Who provided the relief for the Lansing Lugnuts? A veteran crew of pitchers, most of whom had come out of college programs in the last couple of years. That said, a couple of the key arms in the pen were hanging off of international free agents.
The first of those international free agents is Dominican lefty Jose Fernandez who led the club in appearances with 35. Throwing 51 2/3 innings, the 6-foot-3 22 year old had an excellent season with a 3.31 ERA, 3.05 FIP and 1.35 WHIP. While his strikeout rate dropped about two percent from his 2014 numbers with Vancouver (going from 21.1% in 2014 to 18.9% in 2015), he also lowered his walk rate significantly from 9.7% in 2014 to 7.4% this year. That, combined with a somewhat-high .335 BABIP leads me to think that Fernandez will probably be anchoring a bullpen in Dunedin in 2016.
Coming out of high school in 2011, Mark Biggs has moved slowly through the Blue Jays’ organization but the 22-year-old righty has had his best season in uniform in his fourth year since the draft. Despite a 6.91 ERA in Vancouver last year, Biggs had a 4.00 FIP, leading us to believe that there were better results to come. Biggs not only dropped over two-and-a-half points off his ERA in 2015 (down to 4.28), he did it with a 3.89 FIP. He also lowered his WHIP by 0.2, giving up 1.61 hits and walks per inning in 2015. Significantly, Biggs walked only 8.2% of batters over his 61 innings, dropping that number 5.5% from his 2014 figure but his strikeout rate dropped significantly too, to 15.4% overall. Biggs could easily repeat the year in Lansing but I’d think that he’ll get a chance to show if he can make it in Dunedin after a full year with the Lugnuts.
24-year-old Colton Turner wasn’t being talked about much this offseason, mainly because missed all of 2014 recovering from Tommy John surgery performed last February. He was ready to go in spring training and earned an assignment to Lansing and spent much of the year as one of the Lugnuts’ go-to lefties. Turner rebounded very well from the year off, throwing 65 innings for the Lugnuts (and one for the Dunedin Blue Jays) while showing an increase in velocity from the last time I had seen him (in late 2013). He posted a solid 4.02 ERA, 3.49 FIP and 1.54 WHIP, striking out 18.1% and walking 9.7%. I can see the walk rate dropping as he gets further away from his surgery but, having reinvented himself as a lefty reliever, Turner could make it to Double-A New Hampshire in some point in 2016.
Righty Phil Kish had some mixed results in 2015 after signing as a minor league free agent in 2013. Kish, 26, logged 39 2/3 innings with the Lugnuts, posting a 5.67 ERA, a much better 3.72 FIP and a 1.82 WHIP while striking out 15.0% and walking 6.7%. He moved up for 15 innings in Dunedin and while his ERA and WHIP were better (at 3.60 and 1.60 respectively), his FIP was almost a run higher at 4.70. He also walked more batters (11.9%) and struck out fewer (10.5%).
In his first full year as a pitcher, Carlos Ramirez appears to have turned the corner. While his surface stats aren’t the best, there’s some potential here for the 24 year old with the 95-mph heat. Ramirez threw 32 1/3 innings for the Lugnuts and had a 4.73 ERA and 3.64 FIP with a 1.61 WHIP. His strikeout and walk rates are very good, however, especially when considering where he was last year, pitching in Rookie-level Bluefield. Last year, Ramirez had a 15.4% strikeout rate and 12.2% walk rate while this year, he’s shown tons of progress, posting solid rates for just about anyone at a higher level. In 2015, Ramirez struck out 21.0% of batters and walked 9.8%, showing much more polish but he still lacks consistency. In 7 1/3 innings with Dunedin, he wasn’t so successful, walking 22.7 of batters while striking out only 15.9%. Ramirez is almost sure to start the year in Dunedin and could reach New Hampshire if he shows a little more consistency than he did in Lansing.
Another pitcher who took a big step forward this season was lefty Tim Mayza. Standing at 6-foot-3, Mayza, 23, was starting to see his velocity and effectiveness climb as he refined his slider into a strikeout pitch. Mayza threw 55 2/3 innings for the Lugnuts with a 3.07 ERA and 2.62 FIP, adding a very good 1.37 WHIP. All of these numbers are huge improvements over his performance for the Vancouver Canadians last year and he added a huge boost to his strikeout rate, up to 26.3% while keeping his walk rate (11.4%) fairly steady. Mayza still needs to refine his control but as a long-limbed lefty with a big-time fastball, if he can throw more strikes coming out of the pen, he can be very effective moving up a level or two in 2016.
Dusty Isaacs was also an extremely effective pitcher out of the Lansing ‘pen, throwing 50 1/3 innings with the Lugnuts with a 3.93 ERA, 2.82 FIP and 1.31 WHIP. Isaacs, 24, was a control freak, walking only 5.2% of batters while also striking out 28.4%. He wasn’t as effective in a 2 1/3 inning stint with Dunedin but he’ll likely get plenty of opportunity to show what he can do at that level in 2016.
In his Age-22 season, Justin Shafer really started to adapt to the pitching game. A position player for much of his college career, Shafer really started to pitch more as a junior and came to the Blue Jays in the 2014 draft as a pitcher with a lot of upside. I’ve scouted Shafer quite a bit this season (and you can find those reports if you’re a Premium Member) and I definitely saw some improvement as the season wore on. That said, his numbers in 73 innings in Lansing don’t scream “dominant,” and I noticed that he hasn’t been able to put batters away as his 13.8% strikeout rate attests. He has good control with a 7.2% walk rate but the command needs to be refined to avoid getting hit. He had a 2.96 ERA and strong 1.14 WHIP with a slightly worse 4.01 FIP with the Lugnuts. In a 22 1/3 innings audition with the Dunedin Blue Jays, Shafer was hit much harder, posting an 8.06 ERA, 1.97 WHIP and 4.96 FIP with only a 9.7% strikeout rate and 8.9% walk rate. Shafer is headed to the Arizona Fall League and will likely start in Dunedin next year as a 23 year old.
Righty Chase Wellbrock must have suffered a bad injury, throwing only 4 1/3 innings with the Lugnuts. He allowed four runs (three earned) on six hits with just one walk and one strikeout. Lefty Francisco Gracesqui threw only twice with the Lugnuts, accumulating 1 2/3 innings with four walks before he was released by the Blue Jays. Gracesqui caught on with New Jersey in the Canadian-American Association (an independent league) and threw 38 1/3 innings with 46 strikeouts and 24 walks, posting a 2.58 ERA and 1.46 WHIP.
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