It’s that time of year when spring training has begun. The big league players have returned to Florida, taken their pictures and have even done some baseball related activities. This is when my mind drifts to the season to come and projects the rosters for the Blue Jays’ minor league teams as we look to open the season. As usual, I’m going to start with the Jays’ lowest-level team, the Lansing Lugnuts, and work my way up the ladder to the Buffalo Bisons.
Today I’ll write about the pitchers and tomorrow I’ll write about the hitters. I usually find the Lansing roster the easiest to project. There are usually a few pitchers who distinguish themselves in Bluefield and Vancouver, earning their way onto the Lansing roster to start the year. There are also usually several pitchers who finished the season in Lansing but haven’t quite shown enough to get moved up to Dunedin.
This year, however, I’m finding my spreadsheet to be overloaded with pitchers who I think are good enough to step up to Lansing but without a lot of room to move up to Dunedin. This is why you’ll see that I have a few categories to the players. The first few listed are the players that I feel are going to be in Lansing to start the year for sure. Then there’s the on the bubble players who could either be in Dunedin or may start off in extended spring training.
I’ll be honest. I have less of a clear impression of who is going to be starting the year as a pitcher in a Lugnuts uniform than I usually do, so I may be a little further off in my predictions than I have in the past, which is also why you see so many names on this list!
Yennsy Diaz spent significant time in Lansing last year, throwing 77 innings but struggling with his control (41 walks) and he gave up 10 home runs. I think the 21 year old be with the team right out of spring training this year, trying to harness his big fastball and develop his secondary pitches.
Randy Pondler, a 21-year-old Nicaraguan lefty, was named the Appalachian League Pitcher of the Year last year. If that’s not enough to get you bumped up to a full-season team, I’m not sure what is. That said, Pondler only threw 57 1/3 innings in the regular season and the Blue Jays may want to hold him back or limit his innings in the early going.
Dalton Rodriguez is another 21 year old, this time from Mexico. He didn’t have the best numbers in Lansing last year but he continually showed improvement in his three starts there and after a solid year in Vancouver, there’s little left for him to prove there.
Juan Nunez, 22, missed all of 2016 with a knee injury and, when he returned, not having pitched above the GCL, it was with the Vancouver Canadians. He didn’t have the best numbers on the surface (5.05 ERA, 1.40 WHIP) but still struck out 53 in 62 1/3 innings while walking 30. He throws hard (95+ mph) and will be looking to develop command and his offspeed pitches, likely with Lansing.
Kyle Weatherly, 23, had injuries derail his 2017 season but he did make four starts in Vancouver and another six in Lansing. He struggled with his control in Lansing and I think he’ll get another chance in 2018.
On the Bubble
Zach Logue is kind of a wildcard on this list. Logue piggybacked in Vancouver and Bluefield last year (his draft year) but shouldered a heavy workload with University of Kentucky as a weekend starter, throwing 87 innings in 2017.
Maximo Castillo is the youngest player on this list, still just 18 years old. The Venezuelan had a solid season in Bluefield last year with over a strikeout per inning but his limited workload (47 1/3 innings) and young age make him an excellent candidate for a later-season arrival in Lansing.
Dany Jimenez hasn’t climbed above the short-season level yet despite being 24 now. Don’t let his 5.30 ERA in Vancouver fool you. He was victimized by home runs but his 23 strikeouts and four walks make him a much better candidate than you mike think to move up. He also only gave up 13 hits. He’s another player who would have to make a huge jump upwards in innings pitched (after losing over a month due to injury) so he could be a good bullpen candidate to start the year while looking towards stretching him out as the summer drags on.
Colton Laws started six of his nine games but the Blue Jays were really controlling his innings (just 15) after he threw 96 innings with UNC Charlotte during his college season. Laws was pretty dominant, striking out 15 and walking only one batter in 15 innings, giving up only 13 hits. Of the bubble guys, the 6-foot-7 22 year old is probably the hands on favourite of mine to break camp with the Lugnuts’ rotation.
Jose Espada was excellent in his draft year in 2015 after being selected in the fifth round out of his Puerto Rico high school. He’s stepped back a bit but started 10 games last year in Vancouver, throwing 49 innings and striking out 51 with just 15 walks.
