The Lansing Lugnuts’ starting pitching staff was easily the hardest hit by injury among the Blue Jays’ affiliates. With big names like Tom Robson, Shane Dawson, Chase De Jong and Adonys Cardona going down with injuries at some point, the Jays had to bring in a couple of minor league free agents to help stabilize things. As you can see, the season was characterized by some performances that were less than we expected from some of the exciting pitchers who logged innings with Bluefield and Vancouver last year.
Texan righty Jeremy Gabryszwski was the workhorse for the Lansing Lugnuts in 2014, leading the club in innings pitched (141 1/3) and starts (26). Gaby had a solid season and saw progression on a number of fronts, even getting his feet wet with two starts in Dunedin. Despite Gaby being a dominant ace in Vancouver, his stuff didn’t translate as seamlessly to the Midwest League as might have been hoped. Gabryszwski, 21, had some ups and downs in the season, starting off slowly with concerns about his fastball velocity. He was sitting in the 85-87 mph range early in the season but by May, had gotten that velo up to the high 80s. He still doesn’t throw as hard as one might think given his 6-foot-4 frame.
Overall, the numbers were solid for Gabryszwski who posted a 4.27 ERA in his Lansing innings (5.40 in 10 innings in Dunedin) while striking out 91 batters and walking only 21. His 1.39 WHIP was solid as well. His rate stats remained largely the same as they were in Vancouver in 2013, and he saw a rise in his strikeout numbers, striking out 2% more batters in 2014 (14.9%) and just 0.3% more walks (3.5%). If Gaby can get a little more zip on his fastball while retaining control, there’s no reason to think that the former second-round draft pick can’t put himself back on the radar next year in Dunedin.
Making the second most starts for the Lansing Lugnuts in 2014 was Chase De Jong, a 6-foot-4 righty who the Jays have a lot of faith in. The 20 year old was my pick for a big year in Lansing after he impressed me in Bluefield but he only showed glimpses of what he’s capable of. With a fairly straight 90-91 mph fastball, a devastating curve and a solid, improving changeup, De Jong has a lot of potential. When I saw him pitch this year, he was very successful when he kept his fastball down but when he left it up, it was very hittable, indicated by the 12 home runs he allowed in 97 innings this year. Those home runs led to a 4.82 ERA and 1.39 WHIP and De Jong saw a small jump in walk percentage (to a still-low 5.2%) and his strikeout rate dropped to 17.2%. I’d like to see him throw a two-seam fastball or a sinker in order to generate more ground balls (he only had 0.64 ground outs per fly out this year) and keep the ball in the ballpark better. Missing the end of the season with an arm injury, De Jong will need to rebound from this season next year, likely in Dunedin.
25-year-old righty Brad Allen became a real stabilizing force for the Lugnuts’ pitching staff in the second half of the season after the loss of Graveman to promotion, Robson, Dawson and Cardona to injury and Labourt and Tirado to ineffectiveness. Allen, my Pitcher of the Year, was signed as a minor league free agent after being released by the Arizona Diamondbacks and picked up by an independent league team. Having his best statistical year in affiliated baseball, Allen posted a 3.11 ERA and 1.25 WHIP under the tutelage of pitching coach Vince Horsman, walking only 23 and striking out 82 in 75 1/3 innings, giving him solid walk and strikeout rates of 7.4% and 26.5%, respectively. Allen could very well be a part of a very solid rotation in Dunedin in 2015.
Another minor league free agent, lefty Brent Powers, joined the Lugnuts in midseason but wasn’t as effective overall, making 11 starts and posting a 4.81 ERA and 1.54 WHIP over 48 2/3 innings. He struggled with his control at times, walking 22 and only striking out 35. A 2011 18th-round draft pick by the Oakland A’s, Powers, 25, was hit hard in the outing that I saw, allowing five runs on six hits in just 1 2/3 innings on August 23. Throwing in the high-80s, Powers’ fastball has some sink on it and he has some decent offspeed stuff but he definitely needs to locate to be effective.
