The Lansing Lugnuts’ offense had a banner year, leading the entire Midwest League in runs, doubles, stolen bases and slugging percentage and finishing second in batting average and on-base percentage and finishing third in home runs (in a park that is not exactly home-run friendly). An offensive season like 2015 only comes when a number of minor leaguers having outstanding seasons and, as we’ll soon see, that was most certainly the case.
Behind the plate, Michael De La Cruz led the club with 60 games, mostly due to injury to other players. The 22-year-old Dominican made his Midwest-League debut with the Lugnuts in 2015 and spent the season as a solid, if unheralded, contributor. True, De La Cruz won’t hit for much power (with only 15 doubles) but he does walk enough to get his line up to .242/.318/.313. His offensive numbers settled right into where he was last year in Vancouver and I’d think it’s fair to say that this is what what we should expect from the switch-hitter going forward. Defensively “De La” is solid, but was dealing with a pitching staff who tended to be a bit wild and committed 18 passed balls but threw out 27% of runners trying to steal.
Despite being only 20, Danny Jansen is very mature for his age and has started to blossom into a very strong catcher for the Blue Jays’ organization. Unfortunately, for his second straight year, Jansen missed a lot of time with an injury (breaking a bone in his hand after getting hit by a bat). Jansen threw out 29% of runners and only committed two passed balls in 51 games behind the plate (including five on rehab with the GCL Blue Jays), showing outstanding improvement over his abilities to keep the ball in front of him. Offensively, however, I think it’s fair to say that there were times where he got frustrated. He has power and can barrel the ball but he was missing his pitch somewhat often, resulting in only a .213 BABIP and .206/.299/.331 slash line. The power production of eight doubles and four home runs among 33 hits was very solid, though and Jansen’s walk rate of 10.3% was excellent. That combined with a tiny, 12.0% strikeout rate, shows that Jansen is able to work counts and make productive outs but will work on making more solid contact to take advantage of his natural power. There are a number of catchers developing in the system and the injury-riddled start to Max Pentecost‘s career and Ryan Hissey‘s development in Vancouver this year makes it tough to prognosticate where Jansen will start in 2016. Will he be back in Lansing splitting time with Hissey or will he go to Dunedin to split time with Pentecost?
At first base for the Lansing Lugnuts, there was Ryan McBroom. McBroom earned a mantle’s full of awards just this season including the MVP for the Midwest League, a Mid-Season All-Star berth, two Post-Season All-Star awards as BOTH a DH and 1B (something that has never happened in the Midwest League) and the R. Howard Webster Award as the MVP of the Lansing Lugnuts from the Blue Jays organization. Needless to say, we don’t have to run down too much on Mr. McBoom’s achievements. His numbers speak for themselves: .315/.387/.482 line with a .397 wOBA and 151 wRC+ (his production was 51% higher than league average). His 9.1% walk rate is very good and his 17.9% strikeout rate shows that the higher level of ball didn’t phase him. McBroom never pressed for home runs, hitting 39 doubles, a triple and 12 homers while also leading the league in sacrifice flies with 13. The Jays’ 15th round pick of 2014 is almost certainly slated for Dunedin next year, but at age 23, he’ll have to do even more to move quickly to overtake one of 2015 teammates.
No longer with the Blue Jays is the Lugnuts’ leader in games at second base. Timothy Locastro was part of a deal to the Dodgers (along with Chase De Jong) to get the Jays some extra money in their international bonus pool in order to minimize the penalties when signing Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. Locastro had an outstanding opening of the season with the Lugnuts, hitting .310/.409/.421 with 10 doubles, a triple and five home runs in just 289 plate appearances. He also was hit by a pitch 21 times and stole 30 bases (in 41 attempts) while striking out only 25 times. Following his trade, Locastro was moved up to High-A Rancho Cucamonga where he wasn’t as successful, hitting .224/.328/.327 with a 7.6% walk rate but saw a huge rise in strikeout rate (to 16.3%).
While Gunnar Heidt played the most third base for the Lugnuts, we already discussed him with the Vancouver Canadians so we go to the next man on the list, 24-year-old Alex Maldonado. Maldonado joined the Lugnuts after five games with the Vancouver Canadians and played some solid defense without too much success with the bat. He hit only .198/.297/.257 with a 12.3% walk rate and a decent 19.0% strikeout rate. Maldonado doesn’t hit with much power (just seven doubles and one home run in 195 plate appearances), and will need to hit better than .200 to make himself valuable.
One of the players who I saw really grow over the course of the season in Lansing was switch-hitting shortstop Richard Urena. The 19-year-old Domincan (surprisingly) led the Lugnuts with 15 home runs and added 13 doubles and four triples for an impressive ISO (Isolated Slugging) of .172. He hit .266/.289/.438 in 408 plate appearances with the Lugnuts. Obviously the weakest link in his game is his eye, walking only 3.2% of the time and striking out 20.6%. That said, he’s showing real growth from the right side of the plate and I can see him start to even out his lopsided splits next season. Urena struggled in his first go-round in the Florida State League, hitting .250/.268/.315 but his strikeout rate didn’t spike and I can see those numbers improving in Dunedin in 2016 at the tender age of 20.
