Fun to read in retrospect, here was my story for the 2014 Lansing Lugnuts team magazine:
Here’s a classic question for you, with eighteen seasons to draw upon: What’s the best Lugnuts team in franchise history?
Narrow down the choices a bit. Was it the 1997 Lugnuts, affiliated with the Kansas City Royals, who won the club’s first Midwest League championship? Could it have been the MWL champion 2003 Lugnuts, affiliated with the Chicago Cubs, who boasted 16 future Major Leaguers? Or was it the record-setting 2012 Lugnuts, affiliated with the Toronto Blue Jays, winners of 82 games on the shoulders of a pitching staff loaded with aces?
Just make sure to leave a little space on your list.
The 2014 version of the Lansing Lugnuts features a balance of talent, work ethic, and accomplishments. Writes Clint Longenecker in the 2014 Baseball America Prospect Handbook, “The Blue Jays are arguably as deep and as talented as any organization at the lower levels….” Richard Griffin pointed out in The (Toronto) Star “…22 of the Jays’ 30 highest-rated prospects are born in 1992 or later – 22 years old or younger. That’s the highest total of young players of any organization, followed by the Reds with 21 and the Rangers with 19.”
Baseball America’s rankings for players projected toward the Midwest League: #3 overall Jays prospect D.J. Davis, #4 prospect Mitch Nay, #8 Alberto Tirado, #9 Dawel Lugo, #11 Chase DeJong, #12 Jairo Labourt, #16 Tom Robson, #25 Matt Dean. In Clint Longenecker’s opinion, the Lugnuts’ 2014 roster could showcase six of the twelve best players the Blue Jays’ organization has to offer.
If you’d care for a second opinion, SB Nation minor league analyst John Sickels places Nay at #3, Davis at #7, Tirado at #8, Lugo at #10, Robson at #12, Labourt at #15, DeJong at #16, and L.B. Dantzler at #18. In his own Top 10 Blue Jays prospects list, Fangraphs’ Marc Hulet agrees that Mitch Nay is the Blue Jays’ third best prospect, placing Alberto Tirado sixth and D.J. Davis eighth. The common expert consensus: The young Blue Jay farmhands can seriously play.
They are young, too. Davis, Tirado, Lugo and Labourt are 19; Nay, DeJong and Robson are 20; and Matt Dean is 21. The senior statesman is 22-year-old Dantzler, a product of the University of South Carolina.
So who are these players?
In the Lineup
Begin with center fielder D.J. Davis, selected with the Toronto’s very first pick in the 2012 draft, seventeenth overall. As the Toronto Sun’s Bob Elliott tells it, young Dylan Jaleel learned that one of the scouts watching him take batting practice was employed by the Blue Jays. “ ‘Can I ask you something, sir?’ the teenager asked the scout. ‘Tell me the truth, was my pop any good?’ The scout replied, ‘When your father hit ’em, they sure stayed hit.’ ” Wayne Davis played 403 games in the Blue Jays’ organization, rising as high as Class A-Advanced Dunedin in 1988 before retiring due to a “degenerative eye condition.” Before he was done, he had knocked 48 home runs and stolen 98 bases.
Now his son, possessing the same combination of game-breaking speed and power potential, is poised to pass him, with Lansing just one rung beneath Dunedin along the Toronto ladder. With respect to the elder Davis, though, Blue Jays coach Omar Malave told Elliott (“with a smile”) that D.J.’s “definitely a better player than his father.” Toronto assistant general manager Tony LaCava added, “His father played, so he has the baseball genetics, and he was the fastest guy we scouted leading up to the draft.”
In a different sense, baseball also runs in Mitch Nay’s blood. The third baseman’s grandfather is Lou Klimchock, who played in the Major Leagues from 1958-1970, suiting up for the Kansas City Athletics, Washington Nationals, Milwaukee Braves, New York Mets and Cleveland Indians. (At age 18, Klimchock slugged his first career home run against 19-year-old White Sox hurler Stover McIlwain. As catalogued by SABR biographer Chuck Johnson, “It was the first time in modern major-league history that a teenager had homered off another teenager.”) Decades later, the proud grandpa made sure that young Mitch was never without his glove or bat.
