Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Lansing 3 (+1), a retrospective

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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."
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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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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.

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