The AA Eastern League’s New Hampshire Fisher Cats have been receiving most of the attention from Blue Jays prospects watchers so far this season, and rightly so, but there’s another team in the system that has been just as successful.
The Lansing Lugnuts took 3 of 5 games from cross-state rival West Michigan Whitecaps this past weekend, moving a game and a half ahead of the Tigers’ affiliate atop the Midwest League’s Eastern Division. The beneficiary of an influx of players from all three of Toronto’s strong short season entries last year, the Lugs’ sit atop most team batting categories in the MWL, and their pitching staff is vastly upgraded from front to back compared to a year ago.
Some notes and thoughts from a weekend (and an early Monday morning) of watching some of the Lansing-West Michigan action this weekend:
OF Chavez Young
A native of Freeport, Bahamas, Young was an under-the-radar prospect two years ago, even though he had moved stateside to play high school ball. The Blue Jays selected him in the 39th round, and have moved him up in the ranks as he makes up for some missed development time.
The toolsy Young has played primarily RF this year, because of the presence of Reggie Pruitt. With Pruitt on the DL this past week, Young has taken over in CF, and has not missed a beat. He gets good reads on balls (the wind and high, sunny sky in West Michigan this weekend was a challenge), and has a strong, accurate arm.
At the plate, Young has a slightly open stance. Now ensconced at the top of the Lansing batting order, he sees plenty of pitches each at bat, helping his teammates behind him see most of the opposing Pitcher’s repertoire. He does not expand the strike zone, even when behind in the count. There was some dismay in Blue Jays fandom after Edward Olivares was dealt to the Padres in the offseason, but Young may be his equal, although he may be a bit behind in terms of power. Young seems to fit the profile of the get-on-base, speedy, top of the lineup guy. He may eventually develop the power tool as well.
Kevin Vicuna, SS
The slender (6’/160) Vicuna may have to run around in the shower in order to get wet, but he’s developing into a solid two-way player. Vicuna seems to have been around forever (he was a top 2014 IFA), but he’s only 20.
Vicuna had developed a reputation in short season as a glove-first player, but he began to make consistent contact at Vancouver last year, and earned a late-season promotion to Lansing.
Hitting behind Young, Vicuna gets on base at an impressive clip (.330/.351/.385 so far). Utlizing a leg kick, Vicuna still makes a lot of groundball contact, but with his improved bat speed and his ability to get down the first base line quickly, he’s contributing his share to Lansing’s offence.
Kacy Clemens 1B
The son of the Hall of Famer saw his bat slow considerably as he tired toward the end of his first pro campaign last year, but he has returned to the form that led the Blue Jays to select him in the 8th round last June – Clemens is among the league leaders in a number of offensive categories. He donned a pair of sport glasses this spring, and it seems to have helped with pitch recognition – after posting a 14% BB rate at Vancouver last year, he’s currently at 23%.
Clemens has a slightly open, crouched stance. After mashing 3 Homers in the first two games of the series, Clemens saw a steady diet of breaking balls over the rest of the weekend, and struggled as a result. Breaking pitches on the inner half in particular gave him some trouble, and he was tied up as he brought his lead leg across to initiate his swing.
Defensively, Clemens has already gained a strong reputation – he may already be the best defensive 1B in the system.
Kevin Smith 3B
Drafted as a SS in the 4th round last year, Smith was sent to Bluefield as top pick Logan Warmoth, who plays the same spot, was sent to Vancouver. With Vicuna in Lansing’s lineup, Smith has seen more time at 3rd. He made the most recent edition of Baseball America‘s prospect hot sheet after slashing .433/.471/.933 this past week.
Smith’s bat is absolutely on fire. He leads the MWL in Doubles, Total Bases, and RBI, and like Clemens, is among the leaders in several other hitting stats. Smith has a closed stance, and uses a slight leg kick. His head is still as the pitch approaches the plate, giving him good pitch recognition. He gets good extension and plate coverage on his swing as a result. If you were to ask which hitter on the Lansing roster looks the most like an MLB prospect, it would be Smith. He’s cut his K rate from almost 25% in Bluefield to just over 15% so far.
Smith is also an efficient base runner (he’s a perfect 6-6 this year, and has stolen 21 bases without being caught as a pro), and he’s making the adjustment to playing 3rd. He’s had some troubles on pop ups down the LF line, as the different angle he has to take is probably taking some time to get used to.
Cullen Large, 2B/3B
After a slow start, the 2017 5th round pick came out firing last week, which included a 5-5 game against the Reds’ Dayton affiliate.
Large had his first pro season cut short by a broken hand last year. He’s splitting time at 2nd with Samad Taylor, and at 3rd with Smith. Large uses a slight leg kick, and will go with other way with a pitch. He leads the MLW in runs scored.
