Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Lansing 3 (+1), a retrospective

synder
Noah Syndergaard, before becoming Thor
Last night, Noah Syndergaard made his MLB debut with the New York Mets.
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In 2012, Syndergaard, Justin Nicolino and Aaron Sanchez were the Lansing 3.
They first arrived in Lansing during the 2011 postseason, a remarkable run that saw the Lugs (led by Jake Marisnick, Carlos Perez and the fabled Matt Nuzzo) bounce the favored Dayton Dragons (with Billy Hamilton) out of the playoffs, knock off the Fort Wayne TinCaps when closer Kevin Quackenbush walked in the series-clinching run (a pitch he purposefully threw high because he thought that the count was 2-2, not 3-2), and fell in three games to the Quad Cities River Bandits in the championship, a team that included Kolten Wong, Trevor Rosenthal and the late Oscar Taveras.
When they returned in 2012, they were placed in piggybacking tandems: BFFs Sanchez and Nicolino were paired in a combo coined "Sanchelino" by Marcus Walden. Syndergaard was teamed with Anthony "Disco" DeSclafani, receiving the lesser moniker of "Synderfani."
sanch
Aaron Sanchez, in his first great professional season
They were quickly placed into boxes: DeSclafani was the afterthought, a guy with control and a fine fastball (and also a really great cook). Nicolino was the Maddux of the group, polished, smart, coming off a ridiculously dominating season in Vancouver in 2011, and by far the closest to the Major Leagues. Sanchez and Syndergaard were the disputed icons, one a Californian with raw potential, unhittable stuff and an unremarkable pro career to date; the other an intimidating Texan fireballer in the tradition of Kerry Wood and Nolan Ryan. Each scout ranked Nicolino 3rd and DeSclafani 4th; no one agreed with Sanchez or Syndergaard deserved to be 1st.
They worked three innings each in April, leaving the bullpen only three innings to complete. The Lugnuts went 18-6 in the month -- and it could have been better, had the pen not blown 8 of 18 save opportunities. In May, they went four innings each, and the Lugnuts went 20-9 (blowing 4 of 16 save opportunities). In June, the tandems separated and they went five innings each. The team's record fell to 13-12. They stretched into six innings, battling midseason hiccups before righting themselves by the end: the Lugs were 19-9 in July, before the offense -- doomed by the promotion of key players -- fell apart in an 11-17 August.
The Lugs finished 82-57 overall, the best regular season in team history.
As for the Lansing 3:
  • Justin Nicolino went 10-4, 2.46, 124.1 IP, 21 BB, 119 K, leading the league in ERA and voted the MWL's top left-handed starter at season's end.
  • Aaron Sanchez posted an 8-5, 2.49, 90.1 IP, 51 BB, 97 K, with command issues limiting his outings, though he allowed only 3 home runs and a .204 average.
  • Noah Syndergaard finished 8-5, 2.60, 103.2 IP, 31 BB, 122 K, allowing a mere 3 home runs and a .212 average against.
At that time, you could be fairly certain: Justin Nicolino and Noah Syndergaard were going to the Majors, and Aaron Sanchez was on the right track -- though, with how raw he was, he was likely still quite a few seasons away from making a Major League impact.
The afterthought, Anthony DeSclafani, went 11-3 with a 3.37 ERA, ranking behind only Nicolino with 123.0 innings pitched. He did allow 145 hits, though he gave up 3 home runs, walked just 25 and struck out 92.
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The winter following the season, three of the four were gone from the Blue Jays' system.
On November 19th, DeSclafani and Nicolino, along fellow former Lugnut Marisnick, were packaged in a massive deal to the Marlins, with such notables as Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, and Josh Johnson heading to Toronto.
On December 17th, Syndergaard was dealt to the New York Mets (along with top prospect catcher Travis d'Arnaud) for reigning Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey.
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Disco
Anthony DeSclafani, familiarly known as "Disco"
As life has it, the opposite of our expectations often occurs. In this case, it was the sequence of Major League debuts.
The Marlins called up Anthony DeSclafani to the Major Leagues on May 14th, 2014. He made 13 appearances with Miami, five starts. In the offseason, he was traded to Cincinnati for Mat Latos; this year, he has a 2-3 record with a 2.79 ERA in seven starts for the Reds. He is no longer an afterthought.
Aaron Sanchez made his MLB debut two months later, on July 23rd, 2014, joining the Blue Jays' bullpen and going 2-2 with a 1.09 ERA in 24 valuable appearances. In 2015, he is 3-2 with a 3.62 ERA in six starts for the Jays. As it turned out, he wasn't so far away from the Majors after all.
The quiet Noah Syndergaard, the most introverted of all of the pitchers, found himself caught up in a sequence of silly moments that spurred Big Apple sports talk radio to gleeful heights. Given an oversized nickname, Thor, that matched his height and ability -- if not his personality -- he arrived in the Bigs last night to great fanfare. And then his outing promptly caused more Big Apple sports blather: Was he left in the game too long? What went wrong? Sheesh.
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nico
Justin Nicolino, smarter than the average pitcher
That leaves one member of the Lansing 3 (plus 1) without an MLB locker.
The polished, close-to-Major-League-ready Justin Nicolino has kept on keepin' on. In 2013, he pitched well enough at A-Adv. Jupiter to earn a mid-season promotion to Double-A Jacksonville. In 2014, he pitched well enough at Jacksonville to be named the Southern League's Left-Handed Pitcher of the Year. In 2015, he is 3-0 with a 1.55 ERA for Triple-A New Orleans. It has been just three years since he pitched in Michigan's state capital. He is only 23 years old. Barring injury, he'll make his MLB debut this summer.
And then four Major League teams will sport 2012 Lansing Lugnuts starting pitchers.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

