Projected 2015 Rosters #1: Lansing Lugnuts Pitchers
By Jay Blue
Blue Jays From Away
This post is the first part of an eight-part series that will be my attempt to predict the Opening Day rosters for the Blue Jays’ four full-season minor league teams which start their seasons on April 9.
This exercise is actually pretty tricky when you get down to the nuts and bolts of it. Trying to predict which players get assigned to which team is a challenge because we’re doing this over a month before the season opens, right about the time that minor league spring training opens. A great performance or a poor performance can move a player up and down while we can’t see the refinement or improvement of skills to make the kinds of judgements as to whether the organization deems a player to be ready for a particular level.
This is all an educated guessing game and I’ll probably get a few right, a few wrong and there’s always one or two roster decisions that completely surprise me. The Lugnuts’ first official game is April 10 against the Lake County Captains but they play their Crosstown Showdown on April 9 against the Michigan State Spartans.
I highly recommend reading Lansing Lugnuts’ announcer and media director Jesse Goldberg-Strassler’s thoughts on where the 2014 Lugnuts will wind up. It made for interesting reading and Jesse has shared with me his thoughts about the 2015 roster which I certainly took into consideration when putting together my list.
I’m going to be a little wishy-washy and put the players into two categories: those who I’m pretty sure will be in Lansing this year and those who I think are on the bubble and could open the season elsewhere.
Yes, there are a lot of pitchers there and there is a possibility that there could be some piggy-backing going on. Of this group, I think the no-brainers are Borucki, Labourt, Smoral and Tirado. Borucki and Smoral spent time in both Bluefield and Vancouver and both have had two seasons of short season ball under their belt. Looking back, the Jays like to get their higher upside prospects into full-season ball in their third year in the pros.
Tirado and Labourt are also pretty much no-brainers. Both struggled in Lansing last year and found more success when sent down to Vancouver so it’s pretty easy to think that both of them will be able to take their lessons back to Lansing in 2015.
Evan Smith has also had two pro seasons under his belt and was very successful in the GCL before having a solid year in Bluefield. He doesn’t turn 20 until August and could conceivably be held back in extended spring training.
Mallard is kind of a bubble guy. He’s a four-year college pitcher who is 23 and having him around will give a young staff some stability. That said, if there’s any Lugnut who can pull a Kendall Graveman and get all the way to the big leagues in his second professional season, it’s Mallard. He could start in Dunedin but I doubt it.
Suriel had a roller coaster of a first professional year and would give the Lugnuts’ rotation another arm who has pitched at the level before (42 innings in 2014) and has had some success. He could also start the year in Dunedin if the roster is getting too crowded.
Tinoco was in his third season in North America last year (after joining the GCL Blue Jays from the Dominican Republic in 2012) and his 95 mph heater will look good in Lansing. That said, he won’t be 20 until after the season starts and could stay in extended spring training for one more year.
Both of these Canadian pitchers struggled with injuries in 2014 and both could be back in Lansing at some point in 2014. Robson is recovering from Tommy John surgery and probably won’t be back on the mound until June while Dawson has had his own issues, only pitching 56 innings in Lansing before being shut down in mid-July. Dawson is only 21 and could easily be back in Lansing if he’s not pitching for Dunedin. Another option, if the Blue Jays think he’s fragile, is that he’ll have a bullpen role somewhere, probably Dunedin.
I think Huffman and Shafer will be on the outside looking in this year. Both were drafted in 2014 (Huffman in the 6th round and Shafer in the 8th) and Shafer had some struggles in Vancouver. Shafer is older at 22 but he also has less mileage on his arm, only becoming a full-time pitcher since turning pro. Huffman was outstanding last year but it was mostly in the GCL and it’s rare to see the Blue Jays promote a pitcher to Lansing after only 11 innings in Bluefield. (Alonzo Gonzalez coming to Lansing in 2013 is the only recent example I can think of and he needed to go back to Vancouver halfway through that season before having a much better year in 2014 back in Lansing).
The first name on this list, Adonys Cardona, is a big question mark to see how he’s going to be able to come back after breaking his elbow and having a screw inserted surgically to keep the whole thing together. Cardona has shown signs of being able to pitch effectively after struggling with control but the injury derailed hopes of having a full season to figure things out. Does he come back this year to pitch well or does he need more time?
For me, several of these pitchers are no brainers. Del Rosario and Wellbrock both had stints with the Lugnuts while Kraft, a lefty, was almost unhittable in 30 1/3 innings between Bluefield and Vancouver (11 hits in 30 1/3 innings).
Andrew Case was excellent in Vancouver last year and will give the Lugnuts some Canadian content and Romano spent most of his draft year in Bluefield dominating. Romano, a Markham, Ontario native, will be 22 on April 21 and will make a nice complement to the Lansing bullpen.
Fernandez had a solid season in Vancouver and is already 22. He’d provide the Lugnuts with another lefty in the bullpen.
The Crosstown Showdown is another story. Usually the Blue Jays fly some of their exciting younger prospects up to Lansing for a game. These pitchers are generally the ones who will get to Lansing the following year. You might expect Sean Reid-Foley, Nick Wells and Grayson Huffman to make the trip this year. I’ll put Hansel Rodriguez (a 2013 highly-regarded international free agent) as a dark horse to come up for the April 9 game. I’m planning to be there and I’m excited to see my first CTSD!
The injury to Max Pentecost is clearly what pushes Jansen into a starting role for the Lugnuts in 2014. Recently undergoing shoulder surgery that will keep him from throwing until the end of May, Pentecost is on the shelf which opens up the space for Jansen who was one of the nicest prospect surprises of 2014 until a knee injury (sustained when stepping on home plate) finished his season prematurely.