We continue to discuss the Lugnuts’ walking wounded, beginning with Shane Dawson, who only managed to pitch 56 innings for Lansing before succumbing to an injury. In his Age-20 season, Dawson, a native of Drayton Valley, Alberta, pitched decently for Lansing, posting a 3.38 ERA and 1.41 WHIP with 24 walks and 46 strikeouts in those 56 innings. That said, both his walk and strikeout rates were much worse than the outstanding numbers he put up in Bluefield and Vancouver last year with a 19.2% K rate (over 30% last year) and a 10% walk rate (under 6% last year). The big question is what a healthy Dawson can do. We’re hoping to see that in 2015 and it will probably be either in Lansing or Dunedin.
Tom Robson, a 21-year-old Delta, BC native, finally gave up his season and had Tommy John surgery this year after a very disappointing start with Lansing, notching a 6.25 ERA, 1.74 WHIP and 18 walks and 22 strikeouts in 31 2/3 innings. Talking to Lugnuts broadcaster Trey Wilson (who was the Bluefield broadcaster last year), I learned that Robson didn’t seem like the same pitcher he was last year, one who kept the ball on the ground at incredible rates thanks to his hard, sinking fastball (in the low 90s). Hopefully the struggles were caused by his injury and that he’ll return in late 2015 and 2016 as one of the top young arms in the system.
The 20-year-old Dominican Starlyn Suriel made big waves this year, starting his professional career in Vancouver and finishing it with very solid numbers in Lansing. I caught one of Suriel’s late-season starts in Lansing and was impressed by his maturity on the mound, his ability to shake off a poor start and his mix of pitches. You can read my full scouting report here and you’ll see what kind of pitcher I think he is. Suriel racked up 79 innings between Vancouver and Lansing and had fairly consistent numbers between the two levels, actually improving in many aspects at a higher level. Suriel increased his strikeout rate (from 16.6% to 18.6% and decreased his walk rate (from 8.3% to 5.8%) as a member of the Lansing Lugnuts. His 3.30 ERA and 1.20 WHIP are quite excellent overall and he should be interesting to watch as he moves forward, probably in Dunedin next year.
I had a minor debate about where I’d discuss Alberto Tirado but I finally decided to group him with the Lansing starters. He started seven out of his 13 games with the Lugnuts, despite being used primarily in relief with Vancouver. In 40 innings in Lansing, Tirado experienced a lot of difficulty, walking 39 batters and striking out 40 while getting hit for a 6.30 ERA and 2.10 WHIP. In Vancouver, he fared a lot better, but still walked 28 batters in 35 2/3 innings, mostly out of the bullpen. His strikeout rate didn’t go up too much (although it did reach 22.2%, a hair above what he did in Bluefield last year). I saw Tirado early in the year (as well as in spring training) and he wasn’t impressive, throwing his fastball in the 91-93 mph range with a flat changeup that was sitting up in the strike zone and a mediocre slider. For a guy who was hitting 97 mph later in the year, I obviously wasn’t seeing him on his best day. That said, I’m sure he’ll be back in Lansing in 2015 although his role is still up in the air. Will the Blue Jays decide that his best bet is in the bullpen?
Knuckleballer Frank Viola III pitched 23 1/3 innings with the Lansing Lugnuts, putting up some very respectable numbers before the wheels fell off after a promotion to Dunedin. With a 3.86 ERA and a 1.67 WHIP, Viola was promoted after five starts and walked 15 batters in Dunedin over 15 2/3 innings while striking out only four before being released. One of my favourite players to talk to this season, Viola just wasn’t able to tame the knuckleball when facing some better hitters in Dunedin.
No one’s talking much about Adonys Cardona who had probably the most bizarre and potentially serious injury, breaking his elbow while throwing a pitch. The 20-year-old Venezuelan was having some control issues (much like Labourt and Tirado), walking eight in 10 2/3 innings with an 8.44 ERA and 1.97 WHIP before going down with the injury. The ultimate outcome is uncertain but we definitely hope to see Cardona back in 2015.
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