As a group, the Lansing Lugnuts’ bullpen didn’t top-ranked talent the way the starting rotation did but there are several excellent young arms with potential passing through on their way up.
Josh DeGraaf was the Lugnuts’ co-leader in appearances at 35 with 28 of them coming out of the bullpen. DeGraaf, a 6-foot-4, 23-year-old righty was the 31st-round pick of the Jays last year but he put together a very solid season with Lansing, racking up 94 1/3 innings including 31 as a starter. Overall, DeGraaf had a 3.43 ERA and 1.23 WHIP with a very solid 20.6% strikeout rate and a good 6.5% walk rate but his numbers were much better out of the pen with a 4.08 strikeout-to-walk ratio, a 2.98 ERA and 1.07 WHIP as a reliever. Look for DeGraaf to fill a swingman role in Dunedin next year.
6-foot-2 lefty Daniel Lietz had an up-and-down season in 2016. He started the season with Lansing, making 18 appearances by the middle of June with an ugly 5.46 ERA and 1.69 WHIP with 16 walks and 17 strikeouts in 29 2/3 innings. Lietz went down to Vancouver, throwing just 5 1/3 innings, striking out five and walking two, before getting the call back up to Lansing where he was a different player. Lietz concluded his season with a sterling run with the Lugnuts, throwing another 34 2/3 innings with a 3.12 ERA and 1.10 WHIP while striking out 33 and walking only 13. His overall numbers (4.20 ERA, 1.35 ERA, 17.9% K%, 10.0% BB%) show a mediocre season but his trend in the second half looks far better. He’ll probably get a chance with Dunedin at 23.
Starlyn Suriel quietly had a good season for the Lansing Lugnuts, despite the times where it felt like he wasn’t pitching all that well. Suriel was with the Lugnuts until mid-July when he was moved up to Dunedin for a three-game stint that covered 5 2/3 innings and had him allow four runs (two earned) on four hits and three walks with four strikeouts. Sent back to Lansing, he struggled with his control, walking 10 and striking out nine in 7 2/3 innings before a one-game promotion to New Hampshire (where he gave up a run on a hit and two walks with one strikeout in two innings) ended his season. For Lansing, however, Suriel totalled 61 2/3 innings with a 3.21 ERA and 1.20 WHIP, striking out 23.0% and walking 8.8%. It looks to me like Suriel hit a rough stretch towards the end of the season and struggled to find his control. He’ll probably get another chance in Dunedin in 2017.
Dusty Isaacs pitched his Age-24 season split between Lansing and Dunedin in his best year as a pro. In 31 1/3 innings with Lansing, Isaacs had a 2.87 ERA and 1.21 WHIP, striking out 26.8% of batters and walking only 4.4%, putting him in the running for the Lugnuts’ best reliever. After his promotion to Dunedin, however, he pitched just as well, lowering his ERA to 1.14 (despite a higher FIP at 3.25) and his WHIP to 0.97 with a 30.1% strikeout rate and 8.6% walk rate. Isaacs should start 2017 back in Dunedin if a promotion to New Hampshire isn’t out of the question.
Righty Ryan Cook got into games at three levels but he spent most of his season with Lansing, throwing 69 2/3 innings as a Lugnuts with a 5.30 ERA. Much of that damage can be attributed to a six-game span of outings (his final six as a starter) in which he gave up 24 earned runs in 25 2/3 innings, walking 14 and striking out 23. Cook spent the rest of the season coming out of the bullpen, usually for multiple innings. Overall, his WHIP with Lansing was 1.56 and his 21.2% strikeout rate was good and his 10.9% walk rate a little high. He got into two games (and two innings) with Dunedin, allowing four runs (three earned) on five hits with one strikeout and threw a perfect inning in New Hampshire without walking or striking out anyone. Cook, 23, will have a good shot at a Dunedin assignment and will look to leave the rough patches behind him.
23-year-old Canadian Andrew Case didn’t start the year off well, serving a suspension for failing to appear for a drug test but when he got the chance to play, he was a true stabilizing force in the back end of the Lugnuts’ bullpen. Case didn’t get his season going until July, heading to the GCL for a rehab assignment and throwing two innings of perfect ball, striking out three batters before getting assigned to Lansing. Case became the club’s closer right away (picking up the job that Dusty Isaacs left when he was promoted to Dunedin) and got a save in his second outing with Lansing, earning 10 in total. Case finished the year with a 2.28 ERA and 1.10 WHIP, striking out 19.4% of batters and walking just 6.1% with improvements across the board over his 2015 stint in Lansing. Look for Case to move up to Dunedin and rumour has it that he’ll be joining the Canberra Cavalry of the Australian Baseball League this winter.
