Thursday, July 17, 2014

In Focus: Dawel Lugo

The Lugnuts did everything right in an 8-4 win over Kane County last night.  At least that was how it felt.  They didn't actually do everything right -- Roberto Espinosa was shaky, for instance.  But Shane Dawson fired six scoreless innings, impressively holding the Cougars offense off-balance, and the Lugs' offense built an 8-0 lead against the talented Juan Paniagua, and that was all she wrote.
The hitting hero last night was Dawel Lugo, and it's with Lugo that I wish to spend my words this morning.
Portrait of a 19-year-old hitter
Who is Dawel Lugo?
He's a shortstop, he's from lower-income Bani (Dominican Republic), and he was signed by the Blue Jays as an international free agent when he was 16, three years ago.  He also loves dancing, loves smiling, and seems to greatly amuse his teammates -- at least, when he's not bemusing them.
Lugo has had an interesting season. To go through some fun stats:
1.  He's batting nearly exactly the same at home (.289, 44-152) as he is on the road (.289, 50-173).
2.  He's crushing lefties (.406, 28-69, 10 doubles, 2 homers) and is just fair against righties (.258, 66-256, 5 doubles, 2 triples, 1 homer).
3.  He was terrible in April (.224), great in May (.327), perfectly fine in June (.270) and is lighting up July (.340).
4.  He doesn't walk (10 BB), but he doesn't really strike out, either (43 K in 80 games).  Very few of his at-bats last longer than four pitches.
5.  He committed exactly one error between May 3rd and June 11th -- and it was on May 23rd.  Then he started getting careless.  He's had 11 errors since June 12th.
Dawel Lugo has lightning-quick hands and hits with a snap of his wrists.  A Lugnuts teammate, wondering aloud, related this to Lugo's unorthodox style of curling his hands in toward his body as he waits for the pitch.  A young batter would never be taught to emulate such a form.  In many years of hitting in this fashion, it's quite possible that Lugo's technique has built the potential for uncommon torque.
In batting practice, Lugo's hitting style is a joy to watch.  He blasts line drive after line drive, and it's as easy and carefree as his off-field demeanor.
The problem was (and I use the past tense both purposefully and hopefully) that Lugo's ability to crack wicked line drives had been limited mainly to batting practice, rarely showing up in a game.  He had 35 base hits in May, most on the team, but only four of those hits went for extra bases.
Perhaps something has changed, however.
On July 6th, Lugo lashed a triple in Great Lakes.  On July 8th, he doubled twice in a 4-RBI game Lake County, following up with a third double the next day.  On July 14th, he sent a laser of a home run to left in a 5-RBI game at Bowling Green... and he followed up with another home run (and a double) in his very next game, a 4-for-4 performance vs. Kane County on July 16th.
Lugo's base running is adventurous.  His fielding requires focus, though his glove is excellent and his arm is strong.
But it's Dawel Lugo's bat that has the potential to be his truly exceptional tool, and that means great things for an already explosive Lugnuts offense.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Meet the Cougars, fleetingly

