The Lansing Lugnuts opened the season with a core group of young, highly-touted, position-playing prospects who were the talk of the Midwest League back in April. This group included a first-round, 17th-overall draft pick, an R. Howard Webster Award winner in 2013, a Northwest League Playoff MVP and a 19-year-old shortstop. With a solid group of role players, the Lugnuts were thought to be one of the better offensive teams in the league but development in young players is rarely linear.
Santiago Nessy was the busiest catcher for the Lansing Lugnuts but was promoted after the first half of the year with 44 games under his belt. Hitting .243/.333/.351 with the Lugnuts in 168 plate appearances, Nessy actually showed a little bit of progress but his stats plummeted after his promotion to Dunedin, hitting .211/.280/.300 and was limited to 25 games because of injury. I think I mentioned last season that Nessy isn’t as old as we think he is because he’s been around for so long. Nessy still isn’t 22 and if he starts in Dunedin, I could see him finally having a breakout year if he stays healthy.
Matthew Dean, my player of the year for the Lugnuts, was the every day first baseman and had a pretty impressive season, posting a very good batting average, solid OBP and very good slugging percentage with a .281/.332/.429 slash line. Dean hit 29 doubles, five triples and nine home runs but he offered glimpses of light tower power, impressing the people around the Lugnuts with his pop. The one area that Dean could use some improvement is in his strikeout rate. Dean struck out 117 times for a 24.1% percentage, only coming down 0.4% from last year and his walk rate has dropped in two consecutive years (less than 1% each year but still, it’s a trend). Dean will almost certainly be in Dunedin in 2015 as the first baseman for the Blue Jays.
Second baseman Dickie Joe Thon led the club in games at that position and the 22 year old Puerto Rican had a hot-and-cold season that that had him hit .265/.314/.359 with 20 doubles, four triples and three home runs. Thon had pretty average numbers overall but his strikeout rate of 27.3% was pretty high and his walk rate, 5.4%, is on the low side. I can see him in Dunedin next year but I have a feeling that he’s going to have to take a big step forward in 2015 to get noticed with all the infield prospects coming through the system.
Third baseman Mitch Nay won the R. Howard Webster Award as the MVP of the Lansing Lugnuts. Looking at the overall numbers, there wasn’t much to separate Nay, Dean and Derrick Loveless but Nay led the team in RBI (59), hitting .285/.342/.389 in 120 games with the Lugnuts before moving up to the Dunedin Blue Jays and hitting .189/.250/.216 in only 40 at bats. Nay is impressive because he struck out at about half the rate of some of his teammates — 15.3% of the time in Lansing — but he’s really going to need to start converting some of his 35 doubles into home runs (he only hit three) but the raw power is certainly there and he should start to show more pop as he enters his third professional season as a 21 year old.
The every day shortstop was 19-year-old Dominican Dawel Lugo. Lugo, described to me by batting coach Ken Huckaby as a puppy, has that wide-eyed enthusiasm and shows it in the way that he’s eager to swing the bat. With a .259/.286/.329 slash line, Lugo had a tough time staying consistent throughout his first full season of ball and he rarely took a walk, relying on his excellent hand/eye coordination to make contact. The drop in numbers from his solid work last year probably reflects the better quality of pitching in A-ball and demonstrates that Lugo is going to have to come to the plate with a plan, especially as he moves up in the system. I see him in Dunedin next year, primarily because there’s little room in Lansing for both him and Franklin Barreto who will be the next wunderkind shortstop to man the position for the Lugnuts.
Probably the most exciting and frustrating player on the Lansing Lugnuts was D.J. Davis, the electric center fielder. Davis, in his Age-19 season, had the type of mixed results that you’d expect from such a toolsy but raw player. There are contradictions all over the place in Davis’ stat line. He had 19 stolen bases but was caught 20 times. He had seven triples and eight home runs, second on the team in both categories but also set a new record for the Lansing Lugnuts, striking out 167 times in his 542 plate appearances for a whopping 30.8% K rate. His .213/.268/.316 line left a lot to be desired but I’ve seen first-hand his incredible power and speed that could turn into an elite-level big leaguer if he ever figures out how to hit the offspeed pitch. I wouldn’t be surprised if Davis returns to Lansing to polish some of his skills after time in the Fall Instructional League but I wouldn’t be surprised if he started in Dunedin either.
Derrick Loveless, a 21 year old from Solon Iowa, really had a strong season for the Lugnuts, hitting .264/.363/.390, outslugging Mitch Nay and having a better OBP than either Nay or Dean. He had 18 doubles, nine triples and six home runs for theLugnuts but could stand to cut down on his 120 strikeouts a little. Loveless also added 17 stolen bases in what was probably the best all-around season for any of the hitters. I could see Loveless getting a chance to continue his development in Dunedin next year.
