Wednesday, April 12, 2017

A Look at the Lugnuts

Clutchlings Photo

  It was a beautiful day in Central Michigan Saturday as the Lansing Lugnuts opened their home Midwest League season at Cooley Law School Stadium in the State Capitol.  24 hours before the area -like much of Southern Ontario - had seen snow, and remnants of it could be found along I-69 after crossing the Bluewater Bridge at Sarnia, but conditions were perfect for spring baseball.

  The Lugnuts were playing a return engagement with the nearby Great Lakes Loons, who the Lugs had swept a doubleheader from the night before (the opener on Thursday had been a victim of the storms sweeping the Midwest).

  Lansing has a diverse lineup of players mostly new to full-season ball, with a roster comprised of products of the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and 13 different states in the U.S. - but, surprisingly, no Canadians, with as many as four of them on the roster last year.

  A guy making the drive across the border was treated to a gorgeous day (as was the following day), with a good view of batting and infield practice, a street party introducing the players and new team logo prior to the game, and a clear (if not quickly cooling) April sky as the 6 pm game time approached.

  I am not a scout, and while decades of playing, watching, and studying the game have given me the ability to do a reasonable impression of one, I encourage you to corroborate the following opinions with a real, live version of one.

  Here are some notes from my weekend.....

P Patrick Murphy
   Few players on the field have struggled through as much adversity as the Arizona RHP has. Blue Jays scout (now cross-checker) Blake Crosby was in Chandler, AZ (a suburb of Phoenix) in 2012 scouting 3B Mitch Nay, who the Blue Jays took as a sandwich pick that June.  He was intrigued by Murphy, who was a junior on the Chandler team.  Just prior to the state playoffs, Murphy tore his UCL in a pre-game warmup (although he went on to pitch a complete-game shutout).  He sat out his senior season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.  The Blue Jays still felt encouraged enough about his long-term prospects to take him in the 3rd round that year (2013).
Clutchlings Photo

   Murphy did not make his pro debut until 2014, and he only made three appearances that season before being shut down with an injury.  He was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, and underwent surgery to remove a rib that was pinching a nerve, leading to arm numbness.  In addition, he had a different nerve removed from his elbow; everything added up to costing him all of the 2015 season.
   Murphy didn't return to action until May of last year - a total absence of 671 days.  He pitched well in short outings for Lansing, but was sent down to Vancouver when their season opened in June. After C's ace Justin Maese was promoted to Lansing a few weeks later, Murphy took over the role of Vancouver's top starter, and later was named the Northwest League's 12-best prospect by Baseball America for his efforts.

   The 6'4/220 Murphy looks every the part a pitcher, and he has the build of a starter, a potential innings-eater. He throws a fastball, curve, and change.  Murphy needed only 12 pitches to get through the first inning, sitting between 88-91, and hitting 92 with his FB.  He did give up a pair of hard-hit balls, one of which dropped in for a single.
   In the 2nd, Murphy showed the effects of a long bottom of the first in which his teammates put four runs on the board.  The first five pitches he threw were balls; his 7th was a double laced down the LF line, putting runners on 2nd and 3rd with none out.  Both runners eventually came in to score, but Murphy unleashed his curve that inning, a frame in which he needed 18 pitches and a nifty play by converted 2nd Baseman Bradley Jones for Murphy to get out of.
   The 3rd inning was a coming out party for that curve.  Murphy was able to command both sides of the plate with his fastball, getting ahead of the hitters, then dropping Uncle Charlie in for strikes. With his over-the-top delivery, Murphy gets good tilt and a 12-6 action on his curve, and even when hitters sat on it in this game, the movement and downward action on it were so effective that they were not able to make solid contact with it.  He did give up a Home Run that inning on a fastball that caught too much of the plate - with its high outfield walls, Cooley is usually a pitcher-friendly park, but with the breeze blowing out to center field that night, 4 long balls were hit.
  Murphy threw 11 pitches in the 3rd, 13 in the 4th, and only 8 in the 5th, his shortest of the night.  He began to rely on the curve more, throwing the occasional change, to miss a number of bats.  Murphy did give up a lead off double, followed by an infield single to the hole that Bo Bichette showed good range to simply get to, but his throw was no where near strong enough to get the runner at first.  Jones started a neat double play to get the first two outs of the inning.
   Back out for the 6th at 62 pitches, Murphy struggled due to some likely fatigue, and some long innings while his teammates plated more runs.  After giving up a double, single,  run-scoring double, and another single, Murphy was done for the night.  After pitching mostly effectively through the first 5, Murphy was squared up that inning, even though he hit 95, and sat 91-93.  After waging a mostly winning battle with his fastball all night, his command had clearly deserted him that inning.
   On the night, Murphy gave up 9 hits in 5 innings, along with 6 runs (all earned).  He walked one and fanned four.  Murphy threw 78 pitches, 51 of them for strikes - he was pitching from behind for much of the night, throwing only 11 first-strike pitches to the 24 hitters he faced.  Murphy recorded 6 outs via ground balls, and 3 by fly balls.
   While he had difficulties with his command on the night, his curve is emerging as a wipeout pitch.  The Blue Jays are likely hoping that his command will improve as the season progresses and the weather warms up, which will make his curve that much more effective a weapon.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr
   Much has been made of the cream of the 2015 international free agent crop.  After only one short season of play, the son of the future Hall-of-Famer has become the Blue Jays top prospect, and a Baseball America cover boy.
   During batting practice, Guerrero demonstrates an easy, loose swing that generates tremendous power at the tender age of 18 due to his bat speed, and thick, solid lower half.  As he gets older and becomes stronger, it's easy to project that power up even more.  He shows good judgement at the plate, seldom expanding his strike zone.


