When one attends a Class-A game, they aren’t going to see a winning team. Rather, any interest in teams in the low minors is a result of the up-and-coming talent on the roster; everyone hopes to catch a glimpse of a prospect—let alone multiple prospects—who may be the next superstar.
While a winning team is always a great storyline and is undoubtedly enjoyable for the players, it simply doesn’t matter at lower minor league levels. There will always be a greater emphasis on player development rather than winning and subsequently making the playoffs.
However, that’s exactly what has made the Lansing Lugnuts’ (Blue Jays, Low-A) current season and 74-44 overall record all that more impressive. With a roster comprised of highly regarded pitching prospects and somewhat toolsy position players, the Lugnuts have put together a remarkable season in which they’ve both developed their players and dominated the Midwest League.
The Big 3
The Lugnuts have arguably the most exciting and promising pitching rotation in the low minors, possibly even in all the minors. Headed by “The Big Three,” RHP Aaron Sanchez, RHP Noah Syndergaard and LHP Justin Nicolino, the team has posted a Midwest League-leading 3.33 ERA this season in 118 games.
At the head of the rotation is right-hander Aaron Sanchez, who was recently ranked as baseball’s No. 38 prospect in Prospect Pipeline’s Midseason Top 50 Prospects. After working a combined 79.1 innings over the previous two seasons, Sanchez—a 2010 first-round draft pick—has been given a longer leash this season and logged exactly 79.1 innings with tremendous results: 8-3, 2.38 ERA, .191 BAA, 2.29 GB/FB and 9.76 K/9.
Syndergaard, drafted four picks after Sanchez in 2010, has been equally impressive, as the right-hander owns a 7-4 record, 2.89 ERA, 3.03 GB/FB, 10.61 K/9 and 2.58 BB/9 over 87.1 innings.
And finally, the lone southpaw in the trio, Nicolino—a second-round pick in that same 2010 draft—has registered a 7-4 record with a 2.67 ERA, 2.43 GB/FB, 8.71 K/9 and dazzling 1.29 BB/9. Unlike with Sanchez and Syndergaard, Nicolino has been allowed a great workload, appearing in 24 games and logging 104.1 innings.
While the Sanchez-Syndergaard-Nicolino three-headed monster has garnered all the attention this season, the rest of the Lugnuts’ staff is also entitled to recognition.
RHP Jesse Hernandez (4-5, 2.26 ERA), RHP David Rollins (6-1, 2.78 ERA before he was traded to Houston Astros), RHP Anthony DeSclafani (10-3, 2.91 ERA) and RHP Marcus Walden (5-2, 3.11 ERA) comprise the rest of the starting rotation—a rotation that features no pitcher with an ERA above 4.00.
In support of their immensely talented starters, the Lugnuts’ bullpen has been lights-out all season. RHP Javier Avendano (1.48 ERA, 11.57 K/9), LHP Tyler Ybara (2.27 ERA, 11.75 K/9) and closer RHP Ajay Mayer (3.75 ERA, 31 saves, 9.48 K/9) have all been dominant, late-inning options, capable of piling up strikeouts and inducing ground-ball outs with ease.
While the Lugnuts haven't housed any notable position prospects, the team has essentially remained intact all season, allowing players to realize their roles and function in unison.
OF Kevin Pillar has been the team’s offensive star this season (.841 OPS, 35 SB), while 2B Jon Berti (.753 OPS, 26 SB) and OF Kenny Wilson (.718 OPS, 40 SB) continue to swipe bases and score runs.
DH Kevin Patterson (15 HR, 64 RBI) and K.C. Hobson (nine HR, 76 RBI) have served as the team’s top run-producers, although neither player’s overall season has been especially impressive.
It’s rare for a Low-A team to fire on all cylinders as the Lugnuts have done this season. Sure, one can attribute the success to the starting rotation and the fact that the organization wants to develop “The Big Three” together. But from a broader perspective, the Lugnuts’ success this season stems from a combination of base skills, speed and remarkable pitching.
After winning the first half of the Midwest League season with a 47-22 record, the team has already qualified for the postseason. And considering the starting pitching they could deploy in either a three- or five-game series, it’s hard to see them not winning it all.
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