The upbringing worked out fine; upon graduating from high school, slugging third baseman Mitch Nay was drafted 58th overall by Toronto in 2012. His current defensive position, interestingly, hinged upon the success of a 2013 Lansing Lugnut. Sparkplug Jorge Flores, two years older than Nay, moved from Baja California, Mexico, to Chandler, Arizona, and won the shortstop role on the Chandler High School baseball team. Nay was switched to third, and there he has stayed. His road through the Jays’ system hit an early hiccup – back and wrist injuries cost him the 2012 season – but he recovered with a booming 2013 season with Bluefield, jumping up to Vancouver for the postseason and capturing the Northwest League Postseason MVP Award.
While D.J. Davis and Mitch Nay agreed to seven-figure bonuses as domestic draft picks, Dominican shortstop Dawel Lugo signed his name to a deluxe international free agent contract as a 16-year-old blue chipper in 2011. Playing a position noted more for its defensive importance than its offensive impact, he debuted on American soil the very next season, skipping over the Dominican Summer League. He jumped up to Bluefield to open 2013 and was slotted immediately into the 3-hole in the starting lineup, collecting three hits on Opening Day… and then notching three more hits in a game two days later. Lugo’s best outing of 2013 seemed to have arrived with a four-hit game against Princeton on July 26th, before he topped it by going 5-for-5 with a double, home run and three RBIs vs. Elizabethton on August 3rd. He was promoted to Vancouver thirteen days later, finishing the season as the starting shortstop for the title-winning Canadians
The 2013 Bluefield Blue Jays’ MVP was not D.J. Davis, nor was it Mitch Nay or Dawel Lugo. First baseman Matt Dean had been Toronto’s 13th round pick in 2011, debuting in Bluefield to much hoopla in 2012 before struggling to a .222 average and 60 strikeouts in 49 games. The Blue Jays sent him back to the Appalachian League in 2013, moving him from third to first base in 2013 to make room for Mitch Nay, and Dean responded by winning the Appalachian League batting title with a .338 average. “He showed his commitment to improving,” wrote Clint Longenecker, “by keeping a journal tracking every pitch he saw on the season.” That commitment paid off with the R. Howard Webster Award, delivered by the Blue Jays to the Most Valuable Player of each affiliate.
A level above Bluefield, first baseman L.B. Dantzler graciously accepted the R. Howard Webster Award for the 2013 Northwest League Champion Vancouver Canadians. Dantzler (“L.B.” is short for “Little Bradley,” determined by his parents, Brad and Sue, before he was born) had been voted team captain for the powerful South Carolina Gamecocks, where he was named the 2013 Capital One Academic All-American of the Year after recording a 3.64 GPA, putting in over 50 volunteer hours at the Epworth Children’s Home, and leading the Gamecocks with a .322 batting average.
Dantzler was drafted in the 14th round last June, playing one game in the Gulf Coast League before receiving a brisk promotion to the Northwest League. As it turned out, professional baseball wasn’t any more difficult than SEC competition for L.B., who proceeded to lead the Northwest League in home runs, doubles, extra-base hits and total bases. On September 4th, L.B. Dantzler was named as the NWL Most Valuable Player. In an official Canadians release, C’s manager (and 2008-2009 Lugnuts manager) Clayton McCullough said, “There isn’t much more you can ask from a player in his first year of professional baseball. He was prepared to play every day and made the players around him that much better because of the way he handled himself both on and off the field. He is just a quality human being, and I couldn’t be happier for him today.”
On the Mound
It’s tempting to put 19-year-olds Alberto Tirado and Jairo Labourt into many of the same sentences: Both are from the Dominican Republic, Tirado from Nagua, Labourt from Azua. Both signed as free agents in 2011, Labourt on his 17th birthday. Both pitched in the Gulf Coast League in 2012, moving up to the Appalachian League in 2013, where they served as starting pitchers in Bluefield’s two playoff games.
Once you see them on the mound, though, the comparison ends. Right-handed Tirado is a slender six-footer who briefly dropped by last season to pitch an inning against Michigan State. He’s the harder thrower of the two, posting a 3-0 record and a 1.68 ERA for Bluefield thanks to a fastball touching 98 miles per hour, complemented by a slider and change-up. Left-handed Labourt is big and wide-shouldered, listed at 6’4, 200 pounds, with a hard sinker that draws rave reviews. Once Bluefield was eliminated, Labourt was promptly moved right up to Vancouver, where he struck out 10 batters in 5 2/3 innings in the Northwest League playoffs.