   In the field, he has been described as an adequate defender since being switched to 3rd last year. His stocky build does limit his range somewhat, but he does have quick reactions to the ball, and his arm is at least average.  He may not remind anyone of Brooks Robinson, and his ultimate position may be across the diamond, but Guerrero shows enough at the hot corner to remain there for the short and medium-term future.
   On the bases, Guerrero may not be a speed demon, but he gets down the first base line well, and is a smart and sometimes aggressive baserunner.  He won't get any faster as he ages, but it's hard to see him becoming a base clogger.
   Guerrero walked on four pitches to load the bases in his first AB on Saturday.  He lined up a single on the middle in his second, and flew out softly to right in his third.  Coming up for the fourth time in the 6th, Guerrero drilled a pitch down the left field line for a two-out double, then lined out to right in his final plate appearance.
   Guerrero has said that he wants to be in the majors by the time he is 20, and while the team no doubt wants to take their time with his development, he is only going to get better and better.  His final place on the field may be in question, but there is no doubt that his bat will soon play.
   As much as we are all in something of a rush to see this kid reach the big leagues, he still has some growing to do.  He may not dominate the Midwest League, mainly because if the rest of the league shows a disinclination to throw him fastballs anywhere near the strike zone like the Great Lakes' pitchers did all weekend, he's just not going to put up ridiculous numbers unless he gets some support behind him in the lineup. If he had been raised stateside, he would be a high school senior, and a likely first overall pick in June.  The Blue Jays in all likelihood will be patient with him, and let him continue to develop his all-around game.
   He'll be worth the wait, friends.

Bo Bichette 
   The Blue Jays scored something of a coup by taking the Florida high schooler with their second of two second round picks last June.  Bichette laid waste to GCL pitching last summer, scorching his way to a .427/.451/.732 line despite missing a month of the season with appendicitis (Bichette hinted that missing so much time was not his idea, but the Blue Jays had 1.1 million reasons for being cautious with him).  Despite that small sample size, he was ranked the GCL's 4th best prospect by BA, and the Blue Jays's 8th by MLB Pipeline.
   Prior to the draft, there was some concern about Bichette's hitting mechanics.  With a high back elbow and an extreme bat wrap to trigger his swing, some thought pro pitchers might exploit him on the inner half.
   So much for that.
   The Blue Jays did little to change his mechanics last year, but the wrap has been quieted down this year. He still makes consistently hard contact, and his BP prior to the home opener was a sight to behold.  His older brother Dante Jr tore up the GCL in his first pro season, and has mostly struggled at the plate ever since, but Bo is clearly cut from a different mould.  He can work a count, but he can also jump on a first-pitch fastball like he did in this At Bat:


   
  In the field, the Blue Jays seem content to let Bichette play mostly shorstop, even with the presence of a superior defender in Yeltsin Gudino on the roster.  Bichette has good reactions to the ball, and even though few were hit to him over the course of the first weekend of play, he showed solid instincts when he tracked a grounder to the hole between 3rd and 2nd, but skipped his throw to first in a vain attempt to nab the runner. In pre-game practice, Bichette showed a great work ethic, fast-twitch reflexes, but only an average arm. That long throw from the hole may continue to be a challenge. There is still room for improvement, but like Guerrero at 3rd, it's hard to see Bichette staying at SS in the long-term.  He will be a bat-first player wherever he ends up.