It's the start of a brand new homestand for the Lansing Lugnuts, welcoming in the Kane County Cougars and then the Clinton LumberKings for three-game series at Cooley Law School Stadium.
Who are these Kane County Cougars, partnered up with the Chicago Cubs?  We'll discuss, but first a side note.
It's perfectly fine in baseball circles for Adam Wainwright to give Derek Jeter a "pipe shot," meaning a hittable fastball in the sweet spot of the zone (albeit one at 91 mph).  But Wainwright, being an honest person, answered honestly in the middle of the game about what he had done, and this blew up in his face.
Oh, sure, this tests the integrity of the game -- even an exhibition -- for a pitcher to let a batter have a good swing.  But heaven knows it's occurred many, many times before, for whatever the reason.  Color me unbothered by the drama.  (Also, two batters later, Miguel Cabrera proceeded to slug a two-run homer off a fastball that was off the inside corner.  That pitch was no pipe shot.)
I do wish that a moment of silence had been paid to the passings of Tony Gwynn, Don Zimmer, Jim Fregosi, et al.  Wasted opportunity for MLB on a night they have to themselves every year.
The Kane County Cougars came about in 1991.  That same year, they introduced this logo:
However you feel about the tan cougar head, it remains their logo to this very day (although they did try to update it at one point).
The best players in franchise history make a pretty good list:  Charles Johnson, Edgar Renteria, Randy Winn, Mark Kotsay, Ryan Dempster, Scott Podsednik, A.J. Burnett, Josh Beckett, Josh Willingham, Dontrelle Willis, Nelson Cruz, Joe Blanton, Huston Street, Andrew Bailey, Sean Doolittle, Dan Straily, Yordano Ventura...   Former Lugnuts (and current Marlins) manager Mike Redmond stopped by in 1993 and 1994.  18-year-old Miguel Cabrera and 19-year-old Adrian Gonzalez were the Cougars' corner infielders in 2001.
Last season, the Cougars were terrible:  30-36 in the first half, 25-44 in the second half, 55-80 for the year.
The 2014 Cougars are awesome.  They were 20 games above .500 in the first half, and they're now 10 games above .500 in the second half.  They've promoted Jordan Hankins (.322/.361/.461), Kyle Schwarber (.361/.448/.602), relief aces Tyler Bremer (10 saves) and Zack Godley (7 saves), dominant Justin Amlung (1.54 ERA in 12 G/4 GS), and they just keep on motoring right along.
Their overall record is 62-32.  Their winning percentage, .660, is #1 overall among all full-season MiLB teams.
What do they do well?  Quite frankly, they defend their home field -- a ridiculous 38-12 record at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark in contrast to a fair 24-20 mark at home.  And they pitch; their team ERA is 2.97, tops in the Midwest League.
One of the Cougs' top hitters last year was 19-year-old switch-hitter Jeimer Candelario, who bashed 35 doubles and 11 homers while drawing 68 walks.  This year, he began his season with Daytona and bombed out with a .193 average.  Sent back to Kane County to regain his mojo, he went 6 for his first 45, a meager .133 average through 13 games.  Then the light bulb came back on, and he's been hitting 14-for-34 (.412) with five doubles and three homers since, taking in the Midwest League Hitter of the Week honors in the process.  Scary.
In the rotation, Kane County is throwing three starters at the Lugs with ERAs under 3.00.  The top prospect might just be Thursday night's starter, 19-year-old Duane Underwood, who was drafted in the 2nd round in 2012.  Then again, Friday night's starter, 22-year-old Tyler Skulina, isn't a slouch himself.  The reliever to worry about is 21-year-old James Pugliese, with a 1.22 ERA and 50 strikeouts against just nine walks in 44.1 innings.
The curious thing with Midwest League interdivision play:  These are three games, quickly finished.  On Saturday, the Clinton LumberKings (Seattle) arrive into town for three meetings of their own, which will also soon be completed and passed by.
At the lower levels, the Cubs' and Mariners' farmhands get into a bitter rivalries with the Blue Jays' farmhands.  The 2013 Appalachian League, for instance, pitted the talented Bluefield Blue Jays against the eventual league champion Pulaski Mariners.  The 2013 Northwest League title saw the Jay-affiliated Vancouver Canadians battle past the Cub-affiliated Boise Hawks to hoist the NWL crown.
But because they are separated in the Eastern Division (Lansing) and Western Division (Kane County and Clinton) in the MWL, these are solely cameo series -- fleeting challenges, nothing more.  Soon, the Lugnuts will be taking on the Loons, TinCaps, Whitecaps, Dragons, Silver Hawks and Captains again, and these Kane County Cougars (and shortly the Clinton LumberKings) will be nothing more than memories from a long season of baseball.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

