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In Trenton, Prospects Play Hoping Draft Dream Will Be Fulfilled

 Leif Skodnick  |    Aug 28th, 2023 7:53pm EDT

Kolby Johnson stands in the dugout at Trenton Thunder Ballpark. (Photo by Jack Storie/Trenton Thunder)

By Julian Guilarte
World Baseball Network

Trenton Thunder Outfielder Kolby Johnson was looking to rebound after a bad game the night before, going 1-for-5 on August 16 with three grounds out and a pop-up to first base, and hoped to give his team a lift to start the game.

He lead off the game on August 17 against State College starting pitcher Jonah Jenkins and fouled off a fastball, Jenkins’ first offering, back to the screen. The pitch was right down the heart of the plate, a missed opportunity. Then, Jenkins followed with a fastball on the outside corner that Johnson swung through. He was in a bad spot, down 0-2 in the count. 

The third pitch from Jenkins was a curveball that bounced in the dirt for a ball. 

And then, Jenkins threw a fastball down the middle in the lower part of the strike zone, and this time, Johnson didn’t miss. He launched a lead off home run 350 feet over the left field wall. It was well struck and there was no doubt it would be gone. Johnson had impacted the game immediately, giving Trenton a 1-0 lead. 

The home run gave the team a jolt at Trenton Thunder Ballpark. Johnson celebrated with his teammates and coaches in the dugout, and the crowd of 6,070 was energized right from the start of the game. 

The lead off home run was the difference in the 5-4 win for the Trenton Thunder, allowing the Trenton Thunder to settle in. They carried the momentum forward from the first inning by scoring one run in each of the first three innings. 

In the third, Johnson hit a single, stole a base, and scored on wild pitch to give the Thunder a 3-0 lead. He went 2-for-5 on the night. Johnson was named the MLB Draft League Hitter of the Week for August 21-27 after he went 13-for-21 with 6 RBI, 5 SB, with an OPS of 1.454 in that span. 

Coming into to the MLB Draft League, he had never hit a lead-off home run, but he now has three lead-off home runs this season. 

“Getting on the MLB radar is the goal of being here, but my main goal is always just to get better. I came here because I feel like I still have another gear I can do, and I feel like I’ve accomplished that,” Johnson who has five home runs, 15 RBI, and 11 stolen bases with an OPS of 1.064 in 123 at-bats, said following the game.

The Trenton Thunder joined the newly-created MLB Draft League for the 2021 season. The MLB Draft League has six teams filled with prospects hoping to be selected in the annual MLB Draft.

Previously, the Trenton Thunder were a Double-A affiliate for three Major League teams. The Detroit Tigers were their first affiliate in 1994, and were followed by the Boston Red Sox from 1994 to 2002. Their last affiliate was the New York Yankees from 2003-20. 

The coronavirus pandemic caused the minor season to be canceled in 2020. After the 2020 season, the agreement between the National Association of Professional Baseball and Major League Baseball expired. 

The NAPBL, which was formed as an umbrella organization for the minor leagues in 1902, established league classifications, roster and salary limits, and a system for drafting players. As a result of the pandemic and the expiration of the agreement, 43 minor league teams were lost and some of the other affiliates were reshuffled. 

Trenton lost their affiliation when the Yankees moved it to Somerset on November, 7 2020.

The Trenton Thunder’s first season in the MLB Draft League was memorable because they won the championship, and this season they won the first half and have a chance to win another title. They will play the second-half champion on September 3.

Jeff Manto was hired as the Trenton Thunder’s manager in 2021 and this is his third season with Trenton. 

Manto, 59, was drafted by the Anaheim Angels in 1985 MLB Draft and played 16 professional seasons as a corner infielder, spending a lot of time in the minor leagues. He was born in Bristol, Pennsylvania, 10 miles south of Trenton Thunder Ballpark, and Manto played for the Thunder in 1996 when they were the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. 

Manto transitioned to coaching in 2003 and served as the hitting coach and manager for the Philadelphia Phillies’ Class-A Jersey Shore Blue Claws before being hired by the Pittsburgh Pirates as their hitting coordinator, and then served as hitting coach from 2006-07. In 2008, he was named the hitting coordinator for the Chicago White Sox. He served in this role until 2011 and then was promoted to hitting coach. He was the White Sox hitting coach until the end of the 2013 season. He joined the Baltimore Orioles as their hitting coordinator from 2013-19. 

Manto has experienced every level of baseball as a player and coach.

There were 39 players drafted from the MLB draft league in 2021, 44 players in 2022, and 46 players in 2023. With 129 players getting drafted, this league has provided players with an opportunity to continue their careers and get a shot at playing for MLB organizations. The Thunder have had 21 players drafted in the last two seasons.

“They have a lot of trust in what we’re doing at Trenton. These players came in with a lot of ability and what we’re doing as a coaching staff is guiding them and making sure they’re going in the right direction,” said Manto.

“The biggest difference between the MLB Draft League and college Is that players are more polished and that they know who they are and what they want to do on the field,” Johnson said. 

The most valuable part of the experience for Johnson is learning how to be a professional, which includes the challenge of playing every day and taking care of his body. He noted that every player there is playing with intensity and hunger.                                                                                 

“I must stay aggressive. The key is to not get complacent. That’s something you can’t do at any level. I have to continue to fight for that next inch,” Johnson said.

Thunder relief pitcher Brennan O’Neill, 23, is a righty and has had a good season out of the bullpen. He struck out the side in the ninth and didn’t allow a base runner to get his second save of the season in the 5-4 win against State College on August 17. 

O’Neill went to Morristown High School and played against Jack Leiter and Anthony Volpe when they were at Delbarton School in 2018. O’Neill out-pitched Leiter in a complete game victory with eight strikeouts.

He then attended Seton Hall University and had a strong freshman year pitching 40 innings with 29 strikeouts and an ERA of 3.38. After that, it was downhill, and O’Neill finished his career with an ERA of 5.56 in 180 career innings at Seton Hall. After the 2023 season ended, he went to the draft league.

This season, O’Neill has pitched 15.2 innings with 22 strikeouts and an ERA of 2.87.

All of O’Neill’s strikeouts came on fastballs. He threw the fastest pitch of the night at 94 mph, and  his lowest velocity on his fastball was 92 mph. He also features a curveball and a changeup. The curve ranges from 77 to 81 mph, and his change up ranges from 83-85 mph. 

“He was a little more aggressive and more explosive,” Thunder pitching coach Matt Sweeney said. “It’s there and I think everyone can see that. He’s got some good stuff and his mechanics are there so he’s putting it all together. I think we saw that last night.”

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Leif Skodnick