Our more detailed look at the 2013 Lansing Lugnuts begins with the starting pitchers and there were definitely some intriguing players among them.
The Lugnuts’ pitching staff finished towards the bottom of the Midwest League which appears to be a fairly tough league for hitters. While the overall numbers aren’t all that bad, some of these pitchers had a lot of difficulty moving up from Vancouver, showing that the jump between Vancouver and Lansing is a tricky one.
As one of the only starters for the Lugnuts that managed to stay healthy and in a starting role for the entire season, Taylor Cole, 24, led the team with 26 starts. He followed up his outstanding season last year in Vancouver by leading the club with 101 strikeouts in 132 innings. It wasn’t all rosy for Cole who was drafted in the 29th round in 2011 by the Blue Jays after he had completed a two-year mission and returned to school at Brigham Young University. While he dominated the Northwest League last season, he struggled with control in Lansing, walking 59 and posting a 1.52 WHIP despite his solid 4.02 ERA. His declining strikeout rate (down 6% from 2012) and rising walk rate (up 3% from 2012) indicate that he wasn’t able to hit the corners he needed to hit or deceive batters in the same way as he did at the lower level. Cole isn’t overpowering, maxing out in the high-80s but he changes speeds well and can get batters off-balance with his changeup. He made a start in Dunedin and will likely begin 2014 there.
24-year-old Ben White logged the most innings for the Lansing Lugnuts and was one of the team’s biggest surprises. I talked to the Lugnuts’ pitching coach, Vince Horsman, in August and he spoke very highly about White and the way he was able to succeed in the starter’s role by staying within himself and getting the most out of his abilities. White also answered some questions for us, so if you’re looking for more information from the Temple grad, look no further than Blue Jays from Away. After a couple of seasons spent in Vancouver, White made the jump to Lansing and was expected to be a bullpen arm for the Lugnuts. Instead, he made 23 starts, threw 137 1/3 innings and posted a 4.37 ERA, a 1.44 WHIP with 46 walks and 98 strikeouts. An encouraging sign is the fact that he improved both his strikeout and walk ratios as he went up a level. I can see him going to Dunedin next year after a strong year.
23-year-old Venezuelan righty Javier Avendano was, along with Taylor Cole, one of the best pitchers in the Northwest League in 2012, the year he was selected by the Blue Jays in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 Draft. Like Cole, Avendano struggled primarily with his control in Lansing, walking 62 batters in 115 innings for the Lugnuts to go along with 99 strikeouts. His 3.76 ERA was a little bit lower than his 4.08 FIP and his WHIP of 1.53 reflected his control issues. Avendano throws in the high-80s and will hit the low-90s on occasion. I saw him in early May working quickly and but he was consistently missing away to right-handed hitters. When some of the 2013 draftees joined the club at the end of the season, Avendano was relegated to the bullpen for his final four appearances. He could return to Lansing next year although I think his overall better stuff would serve him well in Dunedin, perhaps in a bullpen role.
Daniel Norris, 20, earned our Most Improved Player award not only by being better than he was last season but also by showing dramatic improvement over the course of 2013. His overall numbers might seem mediocre: 85 2/3 innings, 4.20 ERA, 1.53 WHIP, 44 walks and 99 strikeouts. But, looking closer, the lefty’s FIP was 3.48 and his splits are something to behold. The second rounder from 2010 had a rough July that saw him pitch just 16 2/3 innings over five starts (just over three innings per start) with a 4.86 ERA and 1.62 WHIP but in August, he turned everything around, making six starts (including one with Dunedin) with a 0.62 ERA and 0.83 WHIP over 29 innings (almost 5 innings per start). I saw Norris pitch on August 9 in Lansing and he was very impressive. Throwing consistently in the 92-93 mph range, he confounded hitters with his plus changeup and slider while it appeared to me that his curveball wasn’t as sharp. Norris was really his own worst enemy, struggling with his control at times but was able to recover to finish his five innings. Vince Horsman also talked to me about Norris, who should start 2014 in Dunedin although I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in New Hampshire by the end of the year, provided injuries don’t stand in his way.
It wasn’t the best introduction to full-season ball for 6’5″ lefty Alonzo Gonzalez. Gonzalez really struggled in Lansing and didn’t appear to find his form until the end of the season, by which time he had been demoted to Vancouver. A 2012 draftee (28th round) out of Glendale Community College, Gonzalez made a big jump to Lansing this year after only two starts above the Gulf Coast League in 2012. In 79 1/3 innings with Lansing, Gonzalez put up a 5.56 ERA, a 1.90 WHIP with 42 walks and 48 strikeouts and surrendered nine home runs. In Vancouver, however, Gonzalez was much stronger, striking out 30 and walking only 12 in 37 innings and giving up only one home run. While he’s a very tall pitcher, his stuff isn’t overpowering (topping out around 89 in the game I saw in May) but with better command, he should be able to handle Lansing in a second go-round, especially after his confidence-boosting work in Vancouver.
Roberto Osuna came into the season as the youngest player in the Midwest League,* owning some dominant numbers in Bluefield and Vancouver at the age of 17 in 2012. A very mature pitcher despite his young age, Osuna was on his way to plowing through A-Ball before a torn elbow ligament requiring Tommy John surgery shut him down for this season and most of next. In only 42 1/3 innings (10 starts), Osuna posted a deceptive 5.53 ERA. Aside from his ERA, Osuna’s numbers were outstanding. His FIP was only 3.55 and his WHIP was 1.18to go along with an incredible 51/11 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The young Mexican’s real weakness in 2013 was his tendency to give up the home run ball (with six). I can see Osuna making a couple of appearances with the GCL Blue Jays as he comes back from the injury. He might also stay in Dunedin (allowing the Blue Jays’ staff to keep a close eye on him in his rehab) and pitch the Florida State League Blue Jays to complete the season if he’s ready.
2013 8th round draft pick Kendall Graveman also made 10 starts for the Lugnuts. The 22 year old out of Mississippi State had a solid, if unspectacular, introduction to professional baseball, throwing 39 2/3 innings with a 4.31 ERA, a 1.36 WHIP, 13 walks and 25 strikeouts. Graveman didn’t overpower anyone but he came to Lansing after a long season of college ball after his club went deep into the College World Series. The 6’2″ righty could be back in Lansing next year or step up a level to Dunedin.
The last starting pitcher for the Lugnuts was 2013 6th round draft pick Matt Boyd. Boyd, 22, didn’t sign until just before the signing deadline in July and made his pro debut with the Lugnuts on July 25th. After three outstanding starts, Boyd moved up to Dunedin where he struggled a bit more but still displayed excellent command. Overall, Boyd combined for a 2.63 ERA, a 0.75 WHIP, 4 walks and 23 strikeouts in 24 professional innings. You can hear more from Boyd in our interview from August in Lansing. In August, after a long college season in which he anchored Oregon State’s big for a College World Series, he was throwing in the high-80 (touching 90 mph on occasion) with excellent control, a solid curveball and a changeup that was excellent when he got it down in the zone. I see him returning to Dunedin to start 2014 but could move up to New Hampshire if he shows the same kind of command and poise he had in 2013.
* Julio Urias usurped that honour mid-way through the season, debuting for the L.A. Dodgers farm club Great Lakes Loons at the age of 16.
Note: All photos are copyright Blue Jays from Away (2013) and may not be used without permission.