Seth Conner is a veteran minor league backup who has spent a lot of time in Vancouver over the last few years. I think he’ll get a Lansing assignment to open the season although the city isn’t new to him at all.
Finally, I think a wild card could be Michael De La Cruz. De La Cruz played last year in Vancouver and he’ll be 22. He doesn’t have the best defensive numbers but he might be okay with the bat. Brett Wellman and Kevin Garcia were the only two other college catchers who the Blue Jays drafted in 2014.
So, according to Goldberg-Strassler, Justin Atkinson has been working on moving behind the plate. Does he return to Lansing where he had a pretty good 2014 with the bat or does he move up to Dunedin?
You’re looking at a pretty powerful 1B/DH combo for Lansing in 2015. Tellez is one of the premiere power-hitting first base prospects in the system and, after a sluggish start with Bluefield last year, he recovered nicely, ending up in Lansing at the end of the year and really showing me a lot in terms of plate discipline and approach as well as in-game power.
McBroom had a huge year in Vancouver last year after being drafted in the 15th round. While he cooled down at the end of the year (it could have been due to fatigue after a long college season), he still hit five home runs in August and tied for the Northwest League lead with 11 dingers.
At second base for the Lugnuts, I’m kind of torn on who is actually going to get the bulk of the every day at bats. I’ve got one of those good feelings about Heidt who fell in the draft after a wrist injury sapped his power in his final year of college. The Jays picked him up in the 13th round and I’ve read people comment that it could be one of the big steals of the draft. He hit solidly with the Canadians last year and, after resting for the offseason, could have a big 2015.
I’m also a fan of Locastro. The guy just gets on base. However, last year he didn’t walk a lot but got hit by an incredible number of pitches. Is that a skill that is projectable? Still, he doesn’t have a lot of power and Heidt may well have more of an upside.
In his second season with the Blue Jays, Maldonado showed some big improvement, increasing his contact skills as well as his power numbers, going from one extra-base hit in 116 plate appearances with Bluefield in 2013 to nine in 168 plate appearances in 2014. Maldonado hit .303/.365/.382 for Vancouver last year.
Metzler was a 2014 draftee and while he hit only .239 in Vancouver, he also had a .351 OBP. He’ll probably be a semi-regular after having been a shortstop in college. He played 20 games at third and 13 at second in 2014 for Vancouver.
Urena is, hands down, going to be the Lugnuts’ shortstop in 2015 after his way to Lansing was cleared by the trade of Franklin Barreto. The best defensive shortstop in a crop of international free agents, Urena had a stellar year with the Bluefield Blue Jays, winning the R. Howard Webster Award as the team’s MVP with a .318/.363/.433 line. He’s got loads of gap power which will play well in Cooley Law School Stadium and he’ll be among the youngest players on the Lugnuts.
Attaway is another college 2014 draftee who struggled a bit but still showed some good patience at the plate, posting an OBP that was almost 150 points higher than his .206 batting average. He also had six doubles and two triples in 121 plate appearances in Bluefield and would be a good fit for the Lugnuts as a utility guy after having played games at second, short and third for the Bluefield club.
Thomas is kind of a wild card. A high school draftee last year (in the 5th round), Thomas is being looked at almost equally as a third baseman and center fielder. He didn’t show any weaknesses when adjusting to the professional game, hitting a combined .281/.369/.398 between the GCL and Bluefield and his numbers actually went up a ton when he moved up to Bluefield. After the Fall Instructional League and Spring Training, the Jays could decide that Thomas is ready for higher ball, although I think there’s a greater chance that the 19 year old could stay back in extended spring training before getting a Vancouver assignment.
These are the three outfielders who I think will almost certainly be in Lansing in 2015. Almonte was a 2012 draft pick who blossomed in Bluefield last year. As a guy with three years of short-season ball experience and, at the age of 21, it’s time for him to move up.
Carlson was a college draftee last year and only hit .312/.409/.381 with Vancouver. There’s no point in keeping him there in 2015.
Davis is a 22 year old 2013 draftee who had a solid first year in the pros before struggling with injury and trying to switch hit in 2014. Despite that, I think that he’s in Lansing to get his work in over a full season.
Fields is a guy who was delivering the mail before the Jays signed him as a non-drafted free agent at the end of 2013. He didn’t play that year but he led the Northwest League in stolen bases in 2014 and could very well be in center field for the Lugnuts in 2015.
I will qualify my convictions with the fact that there are a lot of other names coming up and any of these three could be left in extended spring training.
Here’s where the big questions come. Will the Jays send Alford back to Lansing (where he played five games last year or are they going to count his Australian Baseball League time as counting towards A-ball experience and send him to Dunedin?
The same question refers to Davis. Is he going to be in Lansing or Dunedin? Do the Jays want him to repeat the level despite showing tremendous tools but the lack of skill development that led him to setting an all-time record for strikeouts in a year for the Lugnuts?
Collins was an undrafted free agent in 2013 and dominated the GCL that year before putting up mediocre numbers in Vancouver last year. He’s already 25 (will be 26 in June) and he needs to get into full season ball this year.
Finally, there’s Thomas. My read on the situation is that the Jays are really high on him but will want him to get everyday at bats somewhere. With this group of outfielders, there’s the chance that he gets the playing time at third base if he’s with Lansing but I think his playing time in Vancouver (if that’s where he ends up) doesn’t come at the cost of anyone else’s.
Who do you think will be on the Lansing Lugnuts’ pitching staff in 2015?
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