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A Glimpse into the Future: the Lansing Lugnuts' Rotation

When rosters were announced for the Blue Jays minor league affiliates, I was more than a little disappointed that 2011 second round pick Daniel Norris was left off the Lansing Lugnuts. One could argue, and justifiably so, that there’s no reason to rush the 18-year-old and that short season ball would be a more than adequate assignment.

I disagree for two reasons. While Norris was indeed a high school draft pick, he played in the state of Tennessee where cold weather has no impact on the baseball season – he pitched 68.1 innings and struck out an otherworldly 123 batters in his senior year for Science Hill. Most pitchers are hard-pressed to reach the 60-inning plateau with a short season team like Bluefield or Vancouver, so by holding him back from full season ball, Norris will actually throw fewer innings in 2012 than he did in 2011. Barring injury, it’s rare to see a top pitching prospect go backwards in innings like Norris will this year. Second of all, how cool would it have been to see Norris join a rotation that already includes Noah Syndergaard, Justin Nicolino, and Aaron Sanchez? Lansing would have four of the top five pitching prospects in the system, giving them a historically talented pitching staff. I’m a big believer in having your best prospects develop and win together, as beyond the friendships and camaraderie they build, they can also improve their baseball skills by learning from each other. This is even more relevant with pitchers, as, for example, most Blue Jays fans would love for Nicolino share the secret of his devastating changeup with his teammates.

Obviously, the dream assignment never happened. Norris made an appearance with Lansing this month, but it was only during an exhibition game against the Michigan State Spartans. He returned to extended spring training shortly thereafter, where he’ll continue to work until the short season assignments are handed out in late June.

For the Lansing Lugnuts, Justin Nicolino is one of their best arms.

Even without the services of Norris, who I think, is the organization’s top pitching prospect, Lansing hasn’t missed a beat, moving to 7-0 after a 3-2 victory over West Michigan Thursday night. The pitching staff has been the story early on, as their combined 1.76 ERA leads the Midwest League.

In an effort to protect their talented young arms, the Blue Jays have employed a piggy-backing system with their pitchers. Justin Nicolino has been pitching in tandem with Aaron Sanchez, while Noah Syndergaard has been working with another impressive young arm, Anthony DeSclafani, a sixth round pick by the Blue Jays last June. One of the two will start the game, and will be immediately followed by the other after they get their work in. When their next turn in the rotation comes around, the order will be reversed, so each pitcher gets an opportunity to open the game fresh. As the month wears on and their arms have been better conditioned, the pitchers will cut the cord and begin working exclusively in their own games.

Needless to say, the strategy has been effective early on. In their 18 combined innings, they’ve allowed 1 earned run (0.50 ERA) and 16 base runners (10 H, 6 BB, 0.89 WHIP) while striking out 24 (12.00 K/9). It’s easy to quote small sample size –- and to be fair, it is only 18 innings –- but the scouting reports on the big three have been so glowing it’s possible they could take yet another step forward this season.

During Tuesday’s Blue Jays broadcast on Rogers Sportsnet, General Manager Alex Anthopoulos joined the booth for half an inning to discuss some of the early happenings in the minor leagues. One thing that was mentioned, and perhaps not emphasized enough, was that Aaron Sanchez has touched 98 mph already. This most certainly is news, as last season’s scouting reports -– including those by expert Keith Law -– had Sanchez touching 95-96 mph, not 98 mph, which is a very big number. It’s always been said that Sanchez has a ton of projection, and at only 19 years old, it appears he’s ready to fulfill it.

Nicolino has received plenty of praise as well, as during the April 5th edition of the “Up & In Podcast”, Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus chose him as one of his favorite prospects outside Kevin Goldstein’s top 101. During the two minutes or so of discussion, Parks mentioned that he had received a 70-future grade (also known as plus-plus) on Nicolino’s circle changeup from a scout, and that his velocity is already ticking up from his breakout 2011 season. He also mentioned that Nicolino could easily make the jump into the top 50 prospects in all of baseball next year.

Kevin Gray, a New Hampshire beat writer, had an opportunity to both watch and talk to Syndergaard at the minor league complex this spring, and came away very impressed. In an interview with the pitcher, Syndergaard confessed he had issues maintaining arm speed with his curveball in 2011, but that he’s already feeling better with it this year. Gray also spoke to Double-A manager Sal Fasano, who said a repeatable delivery will be the key for Syndergaard moving forward. Fasano mentioned that, from what he’d seen, the mechanics were already getting better.

The biggest question for Blue Jays and Lugnuts fans –- though for very different reasons -– is how long will these three pitchers be calling Michigan home? Nicolino will likely be the first to go, as he has the most polish and has the pitching intelligence of a wily big league veteran. I feel like he has a Drew Hutchison-like minor league run in him this year, and could easily close the year with Double-A. The two power pitchers are far more likely to spend a significant amount of time in Single-A working on their mechanics and command, but barring injury or implosion, both should see a summer promotion to High-A Dunedin, where they will finish the year. 2011 was the year that the three stuck their foot in the door, but 2012 could be the season in which they truly explode onto the prospect scene, and earn some well deserved recognition from fans and baseball people south of the border.

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Tags: Aaron Sanchez Justin Nicolino Lansing Lugnuts Noah Syndergaard

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