One week in

This is my return from hiatus, and I'll do my best to give you a reason to visit more often as the season goes onward.
I'm someone who gets singlemindedly focused on tasks. In March, this means writing the team magazine articles, preparing press passes, and getting everything set for Opening Day. In early April, this means getting into the rhythm of the season. Time can run short, things can be taxing.
Ah, but now we're a full week in, and it's time to go forward.
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Starting pitcher Chase De Jong. (Photo credit: Kyle Castle.)
The Lugnuts have begun the season 5-1, thanks in large part to pitching, pitching, pitching. The Lugs' team ERA is 1.94 -- they've allowed 2, 2, 2, 3, 1, and 1 earned run in their six games played. Chase De Jong struck out nine batters in 4 2/3 innings, Starlyn Suriel struck out eight in 5 innings, Sean Reid-Foley struck out six in 3 innings, and onward.
I do not know how things will continue with the pitching corps, but it seems to me that they're going to start receiving a heck of a lot more offensive support as things go forward. The lineup has key parts scuffling, from Danny Jansen (0-for-10, albeit with four walks) to Rowdy Tellez (4-for-23) to Tim Locastro (3-for-16) to Richard Urena (3-for-19) to Josh Almonte (2-for-18). Get those guys going, and this team starts scoring runs in bunches.
On the bright side, outfielder Chris Carlson has six hits, three walks, and four steals, making things happen from the bottom part of the order. As a team, Lansing has 11 stolen bases.
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From the current Lugnuts to the recent past, two alumni put in superb outings last night.
Kendall Graveman '14 pitched 5 1/3 scoreless innings for the Athletics, combining with four relievers on a shutout. (Jake Marisnick '11 did collect one of the Astros' eight hits in the game, and is now batting .318.)
Anthony "Disco" DeSclafani '12 pitched 7 scoreless innings, helping the Reds beat the Cubs at Wrigley.
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I'm watching Daredevil on Netflix. It's superb.
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Lastly, hear from Lugnuts manager Ken Huckaby.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Whoa there, Miguel Castro