Matt Shannon will be in his Age-23 season in 2018 and he’s been a college starter whose 2017 season was derailed after four innings in Vancouver when he broke a bone in his foot. If he’s ready to go and throwing like he can, I think he could start the year in Lansing.
Brayden Bouchey, a 22-year-old Vancouver native, helped his hometown team to the Northwest League championship in 2017 and don’t let his 4.20 ERA fool you, he struck out 36 batters in 30 innings, walking only 12 and had a 1.07 WHIP.
Jake Fishman finished his season in Lansing but spent most of it in Vancouver. The lefty struck out a batter per inning in 23 innings with Vancouver, walking only four and he got even better after a promotion to Lansing. In 6 2/3 innings with the Lugnuts, Fishman struck out 15 and didn’t walk anyone but gave up two home runs.
Chris Hall, 24, started and finished his season in Lansing last year but really found himself in Vancouver with a 1.49 ERA and 42 strikeouts in 36 1/3 innings before returning to Michigan. Hall was much better in his return, throwing four innings and giving up four hits and striking out six.
Yonardo Herdenez, 22, bounced around a lot in 2017, making stops in Lansing, Bluefield, New Hampshire and Vancouver but finished in Lansing, posting a 3.31 ERA in his final 16 1/3 innings, striking out 12 and walking six. I think he returns to Lansing.
Orlando Pascual was a dominant reliever in Vancouver last year, tossing 33 innings and striking out 45 with 10 walks, a 2.18 ERA and 1.06 WHIP. Such excellence is usually rewarded with a promotion, particularly since he’s now 22.
Graham Spraker tore apart the Appalachian League after being drafted in the 31st round in 2017. Spraker had a 1.62 ERA and didn’t allow an earned run from July 16 on, including pitching twice in the playoffs in Bluefield and twice more in the playoffs with Vancouver. He’ll be 23 on March 19 and should be in Lansing.
On the Bubble
Emerson Jimenez made an appearance with Lansing during the Crosstown Showdown in 2017 but doesn’t have any pitching experience above the GCL level. He’s reached Double-A as an infielder and throws in the high 90s but I think the Blue Jays will ease him in a little this year, likely only seeing Lansing later in the year as a 23 year old.
Kelyn Jose is another fireballer, this time a lefty, but he’s had a lot of trouble throwing strikes but had his best season in 2017 with Bluefield with a 3.12 ERA and 1.54 WHIP, striking out 36 and walking 25 in 26 innings.
Brody Rodning struggled with his control in Vancouver after being drafted in the 13th round last year. Still, he’s in his Age-22 season and could be a solid bullpen arm for Lansing.
Bobby Eveld pitched at four levels in just his second year of professional baseball. He spent the most time in Vancouver where he had a rough time, posting an 11.17 ERA and 2.17 WHIP with seven walks and 13 strikeouts in 19 1/3 innings but held his own in Lansing at the end of year. I’m going out on a limb but I think he starts in Lansing.
Connor Eller pitched in Lansing last year but his numbers weren’t superb. He walked 19 and struck out 25 in 36 2/3 innings and his walk-to-strikeout ratio was skewed the wrong way after 19 1/3 innings in Dunedin (18 walks, nine strikeouts), where he started the year. So the big question is whether he goes back to Lansing, where he left off the season or back to Dunedin where he started and struggled mightily with his control.
Juliandry Higuera made 18 appearances with Lansing last year, tossing 43 2/3 innings as a Lugnut. The lefty had a 4.74 ERA and a 1.40 WHIP but struck out 51 and walked only 15 coming out of the bullpen. The 23-year-old lefty could very well start in Dunedin.
Donnie Sellers was drafted in the 11th round last year and went on to work limited innings in Vancouver despite starting seven games. He had 30 innings in total with a 3.90 ERA and 1.58 WHIP while striking out 26 and walking 13. I don’t think the Jays will have him back in extended spring training and he could land a spot in Lansing.
Ty Tice was a 16th round draft pick by the Jays last year out of the University of Central Arkansas and was fairly young for the draft pitching in Bluefield in his Age-20 season. He was dominant with a 1.05 ERA and 1.13 WHIP, striking out 35 and walking 11 in 25 2/3 innings. While the Jays may have him in Vancouver in 2018, he could very much be in the equation for the Lansing bullpen.
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