Chaz Frank had the third-most games in the outfield and the 23-year-old left-handed batter only joined the Lugnuts out of extended spring training in mid-May. Frank is best known as a speedy outfielder who can get on base via the walk and he showed that off, taking 39 walks and striking out only 40 times in 307 plate appearances. Frank only hit seven extra-base hits (four doubles and three triples) but also stole 17 bases, hitting .245/.348/.284. I can see Frank as a guy who will go where he’s needed next year whether it’s in Dunedin or back to Lansing.
Veteran infielder Jason Leblebijian was probably one of the more valuable members of the Lugnuts, as a jack of all trades, getting time at all four infield positions and even pitching twice (giving up two unearned runs in 1 1/3 innings without walking anyone and striking out a batter). While Leblebijian isn’t going to set the world ablaze with his bat, he certainly isn’t a liability, hitting .248/.322/.378 with 23 doubles, two triples and five home runs. With a 7.7% walk rate and a 19.5% strikeout rate, Leblebijian is a very solid presence in the lineup, able to contribute on offense as well as on defense. I love watching Leblebijian play defense. His smooth, soft hands pair well with a very strong arm and his ability to play multiple positions will serve him well in what will be a long, pro career. He could be sent anywhere from Lansing to New Hampshire next year, depending on where he’s needed.
I find it a little tricky to decide what kind of year B.C.-born infielder Justin Atkinson had. On the one hand, Atkinson made some big strides in his Age-20 season with the Lansing Lugnuts, hitting .291/.336/.355, improving a great deal in the batting average and slugging percentage categories over his season in Vancouver last year. The 2011 26th-round pick saw a big drop in his walk rate (from 11.3% in 2013 to 5.9% in 2014) although his strikeout rate dropped precipitously as well (from 27.0% in 2013 to 18.7% in 2014). That said, for a guy with a nice-sized frame like Atkinson (6-foot-1, 205 pounds), he hits for very little power, with just eight doubles, three triples and a home run in 289 plate appearances this year for an ISO (Isolated Power) figure of just .065. Atkinson started out as a middle infielder but has since been pushed to the corner infield positions but will likely need to hit with some more power in order to find a spot in the higher minor leagues. I think he might return to Lansing next year, considering that he won’t be 22 until late July. He could, however, be tapped to start 2015 in Dunedin.
David Harris, a 23-year-old Arkansas native, is starting to get some people talking around the Blue Jays. The infielder/outfielder’s versatility (he played second base, third base and left and right field this season with Lansing after playing three infield positions with Vancouver last year) is key to his ability to get playing time but he was also one of the Lugnuts’ better hitters down the stretch, only getting called up to Lansing (from Vancouver) in mid-June. Harris pumped up his numbers considerably after a fairly slow July but hit for a .717 OPS in August with eight of his 19 extra-base hits coming in that month. Harris ended up with a .254/.301/.406 slash line including six home runs (among the team leaders) with Lansing but a low walk rate (2.9%) and a high strikeout rate (25.7%) will need to be rectified going forward. That said, in his Age-23 season coming up in 2015, I’d expect to see Harris in Dunedin. Not bad for a 36th-round pick.
Outfielder Ian Parmley played mostly in Lansing but but was limited to 56 games overall due to injuries. While I saw some of Parmley’s power in BP, in games, he mostly went the other way and ended up with a .209/.328/.227 slash line in games although he actually had more extra-base hits (three) in 15 games in Dunedin than he had (two) in 41 games in Lansing. Parmley’s .261 batting average in Dunedin may be due to his more normalized BABIP (.308) there which was 63 points above his BABIP in Lansing (.245). Parmley’s value is in his ability to get on base as he takes a very high percentage of walks and rarely strikes out. He’ll likely be available to play for a number of teams as an extra outfielder in 2014.
Catcher Jorge Saez was another late-round draft pick who impressed in Lansing, hitting .291/.400/.425 before a promotion to Dunedin tapered some of those numbers off a bit. Still, known as an excellent defensive catcher and a team leader on the field, Saez’s abilities with the bat will make him more than just another organizational catcher for the Blue Jays. He’ll likely start the season in Dunedin or even New Hampshire in his Age-24 season in 2015.
Catcher Daniel Klein, 24, spent most of his playing time with the Lugnuts, hitting .252/.299/.383 with six doubles, a triple and two home runs in only 118 plate appearances. Klein definitely has some pop in his bat but his five walk/33 strikeout ratio leaves a lot to be desired. Like many of the catchers in the Blue Jays’ system, Klein could be in any one of a number of different places next year. With Nessy, Pentecost, Chung, Jimenez and Jansen all looking for regular playing time (although Jansen could very well be in Vancouver), the competition for playing time among the backups could be fierce in 2015.
Catcher Mike Reeves, a Peterborough native, didn’t have his second pro season go as well as his first, and hit a combined .213/.312/.257 in 232 plate appearances at three levels with Vancouver, Lansing and Dunedin. Reeves lacked power but still managed to put up almost identical strikeout and walk rates as he did last year with 27 walks and 38 strikeouts in 232 plate appearances (compared to 28 walks and 36 strikeouts in 227 plate appearances in 2013). Reeves had solid defensive numbers and will probably be fighting for a backup catching spot somewhere in the organization in 2015.
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