LANSING, Michigan – What does the future hold for the Toronto Blue Jays?
Injury after injury, replacements and reinforcements, the blows just keep coming. The latest came Monday night when Jose Bautista hurt his wrist.
Many questions are still left unanswered for the short-term future of the club.
One thing that does look to be heading in a positive direction, however, is the long-term future of the franchise.
The Blue Jays have one of the strongest farm systems in baseball. Just last season, five of Toronto’s minor league teams made it to the playoffs, four made it to the finals and the short-season Vancouver Canadians and the Double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats won their respective championships.
The team that has stood out in the crowd so far this season has been the Class-A Lansing Lugnuts. Lansing has three of the organization’s top prospects in Aaron Sanchez, Justin Nicolino and Noah Syndergaard. They have been the topic of conversation all year.
"I get really excited every day watching them pitch, just to see what’s going to happen next," Lugnuts manager John Tamargo, Jr. said. "The progression they’re doing, now they’re at five innings, possibly six innings… if their pitch counts are low. It’s just really exciting to watch.
"They keep us in the ball game and it’s really exciting because you always have a chance to win with those guys."
Until recently, the pitching staff in Lansing was using a piggybacking system for their starters. Even so, the trio own 19 of the team's 62 wins. Now with their own start days, the hurlers will carry on their progression for the remainder of the season.
"Their developmental process is just continuing and it will continue not only for this year but into next year and even the following year," Lugnuts pitching coach and Halifax native Vince Horsman said. "Each had some areas they needed to improve on.
"Nicolino [has] really done a nice job of…improving on his curveball and making it a really valuable pitch. It’s an average major league pitch most nights and some nights it’s even better than that.
"Noah's developing a breaking ball and going out there and trusting it and throwing it in the game and not worrying about if somebody gets a hit off of it or if it doesn’t work out. But down here that's what it’s about. It’s about developing your pitches and he’s already got two pretty polished pitches and it’s about getting that third.
"With Sanchez, he's got three above-average major league pitches right now. It’s just about being consistent."
'I've grown tremendously'
Until his last start, in which Sanchez doubled his earned run total for the entire season in just 1 1/3 innings, he held a 0.72 mark in 62 1/3 innings. He still leads the team with a 1.41 ERA and eight wins, to go with 72 strikeouts and a 1.08 WHIP, all incredible improvements upon his season last year.
"I've grown tremendously," the 20-year-old right-hander said. "If I were talking about last year at this time it would be totally different. Just the kind of work that our pitching coach here, Vince, and I have put together through our four days in between [starts] has been tremendous for me."
Sanchez’s roommate, best friend and former piggyback partner, Nicolino, has posted a 2.68 ERA through 77 1/3 innings so far this year with 13 walks to 78 strikeouts, an accomplishment he credits to his delivery.
"I'm definitely working hard at getting bigger and stronger and by doing that it’s allowed me to stay strong throughout this year and even last year and also with my delivery,” the 20-year-old southpaw said. "The big thing coming into last year was if I was going to be able to repeat my delivery and understand my delivery and master my delivery. I feel like I’ve done a very good job of doing that so far."
Syndergaard has six wins with a 2.93 ERA through 67 2/3 innings with the Lugnuts. He’s walked just 18 and struck out 84 batters, leading the Midwest League with an 11.2 strikeouts-per-nine mark. In addition to honing his curveball, the flamethrower has added a slider to his pitching repertoire as of late.
Kevin Pillar, just promoted from Lansing to the Dunedin Blue Jays after posting a slash line of .322/.390/.451 with 57 runs driven in and 35 stolen bases for the Lugnuts, has been most impressed with the pitching combination nicknamed 'Sancholino' that he’s been behind all year up until now.
"I played with Noah and Sanchez last year,” the outfielder said. “I never really got to see Nicolino throw so Nicolino's impressed me a lot, just the maturity that he has for such a young age, the poise he has on the mound; the command he has on all of his pitches.
"But Sanchez too, because Sanchez is a completely different pitcher than he was last year. His walks were way up last year, his control was a little suspect last year but this year, he’s just lights out. He's pounding the zone and I almost feel sorry for the hitters that have to face him."
'A special group'
For now, the fun and success that the Lugnuts are having will remain in Lansing, though there is potential for change just around the corner with the upcoming trade deadline. Should the top pitching trio not be moved, the hope is that their accomplishments will continue all the way up the ladder.
"These kids are self-motivated,” Horsman said. "I call them low-maintenance. They know what they want to do; they know where they want to be and they’re just determined…It's about the kids and trying to get them better off.
"Or to get value for the organization, where they get a chance to be traded for, maybe we’re in a pennant race and all of a sudden they might be involved in a trade because they have value. Or maybe they end up helping us in a pennant race at some point down the road in the future…but these guys, it’s a special group."