It’s going to take a big 2017 for Tom Robson to rebound from a rough past three seasons. In 2014, Robson’s season ended early as he underwent Tommy John surgery, leaving the Lansing Lugnuts with a 6.25 ERA in 31 2/3 innings. He made it back to Lansing in 2015 but showed some rough edges with a 5.06 ERA and 14 walks in 26 2/3 innings. While some command issues are expected, particularly in a player’s comeback year from TJ, Robson was primed for 2016 with a fastball that was exceeding expectations. Indeed, I saw Robson hitting 97 mph on the radar gun in spring training but he was struggling to harness his control. Robson was eased into his season, starting games in Dunedin but he walked 23.9% of his batters in 16 2/3 innings and had a 6.48 ERA and 2.34 WHIP. Sent back to Lansing (for his third stint there), Robson continued to struggle, throwing 54 innings, mostly out of the bullpen, with a 7.50 ERA and 1.98 WHIP, walking a much more tolerable 10.9% but striking out only 15.1%. It also looks that his once-heavy sinking fastball isn’t getting as many ground balls as his ratio of ground outs to air outs was only 1.32 last year. That said, when I saw Robson pitch, he wasn’t get a lot of his fastballs down in the zone and finding better command at the bottom of the strike zone could turn those numbers around. At 23, the 6-foot-4 righty has some time to turn things around and if he harnesses his heater, he should be on the rise next year.
Danny Young, a 22-year-old side-arming lefty hit Lansing this year after an underwhelming professional debut in Vancouver last year. Young was still held back from action until mid-June, likely for more work on his mechanics. Whatever the reason for his delayed start, Young turned around the poor season in 2015 to a strong campaign in 2016. The 6-foot-3 lefty threw 23 1/3 innings for the Lugnuts, with a 2.70 ERA and 1.50 WHIP, inverting his walk-to-strikeout ratio that had more walks than strikeouts in 2015. In 2016, Young struck out 17.3% of batters (way up from 6.3% last year) while walking 9.6% (ticking up 0.1% from 2015). Young is a LOOGY type arm who will need to show another year of improvement before we start talking about him as another major leaguer.
Righty Jackson Lowery spent his Age-23 season with Vancouver and Lansing (also getting a taste of the Florida State League) and had a very solid season overall. Lowery got a nice bonus while in extended spring training as he went in to pitch for the Dunedin Blue Jays on May 12, giving up a run on a hit and two walks in 2 2/3 innings with one strikeout. Coming back to extended, he broke camp with the Vancouver Canadians, pitching 10 1/3 innings with a sterling 0.87 ERA and 0.68 WHIP, striking out 12 and walking just one before moving up to Lansing to debut there on July 15. The rest of the way, Lowery threw 22 1/3 innings with the Lugnuts, with a respectable 4.03 ERA (but much lower 2.67 FIP), 1.34 WHIP, 22.8% strikeout rate and 7.6% walk rate. As a 24 year old in 2017, he’ll likely be moved up to Dunedin to try his hand against some more advanced competition.
Another lefty with a low release point, Kirby Snead made his pro debut after being selected by the Blue Jays in the 10th round in 2016. Snead fired 25 1/3 innings with Lansing, showing excellent control, walking only 2.7% of batters while striking out 15.5%. He had an ERA of 3.91 (with a FIP of 2.84) and a WHIP of 1.34. Snead had made one appearance in Dunedin before his Lansing assignment, throwing two innings of scoreless ball, walking two and striking out one. From what I saw of Snead, he has good movement on his fastball down in the zone and could be another Chad Girodo-type of pitcher with a little more zip on his fastball. Look for him in Dunedin in 2017 too.
Gustavo Pierre had himself some injury problems in 2016 as the former infielder from the Dominican Republic. Pierre, 24, made his debut in late April and pitched for about a month before being shut down for the season. In his eight appearances, Pierre threw 10 2/3 innings and he gave up 13 runs on 13 hits and a whopping 11 walks with just three strikeouts. The injury combined with the severe control problems could put a dent in Pierre’s attempts to reach the majors as a pitcher.
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