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Down on the Farm – Jays MILB Thoughts – Season Summary – Lansing Lugnuts

September 25, 2011

The offseason is barely one week old, and the time to eulogize the successful season of the Lansing Lugnuts, Midwest League finalists, is long overdue.

Player of the Year – Before the 2011 season had begun, CF Jake Marisnick was thought of as a wild card; a tremendous athlete whose hitting ability had not yet arrived. Given an overslot bonus to sign as a 3rd round pick of the 2009 draft, after the Jays’ brass could not come to terms with RHPs James Paxton, Jake Eliopoulos or Jake Barrett, the rangy outfielder debuted with the GCL Jays in 2010, displaying all of the tools that heralded his being drafted, but still raw, which was in evidence after a late-season promotion to Lansing. Over 34 games with the Lugnuts, Marisnick hit .220 with a .636 OPS, and a strikeout rate over double that of his GCL line and a walk-rate that had dropped by around 50%. Last offseason, he was ranked 11th in the system by Baseball America and 17th by Kevin Goldstein at Baseball Prospectus. Assigned to Lansing for 2011, the young pup burst out and became a lion. He started the season hot, hitting .324 with a .968 OPS through the end of April. His OPS dropped back to earth in May, when I saw him play as a DH one sunny Sunday afternoon. He was batting from a deep crouch, and seemed to be lunging after breaking balls, swinging off his front foot, leading to pop ups. But then he adjusted. June saw his OPS back up to .800. He had hit six home runs in his first 242 at bats. All of that was a prelude to the fire which consumed Marisnick’s summer. Already being discussed as one of the breakout players of the year, not just in the Blue Jays system, but in all of baseball, the 20 year-old finished the season with an OPS approaching .950 across his final 56 games.

There were those who, earlier in the year, felt that Marisnick’s ability to roam the middle pasture would erode as he aged, forcing a move to a corner – probably RF – but as the season wore on, there were more and more insiders who believed that he had a fighting chance to remain in CF. With the midsummer trade for Colby Rasmus, and Anthony Gose steady improvements two levels above, the Blue Jays do not need Marisnick as a CF. But that is a problem for another day. For now, he has earned the chance to stay up the middle for another year, one that should start in Dunedin, but will end wherever his talent and production dictate. Don’t let the fact that the Riverside, California native spent the entire season with lansing fool you into believing that he is a one-level-per-year player. Under Alex Anthopoulos, the Jays have been known to let players move at their own pace, for position players, this is especially true for those who have already completed a full season at one level, consolidating their gains. Marisnick is ready for a bigger challenge and if he can keep his K/BB rate under two in Dunedin, he will reach New Hampshire as early as mid-season. Until then, look for him to be in the Blue Jays top five of most popular/respected prospect lists. Including this one.

Pitcher of the Year – RHP Drew Hutchison was the best pitcher to have graced the mound at Lansing this year, combining both prospect pedigree and performance in ways that had many observers and interested onlookers salivating. In fact, he was so good, that the Jays moved him up to High A Dunedin after May, making him ineligible for this list. With many excellent pitchers throwing some for Lansing, both legitimate prospects and non, this award will go to one of the team’s mainstays, who was both effective and intriguing, with now performance and later projection. The pitcher who best exemplified those characteristics was LHP Sean Nolin. Selected in the 6th round of the 2010 draft, Nolin showed the benefits of getting a quick start on a professional career. The San Jacinto JC alum pitched 21.1 innings after being drafted, all but two for Auburn of the short-season league and impressed striking out 26. 10 walks was moderately concerning, possibly preventing him from appearing on any top prospect lists. Assigned to Lansing for his full season debut, Nolin was consistently solid, barring a poor 20 innings in June. While he still struck out over a batter per inning (22 in 20) during that stretch, his 5.85 ERA represented the only month that figure rose above 3.50. Of course, ERA is not the best way to measure success as a prospect, especially not one in the lower reaches of the professional ladder, but Nolin’s peripheral stats were also impressive. Kept on a relatively short leash in his first full season, the 21 year old allowed less than one hit per inning (8.5 H/9), while striking out over one per inning (9.4 K/9). He also substantially lowered his walk rate to a healthy 2.6 BB/9, giving him an impressive 3.6 K/BB. Among pitchers who pitched over 90 MWL innings this a K/9 over 9, Nolin had the 4th best K/BB. In other words, there were pitchers who had better comparative ratios, but with far fewer of each, indicating an inability to miss bats and a lowered likelihood of being able to repeat the trait at higher levels. Listed at 6-5″, 235,  the burly southpaw has the frame to eat many more innings than he was at liberty to do this year. He will get the chance to build his stamina in Dunedin in 2012. As with all lefties, the New York native will have to continue to pitch successfully against right handed batters to remain a starter. While he did succeed against righties this season, he was far more effective against the same sided for Lansing, both in BB-rate (8.3% vs RHB, 4.4% vs LHB) and in K-rate (28.9% vs LHB, 23.3% vs RHB). In all, his OPS_against was more than 200 points lower against lefty swingers. Nolin, who reportedly throws in the high 80’s, reaching 92, which he complements with the organizational mandate of a good change-up, and a developing curve. There were also reports earlier this year that Nolin had dropped a lot of weight since last season, which may have played a role in his improved command, while also effecting his stamina. In spite of his success in 2011, I expect Nolin to remain under-the-radar on prospect lists this offseason, just maybe finding a spot on the back-end of the Baseball America top 30.

