The Buffalo Bisons may have more recognizable names for most Blue Jay fans, and the quality of broadcasts available to watch them on milb.tv may be of higher quality, but we've found ourselves pouring over the milb.tv schedule for the few Lansing Lugnuts games that are televised. Their roster may be full of players who are farther away from the majors than most of the Bisons, but there are some high-ceiling players in Lansing who are well worth watching.
Catching a Lugnuts broadcast can be a challenge, because they have no home telecasts, and there are only a handful of teams in the Midwest League that do. And the quality can be more like a community channel cable broadcast.
Luckily, the Dayton Dragons have some of the better production values that we've seen so far, and while some teams just dub the audio portion of their radio broadcasts over the video, Dayton actually had a broadcast team dedicated to the tv side on Thursday night, and we received an excellent opportunity to get a good look at some of these Blue Jays prospects toiling in Lansing this year.
The Lugnuts are one of the youngest outfits in the MWL, and like most teams in the loop, is primarily full of players getting their first taste of full season ball. They got off to a slow start, with a high number of unearned runs likely both reflecting their inexperience and contributing to that slow start. At the outset of this game, however, they were one of the hottest teams in the league, winning 8 of their past 10.
Facing Dayton would be a tall order, as the Reds affiliate had one of the best records in the MWL, but the Lugnuts took two of the first three games of the series. An added challenge was the presence of Reds closer Aroldis Chapman on the mound, making his first rehab appearance after taking a fastball in the face in a scary spring training mishap. A packed house was on hand to watch Chapman start the game, and he came as advertised, hitting 101 on the radar gun in retiring the side in order before making his exit. Mitch Nay of the Lugnuts actually had a decent at bat against the Reds fireballer, taking him deep to left for the final out.
Starting for Lansing was righthander Alberto Tirado, who Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus has called, "a beast in the making." Tirado, who won't turn 20 until December, had a bit of a rocky first inning, starting the game by walking the first two hitters, which prompted action in the Lansing bullpen - not uncommon for the club, which obviously is aware of the risk of injury which climbs drastically as the pitch count in an inning goes up.
Tirado settled down after that, retiring the next 9 Dayton hitters in a row before giving up a run in the 4th. Pitching into the 5th for the first time this season, Tirado struck out the last two hitters in a 1-2-3 inning to finish his work for the night. His command became sharper as the game progressed, and it's easy to see why Parks and many other evaluators are so high on him.
Nay and Matt Dean also were impressive on the night. Starting the game at DH, Nay hit a towering home run off the foul pole in left for his first MWL homer, and showed a good approach at the plate. Dean has mostly played first until LB Dantzler was added to the roster from extended spring training, and was spelling Nay at third in this game. Dean was 3-4 at the plate, and while come scouts say he lacks the agility to play third, he made a nifty double play to get reliever Shane Dawson out of a jam in the 6th, taking a sharply hit grounder and stepping on third for the force, then firing across the diamond for an inning-ending double play. Dantzler hit his first MWL home run too, a no-doubt blast to right with the bases loaded to put the game away in the 7th.
This game was Dawson's MWL debut, and the Albertan was rusty, and likely a bit jittery, likely pitching in front of one the largest crowds of his young career (9, 130 fans, mostly to see Chapman's inning). He was in trouble for most of his inning and two thirds, giving up only one hit, but three runs, largely as a result of 5 walks. When he did miss, which was often in this stint, he missed low - an encouraging sign. Dawson has an extremely over the top delivery, and we wonder if the Blue Jays may change his arm angle a bit.
It was also interesting to watch shortstop Dawel Lugo in action. Three days younger than Tirado, many are predicting Lugo's bat to be of the impact variety one day. His youth showed on this night, as he went 0-5 with a pair of strikeouts. He did show a discerning eye, and worked full counts on two at bats, but didn't really square up the ball in any of his appearances at the plate. On the plus side, despite concerns that he may outgrow the position, he was solid at short, showing good range to his left, with a quick release and a strong, accurate arm.
DJ Davis also gave glimpses of his enormous potential. The first round pick of the 2012 draft was 0-4 with 3 strikeouts. He showed excellent range in centerfield, hauling down a couple of long flyball outs. Davis has a long swing, which may explain his inability to make consistent contact - over his last 10 games, he's hitting .136, with 21 strikeouts in 44 at bats. He worked Chapman to a full count in the first, before being caught looking on an inside fastball that may have been off the strike zone, but was too close to take in that situation. Davis is also one of the youngest players in the league, not turning 20 until July. His first year of playing every day was bound to be a learning process, and with his athleticism, we will be very surprised if he doesn't turn things around.
This game also marked the MWL debut of pitcher Yeyfry Del Rosario, who relieved Dawson in the 7th, and finished the game. Del Rosario has flown under the radar, but has a plus fastball, and is the owner of an impressive K/IP ratio thus far in his career. Rosario struggled a bit with his command, and gave up a pair of runs in two and a third innings, walking and striking out a pair. We didn't see anything untoward, but Del Rosario was placed on the 7-day Minor League DL after the came.
Finally, the most impressive Lugnut on the night was catcher Jorge Saez. One of the older players on the club at 23, Saez is an org guy, but he was lauded for his handling of a young pitching staff. Saez along with pitching coach Vince Horsman were able to get Tirado refocused in the first, and he helped Dawson get out of a jam in his first inning of work. Saez also put the Lugnuts on the scoreboard, launching a homer to left in his first at bat in the third inning. Saez went 2-4 with a walk on the night, raising his average to .364. Santiago Nessy may be the higher profile prospect and will get the bulk of the playing time this year, but Saez already looks like an important part of the Lansing roster.
Tirado picked up his first win of the season as the Lugnuts evened their record at 13-13.