Vancouver’s primary playoff starter in 2013 had also been promoted from Bluefield, albeit earlier in the season. 6’4 right-hander Tom Robson was the highest Canadian drafted in 2011, taken by Toronto in the 4th round out of Delta High School (British Columbia) and signed away from a commitment to, coincidentally, Jorge Flores’s Central Arizona squad. The year before, Robson pitched for the Canadian Junior National Team at the World Championships, an experience (he told the Canadian Baseball Network) that ranked equal in importance to getting drafted by the Blue Jays.
After a brief three-start debut in 2012 for Bluefield, Robson emerged last season thanks to command and potent sinker/change combination. Returning to the Appalachian League, he blanked the opposition in 25 of 26 innings before jumping to Vancouver and allowing no more than one run in any of his seven starts. In his final appearance of the year, he pitched shutout ball into the seventh inning of Game 3 in the Northwest League Championship Series, exiting to a standing ovation at Nat Bailey Stadium. The C’s finished off a 5-0 shutout to hoist their third straight Freitas Cup.
6’4 Californian right-hander Chase DeJong signed with the Blue Jays as the 81st overall draft pick in 2012, mastering the Gulf Coast League in his debut, and then dropping on the Crosstown Showdown and striking out four Spartans in two easy innings. Immediately afterward, to his disappointment, he was sent back to Extended Spring Training and placed on track to open the year at Bluefield. “I was angry about it for two days,” DeJong told the Century Club back home after the season, “but then decided I was gonna be the best pitcher down here. It lit a fire under me. I was pitching in another world.”
Working aggressively off a fastball/curve 1-2 punch, DeJong finished the year with a team-leading 66 strikeouts. On September 3rd, he was added to the Vancouver Canadians’ playoff roster alongside Jairo Labourt, Mitch Nay and Brady Dragmire. Manager McCullough called upon DeJong in Game 2 in the first round at Everett. The right-hander responded with a scoreless inning as the C’s knocked out the AquaSox in an 11-4 rout. That led to the Championship Series victory over Boise, including the 14-hour one-way bus trip between the two cities. “The lifestyle is not glamorous by any means,” DeJong admitted, “but it’s a whole lot of fun.”
Under the Radar
In 2012, the presence of Aaron Sanchez, Noah Syndergaard and Justin Nicolino overshadowed a collegiate outfielder. By the end of the season, that outfielder, Kevin Pillar, had been voted Midwest League Most Valuable Player. One year later, he made his Major League debut. This is the delight in watching minor league baseball, where hard work and the occasional light bulb blinking on can rocket any farmhand past his peers, regardless of what the prospect rankings might think. Consider the following candidates for this season:
Catcher Mike Reeves was first drafted by Toronto out of secondary school in 2009. Failing to sign him, they took Reeves again four years later out of Florida Gulf Coast University and assigned him right to Vancouver. He led the Northwest League in games behind the plate and caught 14 of 56 prospective base stealers. At bat, he finished 11th in the league (and third on the Canadians) with a .275 average, adding 28 walks for a .374 on-base percentage. Reeves could very well rise up through the system in a hurry.
Vancouver’s igniter last season was Chaz Frank, drafted in the 21st round in June out of North Carolina, three rounds ahead of Mike Reeves. Like Reeves, Frank was sent directly to the Northwest League, where he batted .282 (8th in the league, 2nd on the Canadians behind L.B. Dantzler) and reached base via hit, walk, or hit-by-pitch 91 times in only 49 games. Frank’s .412 on-base percentage placed him 3rd in the circuit, helped by a team-high 36 walks and 35 35 runs scored. Defensively, Chazwell Storm Frank was sterling: In 47 games, he did not commit an error.
Infielder Dickie Thon, Jr.’s father was a Major League All-Star during a 15-year career for the Angels, Astros, Padres, Phillies, Rangers and Brewers. The younger Thon signed for seven figures after hearing his name called in the 5th round, 2010. After batting .223 and .221 in respective seasons for the Gulf Coast League Blue Jays and Bluefield, Dickie seized the regular shortstop role at age 21 for Vancouver, batting .280 and reaching base 37% of the time.
