We conclude our in-depth look at the Lansing Lugnuts by looking at the hitters. If a player split his season by playing for more than one team, keep in mind he’ll be considered with the team for which he had the most plate appearances.
Turning out to be one of the real bright spots on the 2019 Lansing roster was catcher Gabriel Moreno. Moreno, still just 19, arrived in Lansing in mid-May and became the club’s most consistent hitter (although he did fade in August). He impressed with his ability to avoid strikeouts, posting a K-rate of just 11.1% but, like many young Latin-American players, improvement to his 6.5% walk rate (already a career high) will definitely benefit him. He had a strong season, hitting .280/.337/.485 with 17 doubles, five triples and 12 home runs and the former infielder has adapted well to the catching position, throwing out 33% of potential base stealers but had 11 passed balls. Moreno, at his tender age, could start in Lansing in 2020 but he’s shown that he has little to prove at the level.
21-year-old lefthanded hitting catcher Ryan Gold, the Blue Jays’ 27th-round pick of the 2016 draft out of high school, isn’t going to stand out in a line up but he did provide solid catching and hitting while also playing some first base and even pitching a scoreless inning for the Lugnuts in 2019. In his second crack at the level, Gold his .239/.301/.391 with 25 doubles, five triples and seven home runs, keeping his strikeout rate mostly stable from 2018, also in Lansing, at 21.4% while his walk rate moved up to 6.4%. Gold’s ISO almost doubled from 2018 (jumping from .082 to .152) and his wOBA was higher despite a 31-point drop in BABIP. With a 23% caught stealing rate, Gold isn’t a particular standout behind the plate but he has sure hands (as can be seen from having just two passed balls in 47 games behind the plate) and isn’t a liability. I can see Gold moving up to play a backup role in Dunedin in 2020.
Hagen Danner, following a strong season in Bluefield in 2018, moved up to Lansing in 2020. Danner got into 80 games and posted a .170/.254/.369 slash line, hitting for solid power with eight doubles, five triples and 12 home runs but his strikeouts soared to 31.3% while his walk rate regressed to 8.8%. Danner also played first base almost half the time he spent in the field and had nine passed balls in just 23 games behind the plate, throwing out 29% of potential base stealers. Danner’s power is tantalizing but he needs to cut down his strikeouts and make better contact. He’ll likely get a chance to repeat Lansing at Age 21 in 2020 but without hitting, there’s a question of whether Danner will return to the pitching mound where he starred in high school.
Jake Brodt, 23, spent most of the 2019 season as the first baseman for the Lansing Lugnuts, playing in 96 games and he put up some solid numbers at the plate, with a .238/.330/.407 slash line, hitting 14 doubles, three triples and 13 home runs. Brodt continues to show an impressive eye at the plate, walking in 11.3% of his plate appearances but his trouble with strikeouts showed up again as he struck out in one-third of his plate appearances. Brodt played two games in August for the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, but went 0/6 with a pair of strikeouts. Brodt’s season was up and then down as he combined to post a .280/.380/.503 slash line in April and May but then just a .197/.279/.318 slash line the rest of the way. Was it that the Midwest League had figured him out after a couple of months on the circuit? In which case, Brodt is going to need to adjust, perhaps back in Lansing to start, but more likely in Dunedin.
In his third year since signing with the Blue Jays, 21-year-old infielder Rafael Lantigua led the club in games at second base with 55 but he also played 23 games at shortstop and 18 at third with another game in left field. Lantigua didn’t join the Lugnuts until early May but was a contributing regular, hitting .254/.302/.373 with 16 doubles, six triples and four home runs, stealing nine bases in 17 tries. Lantigua does have some work to do to increase his 6.3% walk rate but his 15.9% strikeout rate is generally very good. Lantigua could get a stiffer test in his 2020 season, moving up to Dunedin.
Third baseman Johnny Aiello, 22, jumped from Bluefield in 2018 (his draft year) right to Lansing and put up some solid numbers despite the increase in competition level. Aiello hit .258/.352/.419 with 18 doubles and eight home runs while missing much of May and June with an injury. Aiello slumped in July, possibly as a hangover from missing time but surged in August, hitting .304/.375/.532 with four of his eight home runs. While Aiello had a solid 8.3% walk rate, his strikeout rate, like several other players on the Lugnuts, was worrying, at 31.9%. He’ll probably get the nod to move up to Dunedin but the strikeouts make us wonder how long he’ll be able to keep up his strong offensive output before he gets more exposed by better pitching.
Otto Lopez, the (barely) 21-year-old “super-utility” player-in-training, spent most of his time at shortstop in 2019 with the Lansing Lugnuts. In his Age-20 season, Lopez had a strong season, winning the Midwest League batting title by hitting .324 with a .371 OBP and .425 slugging percentage, hitting 20 doubles, five triples and five home runs while stealing 20 bases (but getting caught 15 times). Lopez saw some regression in his walk rate, dropping to 6.9% but his strikeout rate stayed quite low, at just 12.8%. While Lopez played six different positions in 2018 with Vancouver and Bluefield, he only played four in 2019, getting 82 games at shortstop, 19 at second base and 12 combined between left and right field (mostly left). For Lopez, the defense was an issue and, while he could make some excellent plays, he also committed 25 errors at short and another four at second. Lopez is ready to move up to Dunedin but will probably be working hard to improve his defense going into 2020.