J.B Woodman
   Taken a few picks ahead of Bichette, the collegian was ranked the 6th best Northwest League prospect by BA last year.  Scouts noted the amount of hard contact he made on both fastballs and off-speed pitches.  If there's one nagging concern from last year, it's the 72K's in just under 200 ABs, and while Woodman works the count in most of his plate appearances, there appears to be a fair amount of swing and miss to his game - in the first four games of the season, he fanned at least twice in each contest.  Woodman's swing can be a bit long, which probably contributes to his misses.



 While is still is early, it will be interesting to see if Woodman can make more contact as the season progresses.
   In the outfield, Woodman covers a good amount of ground, and the lasers he threw during pre-game practice show why some scouts suggest he profiles as a right fielder.

Bradley Jones
   Overshadowed by his younger teammate Guerrero last year, Jones led the Appy League in Home Runs. He  underwent a position change last fall at Instructs, trading his 1st Baseman's mitt for an infielder's glove. Jones started the first game of the year at 2nd, and the next game at 3rd.  In the first, he started a nifty 4-unassisted-3 double play, and in the 2nd, made a nice play on a slow roller and fired across the diamond to retire the hitter.


   Jones does have something of a side arm throwing motion, and while that allows him to unload the ball quickly, it doesn't always result in the strongest of throws.  Jones played outfield in college, so perhaps the Blue Jays are trying to develop him as a super-utility player.  Just the same, that bat will play, and he actually was one of the better defensive Lugnuts on the weekend.
   At the plate, Jones demonstrated the patience that was prevalent throughout the Lugnuts' lineup, going 3-5 on Sunday and launching a Home Run to left center.  He has a swing-and-miss aspect to his offence, but with Woodman, Bichette, and Guerrero, he should become part of a gauntlet of sluggers in the middle of the Lansing order.

Nash Knight
   I admit to having a huge preference for the underdog.  Undrafted out of Dallas Baptist (Ryan Goins' Alma Mater), he joined the organization in 2015, and mashed his way to a .402/473/.588 line at Bluefield before earning an August promotion to Vancouver last year.
   Despite those gaudy numbers last year, Knight is still very much an org guy - a minor league roster filler.  In an attempt to build some versatility, he was converted to Catcher last fall at Instructs, but with the depth of the system at that position (Ryan Hissey returns to Catching duties this year, joined by Michael De la Cruz, who was with the team in 2015), he played 1st on Opening Day, and probably won't see much action behind the plate this year unless injuries dictate otherwise.
   During pre-Opening Day BP, even with Bichette, Guerrero, Woodman, and Jones blasting bombs, Knight's show was perhaps the most impressive.  He was hitting line drive rockets all over the field. At 24, the clock on his chances of an MLB career is ticking close to midnight, but it was fun to watch that BP session.

Zach Jackson
   Many have suggested that last year's 4th rounder could be on a fast track to the big club.  There's a lot to like - a FB that hits 94, and a funky delivery that creates deception and allows him, like Murphy, to get on top of a 12-6 curveball, his go-to pitch.  In fact, Jackson even admitted that he used it sparingly at Vancouver last year,
   Jackson took over from Murphy in the 6th, and retired the side on five pitches to limit the damage, fanning the last batter on a pair of nasty 81 swing-and-whiff hooks.  In his next inning, he retired the side in order again, topping 94, and sitting 88-91 with a mix of an 84-85 change and that curve ball.
   Back out again for another inning of work in the 8th, he gave up a leadoff Homer, followed by a walk and a double before his night was brought to an end.  Clearly gassed, he was dominant for his first two innings.  If there's one concern about Jackson, it's that lefties appear to be able to square him up solidly.  Either another pitch or improved location will be necessary for him to get them out on a more consistent basis. Still, as his stamina builds this year, he should add a tick or two to his FB, which will make his curve even more devastating.  He's profiling as one of those max effort, lights-out guy in short stretches.