Where was southpaw Shane Dawson, a native of Drayton Valley, Alberta, when he heard the news that he had been drafted by a Major League team in 2012? “I was actually dropping my little sister off at school,” he told Alexis Brudnicki of the Canadian Baseball Network. Shane’s next surprise – he had been drafted by Toronto. “I thought it was going to be the Red Sox,” he admitted. “They called me the day before the draft and asked me a bunch of questions about the draft…. I didn’t know if I was going to sign or go back to school. But the Blue Jays met all my expectations with what they offered.” Dawson met his own expectations last year. Transitioning from flamethrower to command pitcher, he mastered both Bluefield and Vancouver in 2013 with a series of strikeout-filled performances before a shoulder impingement ended his season.
When it comes to command, Jeremy Gabryszwski has the last word. The 6’4 Texan right-hander joined the Blue Jays organization as Toronto’s 2nd round draft pick in 2011, taken four slots after 2013 Lugnut left-hander Daniel Norris. Three seasons later, Gabryszwski has issued only 15 walks in 128 innings, recording sub-3.00 ERAs with Bluefield in 2012 and Vancouver in 2013.
Bluefield utilized a piggy-back staff for the early part of 2013, pairing Chase DeJong with Shane Dawson, Tom Robson with Jairo Labourt, and Alberto Tirado with 20-year-old Zak Wasilewski. The 14th round left-hander out of Tazewell, Virginia, ended up leading Bluefield with 11 starts, finishing 4-2 with a 3.16 ERA.
On the Horizon
Under Alex Anthopoulos, Toronto has made a commitment of loading up on raw, high-ceiling prospects. Though they may not arrive until next year, Lugnuts fans can look forward to seeing another wave of terrific talent when these current players graduate.
Behind Dawel Lugo and Dickie Thon, 18-year-old Franklin Barreto is regarded as one of the top young players in baseball. Inked out of Venezuela for seven figures in 2012, Barreto was named the R. Howard Webster Award winner as MVP for the 2013 Gulf Coast League Blue Jays. Clint Longenecker regards him as the Jays’ #5 prospect.
The Blue Jays’ #24 prospect is another 18-year-old shortstop, Dominican Richard Urena. That positional depth caused a stir of movement in August 2013 when Thon fell victim to injury: Lugo flew from Bluefield to Vancouver to take Thon’s place; Barreto was promoted to Bluefield, where he went 5-for-8 in the playoffs; and Urena came stateside, arriving in time to bat .333 with two doubles and three walks in seven GCL games.
At second base, Ithaca College’s own Tim Locastro is on his way up the ladder, cut out of the same mold as previous fan favorites Jon Berti and Ryan Goins. In 2013, Locastro stole a record-setting 40 bases in 41 attempts for the Division-III Bombers, scoring 71 runs and getting hit by 29 pitches to break two more school records. Once added to the Blue Jays’ organization, the pesky Locastro struck out only 12 times in 43 games with Bluefield – a total topped by his RBIs (13) and walks (13) and matched by his stolen bases.
Toronto’s top young power hitter is big Rowdy Tellez, who stands 6’4, 220. Considered the 59th best player in the draft, Tellez had a strong commitment to the University of Southern California, dropping him to the 30th round. The Blue Jays unexpectedly managed to sign him, with Tellez making his professional debut in the Gulf Coast League. Considered the Blue Jays’ #18 prospect, he’s expected to start launching home runs at Cooley Law School Stadium within two years.
The top arms rising through the system include a quartet of exciting phenoms: 19-year-old Miguel Castro, a lanky 6’5 right-hander rated the #26 minor leaguer in the organization, blew away the Dominican Summer League in 2013. 20-year-old Matt Smoral stands 6’9; drafted 50th overall in 2012, the Jays’ #13 prospect is looking to put past injury and blister woes behind him and take a significant step forward this season. Castro and Smoral are likely to be joined in Bluefield this season by fellow prep stars Clinton Hollon (#15, a 19-year-old right-hander) and Jake Brentz (#28, a 19-year-old lefty). Solid seasons from any of the four would likely be rewarded with a ticket to Lansing in 2015.
But how good will any of these Blue Jays farmhands be this season?
Could the 2014 Lugnuts rank among the best teams to ever play in Michigan’s state capital? The future is in their hands, to be played out in front of you… and the Toronto Blue Jays will be watching closely.