41 - Miguel Castro
Listen to my interview with Miguel Castro while he was in Lansing.
Miguel Castro began his professional career in the Dominican Summer League in 2012, and then returned to the DSL to start 2013. He finished that 2013 season at age 18 in Advanced-Rookie Bluefield, a long ways away from the Majors.
Or was he?
In 2014, Miguel opened with an impressive stint in Short-A Vancouver, knocked socks off in Single-A Lansing (including back-to-back dominant showings against Eastern Division leaders South Bend and West Michigan), and finished with a pair of outings in A-Advanced Dunedin. His name was becoming known.

To this extent, only a few sorts of folks knew about Miguel Castro: Blue Jays staff members, instructors and players; opposing batters; and us broadcasters in Vancouver, Lansing and Dunedin. After watching Miguel twirl seven three-hit shutout innings, West Michigan broadcaster Ben Chiswick asked me rhetorically, "He's got to be a Top-20 prospect in the Minor Leagues next year, doesn't he?"
We also all knew his nickname/comparison to Kevin Durant, as this Vancouver Canadians graphic explains:
Castro Durant0
Beyond us, though, I dare say that Miguel Castro was an unknown commodity.
That brings us to this spring training, where Miguel -- with only six appearances above the short-season level and zero experience above A-Advanced -- was invited to Blue Jays Major League camp.
February 25th: A Neil Davidson article for the Globe and Mail on February 25th introduces Blue Jays' fans to the slender phenom:
The first time Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos saw him pitch, for Class-A Vancouver, he thought the speed gun was broken because it kept showing 98 miles per hour.
“I literally said ‘Hey, is something wrong with the gun? Is it frozen?“’ Anthopoulos said.
That same day, SportsNet's Shi Davidi brings out the Kevin Durant comparison, given to him by a Blue Jays' official:
Looking at Castro’s six-foot-five, 190-pound frame, I asked a Blue Jays official for a physical comparison and he threw out NBA star Kevin Durant. Asked how it looks from behind the plate, Thole said: “It’s an effortless mid-90’s for sure. The ball is on you because he’s got the long arms, so essentially, he’s handing the ball to the catcher and it explodes, aside from it being 100 or whatever it is.”
Both Davidi and Davidson quote Alex Anthopoulos as saying, “if we were to start the season today, he’d be down here in the Florida State League, but that’s not to say he can’t come quick."
March 3rd: Miguel Castro makes his spring debut in Blue Jays' first Grapefruit League game, working a scoreless eighth against the Pirates.
March 7th: In his second outing of spring, he delivers a six-pitch perfect fifth inning against the Phillies in the Jays' fifth game
Tweets SportsNet's Jamie Campbell:

The 20-year-old Castro entered camp as a longshot to make the club given that he has yet to pitch in the upper minors. But his lanky frame and big velocity are hard to miss. By retiring big league hitters, he earned more looks from the Blue Jays decision makers who have already been impressed by his fastball-change-up combination.
As of this moment, March 8, both [Roberto Osuna and Miguel Castro] have a chance to break camp with the big league team....
Castro, a 20-year-old Dominican, is a beanpole who hurls peas. Listed at 6’5”, 190 pounds, he’s likely taller and lighter than his billing. But the radar gun tells no lies - he can throw a fastball 100 miles per hour. More importantly, he throws the pitch for strikes and complements it with a changeup nicely developed for a kid his age. Castro also features a slider.
March 9th: Tweets Campbell:

March 10th: The Blue Jays lose Marcus Stroman for the season due to a torn ACL. Everyone starts looking around for possible replacements; the loss of Stroman would likely move Aaron Sanchez from the bullpen to the rotation, which meant a new opening in the bullpen.
Jamie Campbell:

March 11th: Miguel makes his third appearance of the spring, dazzling the Baltimore Orioles with two shutout innings. Mike Wilner is on the scene:


