The Lansing Lugnuts had some very strong pitching throughout the year with a wide variety of pitchers joining the rotation. While the rotation at the end of the year looked very little like the one at the beginning, several young prospects got a good start to their 2015 campaigns with the Lugnuts.
The 2015 Lugnuts’ leader in games started was 21-year-old Starlyn Suriel, who emerged from out of nowhere in 2014. 2015 wasn’t as kind to the 5-foot-11 Dominican as he posted a solid, but unspectacular year. This season, spent entirely with the Lugnuts, Suriel posted a 4.16 ERA and 4.49 FIP with a 1.38 WHIP over 114 2/3 innings, mostly regressing from what he did last year and both numbers correspond to a rising BABIP over his 2014 numbers. His walk rate only went up a half of a percentage point (to a still-low 6.3%) but, in a most concerning development, his strikeout rate dropped from 18.6% to 14.4%. With a low ground ball rate (0.69 GO/AO ratio), Suriel will need to get more outs via the strikeout if he’s going to continue to be effective at higher levels. Still, after about a year and a third in Lansing, there’s no reason to hold him back in 2016. Look for him in the Dunedin rotation.
The Lugnuts’ ace, Shane Dawson, was second on the club in starts made (17) and had some pretty outstanding numbers wherever he went. Dawson’s 3.01 ERA and 3.19 FIP were excellent, as was his 1.17 WHIP with a 23.9% strikeout rate and 5.9% walk rate over 101 2/3 innings, giving him a strikeout-to-walk rate of 4.08. With a promotion to Dunedin, he continued to pitch well, adding 26 innings with a 3.12 ERA, 3.74 FIP and 1.08 WHIP, walking just 7.3% and striking out 20.0%. The organization loves the Alberta native’s level of competition and his ability to overcome some injuries in the past to stay healthy in 2015. Dawson is a sure-fire bet to see in Dunedin to start 2016 and a stint in New Hampshire will not be unexpected for the 22-year-old lefty.
20-year-old Sean Reid-Foley was a surprise inclusion on the Lansing Lugnuts’ roster to open the 2015 season and I saw the young man both at the beginning and the end of the season with the Lugnuts. Reid-Foley worked a lot over the full season, adding 96 innings to his professional resume in Lansing and Dunedin. In 63 1/3 innings with the Lugnuts, Reid-Foley saw more success with a 3.69 ERA and 3.44 FIP, discovering that the Midwest League hitters were generally overwhelmed by his stuff. Reid-Foley struck out 30.7% of the batters he faced and hitters only hit .233 against him he induced more groundouts than flyouts. In 32 2/3 innings with Dunedin, however, he was still tough to hit but discovered that he was his own worst enemy, seeing his walk rate increase to 16.2% (after being 14.7% in Lansing) while his strikeout rate dropped to 23.7% (still very good). His 5.23 ERA (but only 3.81 FIP) was much more unsightly. Reid-Foley still has some issues to work out but he can be very good for the Blue Jays if he continues to develop. He’ll be in Dunedin in 2016 and could also see time in New Hampshire if he gets his control issues in check.
23-year-old righty Chase Mallard was looking to continue the success that he had with the Vancouver Canadians in 2014 but, while he was an inning-eater for the Lugnuts, he wasn’t able to quite replicate the same type of season he had last year. Mallard led the club in innings with 123 and was being piggybacked as a starter throughout much of the season. Mallard started 15 of his 29 games and his FIP of 4.05 was much better than his 5.49 ERA and 1.55 WHIP. Mallard showed the same kind of control as he did last year with Vancouver, walking just 6.8% of batters, but his stuff didn’t fool Midwest League batters as much, as he struck out only 15.7% of those he faced. His best month, looking at peripheral stats, was July in which he threw 30 2/3 innings and allowed a WHIP of 1.14 but his ERA ballooned to 5.58, mostly because the five home runs he surrendered. Mallard will likely be in Dunedin next year but to get much further, he’s going to have to develop a real out pitch that he can get by batters.