Ostensibly the 2019 version of Bo Bichette‘s MVP season in Lansing a couple of years ago, Jordan Groshans was poised to take on the Midwest League as a 19-year-old in the year following his draft year. Groshans got off to a great start, hitting .337./.427/.482 with six doubles and two home runs in just 96 plate appearances, with a walk rate of 13.5% and a strikeout rate of only 21.9% before the youngster injured his foot, ending his season and requiring surgery. While he made a big impact in just 23 games, Groshans will probably start 2020 back with Lansing and will look to show that he’s one of the game’s best prospects after what will go down as a promising, but lost, season.
After being drafted in the seventh-round of the 2019 draft out of the University of Georgia, 22-year-old infielder L.J. Talley played 52 games with the Lansing Lugnuts, hitting .191/.266/.333 with six doubles, a triple and six home runs. He showed good power potential with the six home runs in 208 plate appearances and he had an 8.7% walk rate with a decent 18.8% strikeout rate. His low .204 BABIP could be an indicator that he’ll improve next year and his August .828 OPS could also be another indication that he was finding his rhythm and the feel for wood-bat hitting. Look for him to either begin back in Lansing or start 2020 in Dunedin.
Nick Podkul, 22, started his season with Lansing, hitting .254/.369/.368 with 13 doubles, two triples and two home runs, stealing 12 bases in 13 attempts in 241 plate appearances over 57 games before he was promoted to the Dunedin Blue Jays, where, in another 37 games, he hit .227/.331/.300 with three doubles, a triple and a home run, stealing five bases in seven attempts. Podkul maintained his strikeout and walk ratios as he was promoted with a 13.7% BB-rate and 17.0% K-rate in Lansing and a 12.9% BB-rate and 16.7% K-rate in Dunedin. Podkul’s BABIP suffered by 36 points in Dunedin (explaining most of the 27-point drop in batting average and 38-point drop in OBP) but his 41-point drop in ISO (Isolated Slugging) is the more concerning as it might indicate that he wasn’t making as solid contact in Dunedin. Still Podkul will probably start 2020 in Dunedin.
Released in June, Jesus Severino played just 12 games in 2019 (all with Lansing), hitting just .125/.205/.200 with a double and a triple in 44 plate appearances, walking four times and striking out 10 times.
Leading the Lansing Lugnuts in games played in the outfield was Reggie Pruitt. The 22-year-old speedster was repeating the level after he started to come around with the bat in 2018. In 2019, I noticed that Pruitt was on base every time I saw him in spring training and he continued that when he got back to Lansing. He played 88 games, hitting .273/.352/.365 with 12 doubles, eight triples and one home run. On the up side was Pruitt’s walk rate of 10.4%, a career high, while his strikeout rate had come down 3.5% from 2018 to a still-high 26.3%. Despite playing just 88 games, Pruitt finished second in the Midwest League with 40 stolen bases (playing 33 games fewer than the leader), getting caught 13 times. Promoted to Dunedin, he played in 21 games there, hitting just .230/.296/.351 with five doubles and two triples, stealing eight bases without getting caught and posting a walk rate of 8.6% and a strikeout rate of 28.4%. Pruitt, if he can cut down his strikeouts and put the ball in play more, can capitalize on his speed which is at the top of the organization. I see him in Dunedin trying to reproduce the production he had in 2019 with the Lugnuts.
Outfielder D.J. Neal was second on the Lugnuts in games in the outfield. The former 26th-round pick also struggled a bit in his first exposure to full-season ball, hitting just .238/.289/.312 with seven doubles, a triple and four home runs in 84 games. He walked in just 6.2% of plate appearances while striking out in 24.1%, down from his 26.6% rate in Bluefield in 2018. Neal, 22, may be back in Lansing to try to improve his offensive output.
Far-too-high strikeout rates have been the theme of this Lansing Lugnuts report. No player demonstrated the potential irrelevance of the strikeout more than Griffin Conine, the Jays’ second-round pick in 2018 who missed the first half of the 2019 season thanks to a suspension after he tested positive for a stimulant. Conine spent his time off in extended spring training working on some issues with his swing that led to some decent numbers in Vancouver last year but not great and he came out of the gate with a mission in 2019. He hit a whopping .283/.371/.576 with 19 doubles, two triples and a club-leading 22 home runs, despite playing just 80 games. Conine walked in 10.9% of his plate appearances but struck out in a whopping 35.9%. That said, it was an area that he told Blue Jays from Away (find the interview here) was definitely one he was aware of and he was working to improve. If we look at his strikeout rate by month, we get 36.9% in June, 41.1% in July and 33.6% in August, showing some potential for improvement (incidentally, he didn’t strike out at all in nine plate appearances in September). Conine will move up to Dunedin in 2020 and he’ll be 22 when the season starts. He’ll need to cut down the Ks, particularly as he faces better pitching, or much of his power is going to fade.
22-year-old outfielder Hunter Steinmetz is the protypical minor-league grinder. The 11th-round pick of the Jays in 2018, Steinmetz spent most of his 2019 season with Lansing and hit .216/.311/.305 with 11 doubles, two triples and two home runs, stealing 14 bases in 18 attempts. Steinmetz’s OPS was likely saved by his 10.9% walk rate and he struck out in a respectable 22.2% of plate appearances. He started in Dunedin in late May, playing five games and going 2/12 with six strikeouts and was sent to Lansing soon after. I can see Steinmetz either returning to Lansing or moving up to Dunedin.
23-year-old Albertan Tanner Kirwer had his season blemished by injuries, playing in just 52 games for the Lansing Lugnuts and hitting a decent .260/.353/.326, hitting five doubles, two triples and a home run while stealing 18 bases in 20 tries. Kirwer had a solid 9.6% walk rate and a 23.4% strikeout rate. I think he’ll either be back in Lansing to start 2020 or he’ll be in Dunedin.
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