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Miguel Castro was in the Dominican Summer League two years ago. He is currently 20 years old.
You couldn't blame the Blue Jays' brain trust if they sat back, took off their caps, wiped their foreheads, and said to each other, "Hey, let's slow down. Send the kid to Dunedin in April. No rush." But -- aside from his inexperience -- he hasn't given them any reason not to sit back, wipe their foreheads, and say instead, "Hey, he's special. Let's stick with the kid."
Either way, Miguel Castro will be well worth watching.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Stadium Construction, a photographic tour

 
I'm not sure if you've heard, but Cooley Law School Stadium is in the midst of a massive offseason renovation. My pics from earlier this week:
card pic 8pic 9
 
Well, at the least, that shows how you gray it's been in Lansing. It doesn't show you too much about the construction that's been going on, though.
With this in mind, members of the Lugnuts front office staff were taken for a tour around all of the construction taking place beyond the fence. They're constructing several different areas: 1) the Tailgate Terrace, a group venue for parties to watch the game from beyond the right-field wall; 2) The View, a banquet hall area beyond the center-field wall; and 3) The Outfield, a real estate development through the Gillespie Group - an honest-to-goodness apartment complex beyond the outfield wall.
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Here we go, time to walk inside:
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pic 6pic7pic 2cement
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And lastly, from my co-worker Ben, they've started putting up the new videoboard:

       scoreboard shell

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Vernon Wells and Dalton Pompey

Dalton "Pony" Pompey, 2013. (Credit: Scott Mapes, Lansing Lugnuts)
Dalton "Pony" Pompey, 2013. (Credit: Scott Mapes, Lansing Lugnuts)
Former All-Star center fielder Vernon Wells talks about returning to the Jays and working with projected future center fielder Dalton Pompey, who played for the Lugnuts in 2012 and 2013. When asked about his own mentors, he said:
"It's amazing. In my Minor League career, there was a lot of teaching that went on. And it seems kids are getting to the big leagues a little quicker now. Some of the teaching is not as in depth as it was, so they're having to learn once they get to the big leagues. And it's tough. There's an adjustment period that happens and you're still trying to learn. It's asking a lot of a kid. For him, it's going to be a matter of relax, absorb the information that's coming to you, and try to make it work as quick as possible."
Did Dalton Pompey ascend to the big leagues quicker than Vernon Wells, giving him less MiLB education?
An examination.
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We begin with Vernon Wells. His sterling Major League numbers, from Baseball-Reference:
Vernon reached the Major Leagues in 1999 at age 20, played sparingly in the bigs in 2000, came up for a bit longer in 2001, and broke through as a regular in 2002 when he was 23. The next season, he was an All-Star, a Silver Slugger, and received MVP votes.
Here was his Minor League path:
He spent 1997 in Short-A, 1998 in Single-A, and then zipped up the ladder in 1999 (at age 20) from A-Advanced to Double-A to Triple-A to the Majors. Things stagnated a bit from there, however, with Vernon spending the majority of 2000 and 2001 in Triple-A. 2000 was rather disappointing likely for everyone concerned, but he was only 21 and playing against much older competition in the International League. At age 22, repeating the league, all was well again, sending him forth to a 15-year career.
Now to Dalton Pompey. First, Dalton's Major League stats:
Not a bad MLB debut, especially considering that the home run was slugged off of King Felix Hernandez.
The Minor League path:
Pompey debuted at age 17 in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League in 2010, played 42 more games in the GCL in 2011 before moving up for 18 games in Rookie-advanced Bluefield. He was back in Bluefield for 4 games in 2012, followed by 11 games in Short-A and 5 games in Single-A, though the year was severely hampered by injury. In 2013, at age 20, he played 115 games in Single-A and won a Gold Glove as the best defensive center fielder in the Minor Leagues. That led to 2014, when, at age 21, Pompey broke through. He aced A-Advanced, cruised through Double-A, and surprised with a dominant showing in Triple-A, leading to his Major League callup.
A side-by-side comparison:
 WELLSPOMPEY
 Age making MLB debut 20 years old21 years old
 Games in Rookie ball - 75
 Games in Short-A 66 11
 Games in Single-A 134 120
 Games in A-Advanced 74 70
 Games in Double-A 26 31
 Games in Triple-A 276 12
Really, Dalton wasn't pushed forward quicker any than Vernon was, both of them traveling similar paths. Vernon's idea of more MiLB teaching in his day seems to signify increased Triple-A time (which clearly proved valuable).
In Dalton Pompey, we can rationally say that Vernon Wells is meeting the 2000 spring training version of himself, coming off of a tremendous climb to the Majors and ready to build on it. 2000 was where Wells ran into his first obstacle, keeping him in Triple-A for nearly the whole season. Pompey, in contrast, is being looked on to start in center field for Toronto on Opening Day. Here's hoping that working with Wells helps prepare Dalton all the more for big-league success to come.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Voices of the Lansing Lugnuts, 1996-Present