Cesar Martin
   When we think of the minors, we tend to think of young players in terms of prospects.  What's easy to overlook is that sometimes MLB teams are grooming future Managers and Coaches as well.  And that may be the case with Martin (say Mar-teen), who joined the Blue Jays organization as an 18 year old almost two decades ago.  Martin played briefly in the system, and has been an instructor at various levels for several years.
   For the last two years, he managed the highly successful GCL Blue Jays entry, so moving up to Lansing was a natural fit.  Martin has been described as a quiet guy with a laid-back approach, but is able to get through to his players.  From his interactions with them before the game, it's obvious that he already has a good rapport with them, and has their respect.
   There is no guarantee of an MLB job for minor league players, and the same holds true for Managers and Coaches.  For many, their value to their respective organizations lies in their abilities to develop players, and while he may be a Managerial prospect on the rise in his own right, Martin may fit that profile.
 
********************************************************************************
   There are few commodities in minor league baseball more dispensable than the long reliever.
Generally speaking, relievers at the big league level are converted starters - for every Aaron Loup that comes up through the system in a relief role, there's Ryan Tepera, Joe Biagini, Roberto Osuna, or Matt Dermody who moved into the bullpen from the rotation at some point during their MiLB apprenticeship.
   The minor league long reliever's main job is to protect the high-profile arms in the starting rotation.  Once they have reached their pitch limits, the long man comes in to soak up innings.  Early in the season, when the pitch counts are in the 60-80 range (depending on the starter), the long man typically comes in during the fifth or sixth innings, and most Managers try to use them for multiple innings.  It's understandable - the more relievers he has to use on any given day, the fewer he'll have at his disposal the following one
    Minor league long men tend to be non-drafted free agents, often the college variety.  They're guys who have proven that they can get hitters out, but either lack the velocity or secondary pitches to turn over a lineup, hence their move to the bullpen.
    Jackson Lowery was one of those guys.  A teammate of Zach Jackson's at Arkansas, Lowery took the long route to pro ball.  Originally an infielder when he attended Central Arkansas after high school, he transferred to a Mississippi Junior College in order to pitch.  The following year, he realized a dream when he caught on with the Razorbacks.  Even though he was a mainstay in the Arkansas 'pen in 2015 in long relief, because he was viewed as undersized at 6'/170, he was overlooked in the draft.
   Signed by the Blue Jays, he pitched well in rookie ball at 2015, and Saved 11 games between Vancouver and Lansing last year.  I had thought that he was ticketed for Dunedin this year, but he became a victim of a numbers game, as the Blue Jays had too many bullpen arms for A ball.  Lowery went to Australia to pitch for Canberra in the off season, but was used sparingly, and was overmatched against the more advanced hitters.
   Every year, I manage to convince one of the Blue Jays prospects sent to Australia to correspond with me over the winter.  Last year, it was Phil Kish, this past year it was Lowery.  Both were relievers who were sent to Australia to get some extra innings in the hope that it would accelerate their development.  To be honest, they were also sent there probably to protect some of the more valued bullpen arms in the organization.  Lest we say we spot a trend here, Anthony Alford also carried on a correspondence with me the year before Kish.
   Kish was released in spring training last year, and Lowery was let go at the end of spring training this year. Both had some decent seasons, and both filled important roles for the teams they played on, but in the end, the front office felt that they were bumping their heads against their respective ceilings, and with other arms coming up from the levels below them every year that throw harder or have better secondaries, they became odd men out in the process.
   I appreciate the insights into baseball, pitching, and life in Australia that both players shared.  Both were, in the words of Pat Jordan in his lyrical A False Spring, "the boy who went away":  players who may not have realized their major league dreams, but came much closer to them than the rest of us did.  Kish is already well into an accounting career that he had started in the off seasons during his playing days;  Lowery has not indicated if he'll try to catch on with another organization,  find an indy ball team, go back to school, or transition to the working world.  Whatever he chooses, I wish him well.


   
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