Bridgewater, New Jersey – Expectations internally for the 2023 Patriots were enormous after the 2022 version of the club danced in champagne showers while being crowned Eastern League Champions last September. The Yankees on the major league level expect to win World Series Championships every single season and most players and coaches on the minor league side carry that sentiment for their teams as well.
Despite posting a franchise-affiliated best 84 regular season wins and more wins than any other Double-A affiliate in all of minor league baseball, the Patriots came up short of a repeat after dropping two straight in the best-of-three division series to Binghamton earlier this week. Sure, the team came up short of that ultimate goal, but the prime objective of a player development system is to do just that, develop players. In 2023, Manager Raul Dominguez and his staff rostered 67 different players, many of which had career years and have even gone on to the big leagues already. Chalk this season up as a massive success for player development.
“We started the season here with a totally different team,” said Dominguez prior to Somerset’s Game 2 defeat. “I let them know that 67 players played in Somerset this year and this player, and this player won last year here in Somerset, they started the season here in Somerset, they went to Triple-A and now they’re in the big leagues. It’s the same thing that they’re going to do in the big leagues – they’re going to try and win games, play hard, and try to go to the playoffs. Don’t think that you play all year here in Somerset and then this is over. It’s the same thing – you’ve got to keep reaching that goal.”
Hitting Coach Jake Hirst and Defensive Coach Aaron Bossi came back to Bridgewater for their second seasons with the team and the results were pretty much the same – Somerset had the best offensive unit in 2023 for all intents and purposes. The Patriots posted a +211-run differential, which is the highest mark that any minor league club has posted over the last two seasons. In nearly every vital statistical metric, the Somerset offense was the best - OPS (.776), HR (197), R (749), BB (650), SB (256), OBP (.346), SLG (.430).
Fans at TD Bank Ballpark got to see then top-prospect Jasson Dominguez put on a show almost nightly before he became a big leaguer – “The Martian” hit 15 homers and drove in 66 runs and led the EL in runs scored with 83 and finished fourth in stolen bases with 37. Catcher Austin Wells spent 58 games with Somerset after winning a championship with Dominguez last Fall – the backstop hit 11 homers and drove home 50 before earning a promotion to Triple-A and ultimately landing in The Bronx. Outfielder Everson Pereira missed a good chunk of time earlier in the year due to injuries, but in 46 games with the Patriots, the highly touted prospect blasted 10 homers and drove home 31 runs before ending up in the show before long.
Once Wells departed, Ben Rice was promoted to Somerset on July 18 and there weren’t many that expected the level of offensive production that the versatile catcher/first baseman was able to provide. Rice was the best hitter in the Eastern League over the final two months of the season – that’s not a blanket statement – the numbers support it. The Dartmouth-product finished with 20 multi-hit games in just 48 games at Double-A and from the time of his promotion, Rice led the EL in HR (16), RBI (48), SLG (.651), OPS (1.054), XBH (30), TB (127) and R (40), while ranking third in batting with .328 mark over that time.
“Just knowing what I am doing well and keeping that consistent,” explained Rice on how he was able to finish with such a flourish. “Making a lot of contact and hitting it hard – making good decisions and just staying true to the approach. Being smart in my at bats and really just letting everything take care of itself from there.”
Rice added, “I wouldn’t say that you expect those numbers, but I would say capable, yes. I think you are always capable of putting really good numbers up there. I wouldn’t say that I always expect to have those really good performances, or whatever.”
Infielder Tyler Hardman led the Eastern League in homers with 26 despite missing all of August and September with a fractured hand. That marks the second time in three seasons that Somerset has played host to the league leader in long balls after Dermis Garcia blasted 31 in 2021.
Newly minted top-prospect Spencer Jones was given a cup of coffee in Double-A for the team’s postseason run after a standout first half at High-A. The organization’s first round draft selection from a year ago swiped 43 bases and blasted 16 homers collectively and should be a centerpiece to the Somerset offense when 2024 rolls around.
“The biggest thing that I have learned so far [about Double-A], is that the best players are also the best people,” Jones admitted. “I’m starting to get to know these guys and how good they are as well as competing with other players and they are all really good people.”