Blue Jays spring training action began yesterday in a game against Pittsburgh. Kevin Pillar homered early and Mitch Nay brought the Jays within a run late with an RBI single, but the Blue Jays left the bases loaded in an 8-7 loss. No worries, back at it today!
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The Voices of the Lansing Lugnuts

I'd like to simply put this on the record, honoring my predecessors in the Lugnuts' radio booth.
Mike Vander Woude, 1996-1997. Mike would later go on to become the first broadcaster of the Dayton Dragons as well as the voice of Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. He can still be found broadcasting Dayton games in a pinch-hitting role from time to time.
Jeff Walker, 1998-1999. Jeff left for Triple-A Sacramento in 2000 before becoming the general manager of the Boise Hawks.
Scott Moore, 2000-2002. Scott is the longtime voice of Michigan State University hockey and an original member of the Spartan Sports Network. During the winter, it's easy to find his voice delivering the latest Spartan action from the ice.
Jim Tocco, 2003. Jim came to Lansing from Charleston (WV), called a no-hitter and an unassisted triple, won a Midwest League Championship and received a ring, and then moved to serve as the voice of Montgomery from 2004-2008. (I interned under him with the Biscuits in 2006-2007.) He now lives in Atlanta, working in graphic design.
Seth Van Hoven, 2004-2005. Seth has worked diligently for the Lugnuts for years, predating and postdating his broadcast position with press box responsibilities. He currently works for the American Red Cross by day and handles the official scoring for the Lugs at night.
Brad Tillery, 2006-2008. Brad now lives in Austin, Texas, where he remains as awesome as ever, cheering on his Auburn Tigers.
Jesse Goldberg-Strassler, 2009-present. Me! Joining the Lugnuts six years ago, I've become known for my Baseball Thesaurus and my throwback re-creation broadcasts.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