6-foot-4 righty Jesus Tinoco made a very big impression in his time in Lansing, leading to his being included in the trade that brought Troy Tulowitzki to Toronto. Tinoco, 20, notched a 3.54 EA and 2.77 FIP in 81 1/3 innings, putting up a 1.35 WHIP with a 19.3% strikeout rate and an excellent 6.2% walk rate. All of his numbers got better (except the FIP) after the trade as he threw 40 excellent innings with a 1.80 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 23.3% strikeout rate and 5.0% walk rate with Asheville in the South Atlantic League (still the same level as Lansing).
21-year-old righty Chase De Jong was also traded earlier in the year, along with Tim Locastro to the Dodgers for some international bonus pool money. De Jong still threw 86 1/3 innings with the Lugnuts, posting some very solid improvements over his 2014 numbers with the same club. De Jong had a 3.13 ERA and 3.70 FIP with a 1.08 WHIP and 21.9% strikeout rate and 5.1% walk rate. After the trade, he threw 50 innings with the High-A Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, who won the California League, posting a 3.96 ERA, 4.22 WHIP but a 1.18 WHIP and 24.6% strikeout rate and 7.1% walk rate, all in a much more difficult league for pitchers. In addition, De Jong got to pitch in the playoffs, making two starts and giving up just two runs in 12 2/3 innings with 14 strikeouts and a 0.87 WHIP.
Righty Conner Greene was another surprise addition to the Lansing Lugnuts, considering that he only made six appearances in Rookie-level Bluefield last year. Still, the Blue Jays had a lot of faith in the 20-year-old righty and he started the season in Lansing, eventually reaching New Hampshire. Of the three levels, Greene spent the most time in Lansing, throwing 67 1/3 innings with a 3.88 ERA but a lower 3.22 FIP to go with a 1.40 WHIP. Greene was impressive, striking out 22.7% of batters while walking 6.6%. In the Florida State League, word is that he improved his curveball, throwing it harder for a more effective pitch and he struck out 21.6% and actually dropped his walk rate to 4.9% in 40 innings while posting a stellar 2.25 ERA and 1.10 WHIP. At his final stop, in Double-A New Hampshire, Greene threw 25 more innings but saw a big drop in his strikeout rate, down to 13.9%, while his walk rate jumped to 11.1%, contributing to a 4.68 ERA and 4.15 FIP. Obviously Greene is showing that he has the stuff (with a fastball that can hit 96 mph, a curve and very good changeup) but he’s going to need to command those pitches better to get the more experienced hitters out at the Double-A level. Greene will almost certainly start next year in Double-A (even if Alex Anthopoulos has mentioned that Conner could get an invitation to big league camp) and the Blue Jays are obviously seeing something they like. Whatever happens next year, Greene is definitely young for whichever level he’s at and had a breakout season in 2015.
Another Conor, Conor Fisk, is the next on our tour of starters in Lansing. Fisk, 23, had a solid season that started in May (with one appearance in Lansing) but didn’t continue until the Vancouver Canadians’ season opened. He made three appearances there before moving up to Lansing and finishing the season splitting time between the Midwest League and the Florida State League. Fisk threw 54 1/3 innings with Lansing with some solid numbers, putting up a 4.31 ERA, 4.48 FIP and 1.23 WHIP. More concerning is his strikeout rate of only 14.1% but he only walked 5.3%. In 19 2/3 innings in Dunedin, however, that strikeout rate rose to 17.2% while his walk rate went up to 6.9%. Despite more Ks, Fisk had a 5.95 ERA but a 3.88 FIP and 1.37 WHIP in Dunedin. That’s where my money would be for where Fisk starts 2016.
While he only pitched 26 2/3 innings with the Lansing Lugnuts, Tom Robson‘s season started late thanks to his recovery from Tommy John surgery. His increased velocity since the last time he was healthy (in late 2013) is making his sinking fastball a plus pitch but he still had a lot of inconsistency in his game thanks to the year off. Robson, a 22-year-old B.C. native, had a combined 10 innings between the GCL and Vancouver Canadians before arriving in Lansing where he had a 5.06 ERA and 4.71 FIP, striking out 17.1% and walking 11.4%. Still, Robson showed some hope for the future, making an excellent six-inning start in the playoffs and allowing only one run. Robson will be in Dunedin in 2016 and could move quickly if he maintains his 93mph+ velocity and regains the command that made him dominant a couple of years ago.
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