Ever a grinder at the plate, Chris Carlson reminds me a lot of Kevin Pillar but with less of a physical presence but a better arm. Carlson got off to a slow start on the season but continued to demonstrate that he was going to hit no matter what level he was at. The 24-year-old is another player with a very mature approach at the plate, walking in 11.4% of plate appearances while striking out in only 9.2% (yep, he walked more than he struck out). He also hit the ball with some authority, hitting .290/.379/.437 with 21 doubles, eight triples and seven home runs, adding 15 stolen bases (in 24 attempts) and gunning down eight runners on the bases. I can see Carlson getting a short stint in Dunedin and if he shows himself more than equal to that level of baseball, moving quickly to New Hampshire.
Our Most Improved Player, D.J. Davis has shown some people that he shouldn’t be counted out; Davis only turned 21 this July and is not nearly as old as some might think. In his second full year with the Lansing Lugnuts, Davis improved almost every part of his game, hitting .282/.340/.391. He struck out almost a third less than he did in 2014, dropping that figure to 21.5% while walking in 7.0% of plate appearances. He also was successful in about 68% of his stolen base attempts (21 for 31) and bunted for hits much more. Davis hit more doubles (19), the same number of triples (seven) and one fewer home run (seven) than last year but was a far more productive player. The one blemish was his 11 errors this season which is very high for an outfielder. Still, Davis has come along way and while he’s probably under the radar now (with the shine of a 17th-overall draft pick off of him), he’s doing a lot of good things that are enabling him to tap into the tools that still give him a bright future if he continues to improve. At least half a season in Dunedin awaits Davis in 2016 and I’d argue that a full season there would be a good use of his time.
Josh Almonte was probably the D.J. Davis of 2015: A fairly raw, toolsy prospect who had impressed at the lower levels was being given a chance to show what he could do jumping up from Bluefield. At the age of 21, Amonte showed some tantalizing glimpses of what he’s capable of but an injury kept him out half the season and robbed him of some of his development. Almonte hit .252/.284/.352 and showed some of his power and speed with 15 doubles, two triples and two home runs adding 13 stolen bases in 14 attempts. Almonte also has an absolute cannon (at least a 70-grade) from the outfield and threw out 10 runners on the bases in just 66 games. Almonte still struck out a lot (29.1%) while not being patient enough at the plate (3.7% walk rate). But it’s really a tale of two halves for Almonte: from the beginning of the season to June 25, he didn’t walk once and hit only .218/.228/.250. After July 15 (when he returned from injury), he hit .286/.336/.452 with all but four of his extra-base hits and walking in 7.2% of his plate appearances. Clearly Almonte is learning and will likely come back in 2016 to continue his development before moving on to Dunedin at some point in the year.
One of the biggest names on the Lansing Lugnuts didn’t earn spots on the “starting nine,” largely because he spent about a third of his season in Dunedin. Rowdy Tellez came off a strong debut in the Midwest League in 2014 with another strong half-season in 2015, hitting .296/.351/.444 with seven home runs. He walked in 8.0% of his plate appearances and only struck out in 18.7%, impressing everyone with his composure and his ability to take a professional at bat. Tellez was moved up to Dunedin after helping the Lugnuts clinch the division title in the first half of the season and continued to impress there, hitting .275/.338/.473 with seven home runs before injuring a bone in his hand and undergoing successful surgery. The Blue Jays have Tellez tagged to participate in the Arizona Fall League and should be in New Hampshire in 2015 as a 21-year-old. His maturity and powerful left-handed swing is tailor-made for Manchester’s park. I want to see him hit 30 home runs in Northeast Delta Dental Stadium.
Jason Leblebijian proved himself to be one of the best hitters for the Lansing Lugnuts in two stints with the club. Hitting .277/.346/.473 with nine home runs in just 297 plate appearances, Leblebijian was one of the players who really filled a hole in the batting order down the stretch and in the playoffs. Lebleb wasn’t able to achieve the same level of success in 124 plate appearances in Dunedin, hitting just .170/.250/.223 but there’s almost no reason for him not to return there in his Age-25 season in 2016. Leblebijian is an ideal utility man. One of the smoothest infielders I’ve seen, he can play any infield position extremely well and is always a plus to any clubhouse.
One of the more athletic players on the Lugnuts, David Harris had a similar season to Leblebijian, hitting extremely well in the Midwest League while struggling when given the opportunity in Dunedin. Harris hit .280/.333/.427 with Lansing, hitting 13 doubles, three triples and four home runs in 234 plate appearances, walking 6.4% of the time and striking out 23.1%. Those peripheral numbers became more exaggerated when he moved up for 27 games, walking in 1.8% of plate appearances and striking out in 27.4%, hitting just .211/.239/.321. Still, Harris’s gap power potential is real and while hasn’t hit a ton of home runs, he can still be valuable if he can get on base more and cut down on the strikeouts. Look for another shot at Dunedin in 2016.
While Boomer Collins finished his season in Dunedin, he had 146 plate appearances in Lansing, hitting .285/.336/.446 with eight doubles, two triples and three home runs. Boomer also hit .236/.269/.341 in 131 PAs in Dunedin, obviously showing some struggles at the higher level.
Infielder Christian Vazquez finally made the jump to full-season baseball, playing in 30 games with the Lugnuts and hitting .243/.296/.336. The light-hitting Puerto Rican played two games in Dunedin (with one hit in nine at bats) and will likely be back in Lansing at the age of 26 in 2016.
Another bench player for the Lugnuts was Austin Davis who had a great start to the season in Vancouver, hitting .302/.348/.326 in 12 games. Playing in 26 games with Lansing, he hit .195/.250/.232 with just three doubles and 25 strikeouts (27.8% of the time).
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