Ryan Noda LF
This guy is quickly becoming one of the most interesting prospects in the organization.
The 2017 Appalachian League MVP saw his stock draft to the 15th round after a college season that fell short of initial expectations. Scooping up players like this is a Blue Jays specialty, and with Clemens ahead of him on the depth chart, Noda went off to Bluefield and tore up the league’s pitching, winning an advanced triple crown, flirting with .400 as late as August 10th.
Noda is a throwback, plain and simple. Even in the colder than usual Midwest spring, he eschews long sleeves and batting gloves, and wears his pants just below the knees, revealing 70s era length stirrups. His uniform always seems to be dirty.
At the plate, he has a closed stance, with a bat waggle. He holds his elbow up, reminding a long-time observer of Joe Morgan (without the elbow pump). Noda absolutely grinds out at bats and tires Pitchers out – no one in the Appy League saw more pitches than Noda did last yer. He will not expand his strike zone, and it’s no surprise that he’s easily in the league lead for walks (with Clemens behind him). He uses only a toe tap, but like Clemens he saw a steady diet of offspeed pitches over the weekend, and did have some trouble with being out front. Noda has yet to Homer, but he hit four doubles over the weekend, showing that maybe he’s starting to tap into that power.
But Noda is not a one-dimensional, on-base-machine player. He’s a smart baserunner with sneaky speed, and is perfect in 7 steal attemps so far. An OF in college, Noda shows good instincts and surprising range on flyballs, although he took some circuitous routes on a couple of wind-blown balls over the course of the series. He may not have the power for a corner infield position, so LF is looking more and more like a good fit for him.
Brock Ludquist RF
Owners of one of the best mustaches in the game, Lundquist’s ABs are a thing to watch.
The 2017 6th rounder out of Long Beach state has a crouched, slightly open stance, which produces considerable torque, and a long, violent swing. That makes for some swing-and-miss, but it also can mean some hard contact when he connects.
Samad Taylor 2B
More than a few fans have asked about Taylor, who was acquired from Cleveland last year.
Truth be told, unless he makes some major adjustments, it’s hard to see him as the 13th-best Blue Jays prospect, where MLB Pipeline has him ranked. There is no doubt about his fast-twitch reflexes, defensive skills, and athleticism, but there is some about his approach at the plate.
Taylor uses a big leg kick, and has a long swing. Pitch recognition is the issue, and he often finds himself in unfavourable counts. As a result, he’s dropped from the top of Lansing’s order to near the bottom. At 19, he’s still young for this level, and there is time for his performance to catch up to his abundant tools.
Maximo Castillo, SP
At 18, the Venezuelan has more than held his own through 5 outings (including 3 starts) even though he’s one of the youngest players in the MWL.
Castillo has a tall-and-fall delivery with a short arm stroke. He pounds the bottom of the strike zone with a fastball that can touch 94, and has good sinking action to it.
Castillo’s secondaries are still developing. He threw primarily fastballs, and showed inconsistent command of his breaking ball. He should add velo as the summer progresses, and may turn into an arm to watch.
Yennsy Diaz, SP
Diaz doesn’t have a whole lot left to prove in the league, and should be in Dunedin by month’s end.
Diaz’ fastball can hit 97, with good movement. Midwest League hitters have been overmatched against Diaz, managing only 6 hits in 29 innings against him. He gave up only two hard-hit balls in the first game of Sunday’s doubleheader, one of which was a loud foul down the LF line.
Diaz’ only enemy so far seems to be himself. He’s walked 13 (vs 29 Ks) so far, sometimes losing the strike zone when he rushes his delivery and falls off toward 1st. He has a hammer curve that comes from a similar arm angle. With left-handed hitters, he starts that pitch on the middle of the plate, and brings it in under their hands, creating a pitch that is as tough to barrel as it is to lay off.
Diaz has a fast arm action, and hitters have a very tough time picking up the ball from his hand. He gets ahead of hitters, and is just generally hard to square up.
An undersized (5’9″) reliever, Tice has a live arm, and has been lights out as a closer since being drafted in the 16th round last year (17 Saves in as many chances).
Tice brings 95-96 heat, and an 89 slider that has late break and much bite to it. He slots in below some of the more prominent bullpen arms ahead of him in the system, but Tice could rise quickly.
Lansing’s bullpen was the club’s weak point last year, but with Tice, and Orlando Pascual, Brody Rodning, and Matt Shannon from last year’s Northwest League champs Vancouver now in tow, the Lugs should be holding on to a lot more of the leads their offence and starters hand over to the pen.
This is a fun team to watch – they grind out ABs, and Manager Cesar Martin has them very aggressive on the basepaths. The Fisher Cats may be getting all the attention, but the Lugnuts may make some post-season noise themselves.