15 ex-Lugnuts who could make the Majors in 2015

Reading Material:From the Hardball Times, Jack Moore writes about "Baseball Writers, Big Business and Big Sports." He has his head and thoughts in the right place, but there's a lot going on with the piece.
* Blue Jays From Away takes an educated guess about the Lansing Lugnuts' 2015 position players. There's no Anthony Alford or D.J. Davis in his projected Lugs outfield, which I mildly disagree with. I expect we'll get one of the two.
* And, lastly, SportsLogos.net reported a story (in which I was extensively interviewed) on the origin and appeal of the Lansing Lugnuts name.
So... Lansing looks like this
snow
Photo attribute: Me, a few minutes ago.
On the bright side, welcome back, Grapefruit League baseball! The Blue Jays play their first exhibition game of 2015 against the Pirates at 1:07 p.m. The starting lineup:
shi lineup
Courtesy: @ShiDavidi
There are a number of former Lugnuts on that lineup card: starting outfielders Kevin Pillar and Dalton Pompey, starting pitcher Aaron Sanchez, reserves Anthony Alford, Ryan Goins, A.J. Jimenez, Mitch Nay, Sean Ochinko, and Dwight Smith, and relief pitcher Miguel Castro. Pillar, Pompey, Sanchez, and Goins have all made the Majors already. The others have yet to debut in the Bigs.
Who will be the next Lugs to reach the Majors?
Let's discuss.
CarlosPerez2
Carlos Perez, 2011-2012 Lugnuts catcher
Did you know? 103 former Lugnuts have made the Majors since the club's 1996 inception, six last year.
Likeliest Suspects
1.  Noah Syndergaard, class of '11-'12. He's the New York Mets' #1 prospect, one of the top pitching talents in the sport. Noah won't start the season in the Bigs, but he'll be in the Mets' rotation sometime mid-season.
2.  Carlos Perez, class of '11-'12. The Los Angeles Angels delightedly traded Hank Conger for him in the offseason and plan to slate Carlos as their #2 catcher on Opening Day. By the way: there have been 19 Carlos Perezes in pro baseball history.
3.  Justin Nicolino, class of '11-'12. Comprised the "Lansing 3" with Syndergaard and Aaron Sanchez in 2012 and now rates as the Miami Marlins' #3 prospect. Like Noah Syndergaard, likely to arrive around June or July.
4.  David Rollins, class of '12. Selected in the Rule 5 Draft by the Seattle Mariners in December. If he sticks in Spring Training, he'll be on the M's Opening Day roster. With Rollins, Syndergaard, Sanchez, Nicolino and Anthony DeSclafani (a MLBer last year in Miami), the 2012 Lugnuts starting rotation might retrospectively have featured five Major League starters. Nice.
5.  Ryan Tepera, class of '10. Tep has patiently worked his way up the ladder, spending all of last season in Triple-A Buffalo. He's now a member of the Blue Jays' 40-man roster, which allows Toronto to call him up at any time.
6.  A.J. Jimenez, class of '09-'10. Also on the Blue Jays' 40-man. Injuries have hampered the catcher's career, but he waits in the wings if Toronto needs a reserve backstop. If he stays healthy, he'll be looking at a second-string Major League role for the next 5-10 years or so.
Hey, They Could Make it
7.  Jon Berti '12. The Blue Jays need second basemen, a need so deep that they traded for Devon Travis and are converting Dwight Smith, Jr. to the position. Jon plays above-average defense, hits line drives, and run the bases with speed and intelligence. He'll start the season in Triple-A and could well earn his way forward.
8.  Andy Burns '12. Andy has a ton of tools and plays a range of infield positions. He'll be challenged in Triple-A, but like Berti is a perfect candidate to come up to the Bigs in a utility infield role.
9. and 10.  Jack Murphy '10-'11 / Sean Ochinko '10. Both are catchers, both are in Major League camp, both have Triple-A experience... heck, why not? A catcher always has a shot at an MLB call-up. Stay healthy and earn trust from pitchers, that's the key for any catcher.
11.  Marcus Walden '11-'12. He reached the MLB 40-man last year and was called up, but never served time in a game. He's now in the Cincinnati Reds' organization and likely ticketed for Triple-A. A solid performance and a Major League need punches his ticket.
12.  Tyler Ybarra '12.  Tyler is big, left-handed and throws hard. He was traded to the Rockies in the offseason, which bodes well for his future that Colorado asked specifically for him. It's not too much of a stretch to see him pop into the Rox bullpen sometime during the year.
Hey, Why Not?
13.  Dwight Smith, Jr., '13. Transitioning to second base, possessing average to above-average skills in all areas, Dwight gets his first taste of Double-A this year. September call-up potential?
14. and 15.  Roberto Osuna '13 / Miguel Castro '14. Two 20-year-olds with big time arms, both of them already invited to Major League camp. The Blue Jays are high on the young right-handers. If they prosper, Osuna in Double-A and Castro in A-Advanced, one or both could catch some helium.