern League this season. They hope 2014 is much more like 2004 and 2011 than, say, 2012.
“I think we’ll be very competitive,” said New Hampshire manager Bobby Meacham, a former New York Yankees shortstop. “We got a couple of guys back that probably should be in Triple-A, guys like (Brad) Glenn and (Kevin) Nolan. The arms we have, a couple in the pen and a couple in the rotation, they could easily be in Triple-A. The talent’s there. It’s just a matter of keeping the focus where it needs to be.”
The Fisher Cats finished with the league’s second-best record in their inaugural season and went out and won the playoffs to kick off life in Manchester.They didn’t make it back to the playoffs again until 2010, when they lost to Trenton in the first round.
In 2011, New Hampshire finished second and beat Reading and Richmond on the way to another league title.
The Fisher Cats lost 20 more games than they won (61-81) in 2012 to match their worst record ever. Last year, they climbed back to 68-72, but ended up under .500 for the seventh time in 10 years.
They want to turn that around.
“We have a lot of talent,” said Kevin Nolan, the EL All-Star shortstop from Nashua who is back for his second season as a Fisher Cat. “I think we’re going to be good this year.”
When it comes right down to it, development will win out every time in a debate over which is more important, that or winning, Meacham said.
There’s nothing wrong with seeking to do both.
“I think we’ve got a pretty good squad and have lots of depth, too,” said first baseman Gabe Jacobo, who split the last two seasons between Single-A Dunedin and New Hampshire. “We’re all down here to get to the major leagues. If we can get some wins and maybe a ring on the way, that’s the best.”
It’s all about winning, said outfielder Brad Glenn, who worked his way up to Triple-A Buffalo last season and was projected to start the season there until the Blue Jays needed a spot for Matt Tuiasosopo, who was with the Detroit Tigers last year.
“Players like to win,” Glenn said. “If you’re losing, it’s no fun. Whether they call it development or whatever, it’s no fun and you never want to lose. That’s our goal: to come out and win. We’ve got a good team. I think we’ve got a good shot at winning.”
The Fisher Cats will take their first shot at winning tonight with their ace, Sanchez, going against Trenton ace right-hander Bryan Mitchell. Mitchell made three starts with the Thunder last August and had a 1.93 earned run average in 18-1/3 innings.
He throws to catcher Gary Sanchez, listed by Baseball America as the No. 1 prospect in the Yankees organization. Mitchell is considered the organization’s No. 21 prospect and outfielder Mason Williams the No. 3.
Prospects abound around the league.Aaron Sanchez leads the New Hampshire list, and catcher A.J. Jimenez is at No. 14 in the Toronto organization, according to Baseball America, which has third baseman Andy Burns at No. 19.
The Portland Sea Dogs check in with their usual array of projected future Boston Red Sox featuring 6-foot, 6-inch lefty starter Henry Owens (No. 3 in the soxprospects.com rankings), catcher Blake Swihart (No. 5), second baseman Mookie Betts (No. 10) and shortstop Deven Marrero (No. 16).
Now it’s a question of where those prospects take things for themselves — and where they take their teams — from here. Starting tonight.
“It’s a matter of getting locked in on what you’re supposed to do versus worrying about what’s happening around you right now at the Double-A level,” Meacham said. “They all know there’s a lot at stake here, and sometimes that gets in the way of them being the best they can be. I guess my job is to make sure they focus on being the best they can be versus where that’s going to take them in the long run. We’ll see what happens.”