The debate around which of the “Lansing Three” the Blue Jays should have traded and which they should have kept will continue for several years, but this column will begin to start answering some questions and keep readers informed about who is doing what where.
To recap: in 2012, Aaron Sanchez, Noah Syndergaard and Justin Nicolino were three elite prospects pitching for the Blue Jays full-season Single-A affiliate in Lansing, Michigan. The three were all born within about 8 months of each other and were all in their age 19 or 20 seasons (Nicolino is the oldest and was in his Age 20 season). All three were treated with kid gloves by the Blue Jays in an attempt to slowly allow their still growing bodies to adjust to the rigors of hurling baseballs upwards of 90 mph and were “piggybacked” for the first part of the year, limiting their innings pitched.
Born: July 1, 1992
Innings Pitched: 90 1/3
John Sickels’ 2013 Ranking: 42
Baseball Prospectus 2013 Ranking: 32
MLB.com 2013 Ranking (Jonathan Mayo): 35
Marc Hulet 2013 Ranking(Fangraphs): 23
Born: August 29, 1992
Innings Pitched: 103 2/3
Baseball Prospectus: 28
Marc Hulet: 46
Born: November 22, 1991
Innings Pitched: 124 1/3*
Baseball Prospectus: 73
Marc Hulet: 79
* denotes leader in a particular category
The statistics from 2012 tell us that Syndergaard was the most dominant of the three. With the highest K%, the lowest WHIP and FIP, Syndergaard had a combination of killer stuff and command that made mincemeat out of the Midwest League hitters.
Stats are not the only tool that the Blue Jays were using to evaluate the players’ talent. In a variety of top-prospect lists, all three of these young hurlers made the lists, usually with Syndergaard first, Sanchez second and Nicolino a consensus third. Almost all scouts love what these young pitchers bring to the table. Here’s Jonathan Mayo’s opinion of all three (Mayo compiles the list for MLB.com):
Sanchez: “His pure stuff is outstanding, with a plus fastball and an outstanding curve to give him as good a one-two punch as any pitching prospect. His changeup projects to be at least an average offering. He throws downhill and there’s room for him to add some strength.”
Syndergaard: “Though his fastball is plus, thrown up to 96 mph consistently, he’s more than just a thrower. His power curve has improved as he’s added velocity to it and it could be an above-average breaking ball in the future. He has a power changeup as well, which is still a work in progress, but could give him a third above-average offering. Despite his size, he has an easy delivery and he throws strikes.”
Nicolino: “has more polish than many pitchers of his age. That’s not to say he doesn’t have good stuff. Nicolino’s fastball will sit in the 89-91 mph range, and he throws it with good deception and movement. His curve has good three-quarters break to it when he throws it correctly, and his changeup can be a plus pitch. Nicolino can throw them all for strikes even if there’s a little cross-fire to his delivery. His feel for pitching could allow him to start moving faster.”
Of course, every young pitcher has flaws. For Sanchez, it’s been his control. For Syndergaard, it’s been a concern of whether he can develop a third major league calibre pitch to go along with his plus fastball and “ok” curveball (Marc Hulet cites a talent evaluator here). For Nicolino, it’s a matter of whether his stuff is good enough to play at a major league level.
It’s clear that the scouts have things about all three that they absolutely love but it was Sanchez that the Blue Jays marked as untouchable in trades this offseason. Nicolino was an important piece in the November 19, 2012 trade with the Miami Marlins that landed the A-listers Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, etc. etc. Syndergaard was a lynchpin in the December 17th trade that brought the Blue Jays R.A. Dickey.
Were the Blue Jays right in holding on to Sanchez and trading the other two? So far this season, comparing the three young pitchers has been fairly easy: they are all pitching in the Florida State League affiliates of their respective clubs.
Aaron Sanchez (Dunedin Blue Jays):
Innings Pitched: 25 2/3
Noah Syndergaard (St. Lucie Mets):
Innings Pitched: 18
Justin Nicolino (Jupiter Hammerheads):
Innings Pitched: 20
It hasn’t even been a month, but these numbers tell us something very interesting (keep in mind that all of these conclusions are based on small sample sizes and are bound to change over time). Nicolino’s good strikeout rate hasn’t translated against the hitters of the Florida State League, while Syndergaard’s excellent control has slipped a little bit (although his K rate is still strong). Sanchez, however, has been extremely hard to hit, even at the higher level and has improved his command despite a drop in his K rate.
While I can’t comment on Syndergaard’s or Nicolino’s development this year, the word out of Dunedin is that Sanchez’s fastball is averaging about 97 mph on the radar gun, which is definitely up a tick or two over the past couple of years. I’ve also heard reports that his strikeouts were down in his first few starts due to him primarily using his fastball and that he has begun to incorporate his off-speed pitches more in his past two starts. This has resulted in more strikeouts, including a season high of 7 strikeouts (in five innings) in his last start. There’s also word that his changeup is practically major league ready.
So? Do these three studs continue to progress at the same rate? Does Sanchez continue to take huge leaps in control, command, maturity now that his velocity has (theoretically) stabilized? Who will be the best of the bunch?
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