Pitching Coach Grayson Crawford joined the Somerset staff in 2023 after serving in the same role with Low-A Tampa last season. Under his watch, the Patriots staff proved to be the most dominant unit in the league – posting EL best marks in ERA (3.56), K (1,397), WHIP (1.24), and BAA (.214). The Yankees Double-A affiliates have led the EL in ERA, WHIP and BAA in six of the last seven seasons and have been atop the strikeout leaderboard in five of the last seven seasons.
At the forefront of that dominance was right-hander Richard Fitts – the Auburn-product was the workhorse and ace of the Patriots staff and was one of the two or three best arms in the EL from start to finish. The organization’s 12th ranked prospect posted league-high marks in W (11), GS (27), IP (152.2), K (163), and WHIP (1.14) while his 3.48 ERA ranked third amongst qualified pitchers. Despite suffering a game two loss to Binghamton on Thursday night, Fitts turned in his 16th quality outing of the year, surrendering just two earned on five hits over six strong frames – he fanned eight.
“Fitts is our guy, he is our guy,” said infielder Max Burt. “He’s a guy that pounds the zone, throws his fastball and is confident out there. He’s a guy that I trust with everything – he’s a guy that wants the ball and we want him to be out there for us – I have all the confidence in the world in him.”
The Yankees went heavy on college right-handed starters in last summer’s draft, and it seems to have paid immediate dividends. The organization’s top-ranked pitching prospect, Chase Hampton, made 11 starts for Somerset after opening his first full-season at Hudson Valley. He fanned 69 batters in 59.2 innings for the Patriots before being shut down with an innings limit at 106.2 for the season.
Baseball America named right-hander Drew Thorpe the Yankees Minor League Pitcher of the Year and he is in the running for the MiLB Pitcher of the Year Award – that tells you all you need to know about how the 2022 second rounders first season in pro ball went. The Cal Poly-product was named the South Atlantic League Pitcher of the Year for his High-A dominance, but Thorpe showed much of the same in his short time with Somerset. He went 4-0 with a 1.48 ERA with 44 punchouts in 30.1 innings – the EL hit just .144 against him. Both Thorpe and Hampton figure to be anchors of the 2024 Patriots rotation.
Right-hander Yoendrys Gomez would have started a decisive Game 3 for Somerset if they would have been able to push Binghamton that far, or maybe he wouldn’t have. The 23-year-old hurler was called up to the big leagues on Friday night after striking out 78 batters in 65.1 innings over 19 starts after missing the first few months with an injury suffered during spring training. The organization’s 26th ranked prospect marked the 10th former Patriots prospect to be called up to the big leagues in 2023 and the first to get that call straight from Double-A.
Relievers like Tanner Myatt, Edgar Barclay, Danny Watson and Ryan Anderson had career years at the backend of the Patriots bullpen which helped shorten games for a team with championship aspirations.
The story of the season can be defined by dominance – the numbers, the performances, the wins – they were all there. Minor league baseball comes with heavy roster turnover and often, the team you get to the dance with isn’t the same team that punched the ticket to get there. In a short series, anything is possible, and a scorching hot Binghamton team was able to take advantage of two bad innings. All is not lost, though – Somerset was the host to a lot of talented prospects in 2023 that will eventually contribute to the Yankees hopefully hoisting another World Series trophy and it will be because of the skills that were honed, harnessed and crafted at TD Bank Ballpark along the way. They call it the road to the majors, and Somerset has become a pivotal stop on that long and winding journey.
“I feel blessed,” said Raul Dominguez. “Every morning, every game after the national anthem, I always pray and always think about God to thank him for all of the opportunities that I’ve had here this year and all the opportunities that the Yankees gave me this year to be a manager in full season for the first time. I feel like it has been really good…I would like to come back as a manager in full season because I think that I need to keep learning.”
Matt Kardos | SomersetPatriots.com Beat Writer
Matt Kardos has covered the Yankees minor league system for over a decade and will spend his 11th season on the beat covering the Patriots for SomersetPatriots.com. Throughout his career, Matt has contributed to MLB.com, YES Network and Pinstriped Prospects. When he’s not at the ballpark, Matt enjoys traveling with his wife Kimberly, watching Jets football and collecting sports cards.