In Focus: outfielder Derrick Loveless

Today is an off day for the Lugnuts.  We drove throughout the night -- by we, I mean Mark, our motor coach operator -- and arrived in Lansing at 7:30 a.m.  (It's also an off day for all of the Minor Leagues:  the better for all of us to kick back and watch the MLB All-Star Game tonight.)
Yesterday's post was of little written substance:  The latest Around the Nest, a highlight that amused me, and a brief bit on Dalton Pompey.  Today shall be more substantive.
Let me quickly say, though, that it is a wonderful thing to see Henderson Alvarez honored as a National League All-Star.  Henderson started the very first Lugnuts regular season game I ever broadcasted, Opening Day 2009.  He was 18, tall and skinny, with a golden arm that could touch the mid-90s with remarkable movement on his pitches.  He was a bundle of energy, too, who needed to be told not to go all out when he shagged flies during batting practice.  I've never seen a quicker pitcher in fielding his position.  (This year's Lugnuts squad had Kendall Graveman and has Phil Kish and Chase De Jong, all of whom are excellent defensively, but not a one of them was quicker than Henderson when it came to attacking a bunt.)
Heck, Henderson was quick in everything.  Check out this nine-inning game he started, which finished in a cool 1:46.  (The opposing Kernels had Alexi Amarista, Will Smith and Michael Kohn, all of whom have reached the Majors.)
Henderson Alvarez is my first Lugnut to be named an MLB All-Star.  I wonder who will be next.
I'd like to spend more of my off-day, though, writing about 2014 Lugnuts outfielder Derrick Loveless, who reminds me a great deal of 2013 Lugnuts outfielder Dalton Pompey.
(This season, Pompey has exploded into the prospect rankings and is now considered one of the Blue Jays' very best young players.  On Sunday, he took part in the Futures Game and went 2-for-4 with singles off of flame throwing Lucas Giolito and Robert Stephenson.  He also stole second base.)
The similarities:
Both Loveless and Pompey are relatively little-known outfielders who were drafted out of high school.  Neither one had done anything of note before joining the Lugnuts, whether due to struggles or injuries.

Both began their season in Lansing hitting everything to the opposite field and showing no willingness/plan to pull the ball.
Dalton Pompey batted .243 in the first half of 2013, displaying patience (OBP 73 points higher) but very little power (0 homers).  Derrick Loveless hit .256 in the first half of 2014, providing patience (OBP 104 points higher) but only a tinge of power (1 homer).

In the second half, both began pulling the baseball... and crushing it.  Pompey slugged six homers in the second half, including four in the span of six games.  Loveless already has four homers in 23 games in this half.  All of these home runs are blasts.Last year, Pompey paced the Lugs with 63 walks.  This year, Loveless leads the Lugnuts with 47 walks.  Pompey batted .261/.358/.394 last year.  Loveless has a slash line of .268/.375/.404.
In short, we are looking at:

1.  Two athletic young outfielders
2.  who draw walks,
3.  steal bases,
4.  hit for surprising power,
5.  and are only just starting to realize how good they can be.
My question, then:  Will Derrick Loveless also make the leap into big-time Blue Jays prospect when he arrives in Dunedin?
I love this comparison, but there are key differences to take into account:
*  Pompey stole 38 bases last year; Loveless has nabbed only 8.  Only the former is an elite base stealer.
*  Pompey plays the premium position of center field, where he went entirely without committing an error and was named an MiLB Gold Glove recipient.  Loveless plays right field, not as premium a position, and has committed five errors.
*  Pompey is a switch-hitter, giving him an edge no matter who is on the mound.  Loveless bats from the left side and is hitting a mere .192 against southpaws compared to .285 against right-handers.
Still, with 2010 16th-rounder Dalton Pompey blossoming and now watching 2011 27th-rounder Derrick Loveless begin to take the same leap forward this year, the Blue Jays are finding surprising prospect depth.  On the good to bad scale, this is a good thing.
For Derrick Loveless, it's more than good.  It's rather exciting.

Monday, July 14, 2014

AtN, a triple steal, and the Futures Game

Let's begin with the latest "Around the Nest," talking Matt Dean, Mitch Nay, and perspectives on other notables within the Blue Jays organization, with a new show every Friday:


From here, for a nice throwback highlight, enjoy Vanderbilt executing the rare triple steal:



Three former Lugnuts represented the Blue Jays in the Future Game -- Dalton Pompey, A.J. Jimenez and Daniel Norris -- with fellow former Lug Noah Syndergaard appearing as part of the Mets' organization. Norris looked solid in a scoreless inning, but it was Pony Pompey who took most of the attention, delivering singles off of talented Lucas Giolito and Robert Stephenson and swiping second base. * Yesterday, both Dean and Nay had their 14-game hitting streaks snapped in the Lugnuts' 3-1 loss at Bowling Green, dropping Lansing to 11-12 in the second half. The series finale is tonight. The Lugs, who hit so well in Kentucky in the first half, have seen their offense quieted in recent days. They're still batting for a healthy average both this month and overall, but the runs have been scant. With Jeremy Gabryszwski starting tonight, some more offense is in order to send the squad back home on a positive note.