RiverDogs gear up for 2014 with fresh talent

  • Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Top prospects Aaron Judge and Michael O'Neill join the Charleston RiverDogs this season. FRANKIE MANSFIELD

A fresh breath of excitement flows through The Joe this spring as the Charleston RiverDogs welcome a few new faces for the 2014 season.

Leading the buzz is 2013 New York Yankees first-round pick, Aaron Judge. If nothing else, at 6-foot-7, 230 pounds, Judge is built as well as any prospect in the Yankees farm system.

Judge was a three-time first-team all-conference player at Fresno State. He hit .373 with a .461 on-base percentage and .663 slugging percentage his junior season.

As a sophomore in 2012, he gave a glimpse of his power, winning the college home run derby with 16 home runs.

“So far so good with him,” RiverDogs manager Luis Dorante said. “Not only offensively, but defensively, he's got some really good tools. He can go out there and get it and has a tremendous arm.

“He has the ability to hit the ball out of the park and it'll be interesting to see that from the get-go.”

Judge played outfield in college and, with good speed and a strong arm, will likely get looks the same looks in the pros. He's seen time at first base so far this season and says he's excited contribute at any position.

“I just want to go out there and help the team however I can,” Judge said. “I'm happy the Yankees took me. I just really wanted to get going and start my pro career.”

A minor quad injury kept Judge out last season but opened a rare opportunity for a crash course on pro baseball from one of the game's legends. While rehabbing in Tampa, Fla. Judge spent time with Yankees future Hall of Famer Derek Jeter who was working through his own injuries.

“Words really can't describe it,” Judge said. “It was kind of a blessing in disguise. I didn't want to be injured that first year but getting to pick their brains … it helped me out so much. I'm maybe a step ahead now this season.”

Outfielder Michael O'Neill might not be a household pro player yet but his last name is sure to draw up some fond memories for Yankee fans.

The nephew of five-time World Series champion Paul O'Neill was drafted in the third round of the 2013 MLB draft and joins the RiverDogs this season after spending a year playing in Staten Island. His uncle casts a large shadow, but Michael says he looks forward to beginning his own legacy.

“I try to be my own person,” he said. “I just use him more as a reference. He's been through the minor league and played at the highest level so instead of worry about about what he did, I'm using him to help me get to where he got to.”

O'Neill was an American Baseball Coaches Association All-American and All-Big Ten selection as a junior at Michigan in 2013. He led the Wolverines in batting average (.356), slugging (.498), on-base percentage (.396) runs scored (46), hits (85) doubles (17), home runs (five) and stolen bases (23). He ranks fourth all-time with 72 career stolen bases at Michigan.

“We have some goals for him to have 20-plus steal attempts this year,” Dorante said. “Which is going to help him out with other stuff. I think he's on the right path.”

O'Neill drove in 14 RBIs and stole nine bases with short-season Single A Staten Island last season. This year, he hopes to use that first taste of professional baseball to his advantage as he tries to raise his stock and help the RiverDogs win.

“The grind of the season will be a little bit greater that Staten Island but I think it's definitely going to help me that I've already played a professional season,” O'Neill said. “I hear the atmosphere (in Charleston) is unbelievable and I'm really excited to get going.”

Dorante is also in his first year managing the RiverDogs. He joined the team in January after spending two seasons with the Double-A Trenton Thunder. He has 11 years of experience managing in the minors and spent two seasons as the bullpen coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 2008-10. He also spent six years in the Boston Red Sox organization as a player.

He replaces Al Pedrique who took over in Tampa for the Yankees' Advanced-A affiliate. Dorante is the RiverDogs' sixth manager in six years.

“I think we have a good staff,” Dorante said. “The main thing is just to get these guys better on a daily basis so they can move on. Our main goal is to stay on the learning process. It's important for us to stay on that path so, hopefully, they can learn as much as they can and move on to that next level.”

Frankie Mansfield, the sports reporter for the Moultrie News can be seen all around the state following teams to meets, games, and matches. For score updates, breaking sports news, and more follow @fjmansfield on Twitter and like Moultrie News Sports on Facebook.

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