Disappointment of the Year – A 6th round pick in the 2009 draft, taken roughly 90 spots after Marisnick, 1B K.C. Hobson was lauded for natural hitting ability, and power projection. The son of a long-time player and short-time MLB manager, Hobson was thought to be a potential middle of the order bat, swinging from the left side of the plate. His professional debut in 2010 was moderately disappointing, but forgivable in the way that debuts often are. He only struck out in 15.4% of his at bats, but walked much less, in only 4.7% of his plate appearances. His power showed on occasion, but six home runs attested to not enough. Of course, was he able to repeat that over-the-fence power this year, that would have been a 50% increase on what he was actually able to accomplish. While strongly built (6-2″, 205), the first baseman was only able to muscle four balls over the fence and fair. Hobson greatly tightened up his BB and K numbers, earning the free pass in 11.2% of this year’s plate appearances while striking out only 15.2% of the time. His .336 OBP outshined his SLG of .333. Simply put, in any level of the developmental curve, a .083 ISO from a 1B is unacceptable. Making matters worse, Hobson’s fielding was simply Hobsonian, as he committed 25 errors this year, a stunning total from a first baseman.

Other Lugnuts Notes – It’s hard to talk about Jake Marisnick without also discussing the other Lugnuts’ outfielders. LF Marcus Knecht and RF Michael Crouse but had impressive seasons. In his first full season, Knecht, a 2010 3rd round choice, hit .273 with a .851 OPS and an ISO of .201. He struck out too often, but also had a very good walk rate. Pitch data is poor at this level, but the Toronto-born slugger had one of the highest recorded pitches-per-plate appearance on the Lansing squad.

Although he missed most of August due to a hamstring injury, Crouse impressed in his first full season, after three partial previous seasons. Although drafted out of a California high school, like Knecht, Crouse is a Canadian, born in Port Moody, BC as his father played in the CFL. An elite athlete, Crouse showed an abundance of tools, hitting for power (.214 ISO), speed (38 steals in 46 attempts, 5 triples), arm strength (13 outfield assists). Having struck out in 27.4% of his plate appearances, he could stand to improve his contact ability. Like Marisnick, Crouse and Knecht should all move up to Dunedin as a trio next season.

The Lansing outfield also had a fourth wheel in Markus Brisker, who played in all three pastures as well as the team’s DH. His .233 AVG and .702 OPS do not stand out, but for the born athlete, it is the first real sign of progress since being drafted in the 6th round in 2008. He has very good speed, as 24 steals in 32 attempts attests, although the most impressive facet of his game was his walk rate, which finished up at 13.6%. He still needs more time to hone his instincts, but the tools are there to provide some hope.

While not as disappointing as Hobson, C Carlos Perez did not live up to expectations this season. In his first taste of full-season ball, the 20 year-old Venezuelan saw his OPS drop by .159 from his 2010 line in Auburn. He lost both power and strike zone judgement, with his K-rate rising and BB-rate dropping. Maybe worst of all, was his CS numbers. Thought of as a good defensive catcher, he nabbed 49% of would-be thieves in 2009 in the GCL and 36% last year at Auburn. This year, Perez only nailed 29% of opposing base-runners. As hard as it is to tease defensive abilities through the numbers for catchers at the MLB level, it is nigh-impossible in the lower minors.  So here`s a factoid, to make with what you will. The Lugnuts were just shy of league average this year in ERA and WHIP, but finished third in the MWL in staff K/BB at 2.79. They were closer to first than fourth. Perez is still a good catching prospect, but has fallen behind Travis d’Arnaud and A.J. Jimenez on the organization depth chart.

Most of the pitchers who spent significant time with Lansing this year were organizational types. There were some short term exceptions, like the aforementioned Drew Hutchison, in addition to late-season cameos by RHP Noah Syndergaard and LHP Justin Nicolino. Of the full-season starters, the only one I want to highlight at season’s end is RHP Casey Lawrence. In between spot starts in High A Dunedin, Lawrence led the Lugnuts in innings pitched with 125.2, averaging over 5.2 innings per start. Lawrence, who will be 24 next month, is not really a prospect, but a walk-rate of 1.4 BB/9 across two levels earned him another go at making a career out of baseball next season. He should start back with Dunedin, but could see New Hampshire if he continues to throw nothing but strikes.

I’ll close off with RHP Daniel Webb, once a highly-touted prep pitcher out of Kentucky, who fell in the draft due to signability and ended up struggling mightily in the Junior College ranks. The Jays took an 18th round flier on him in 2010 and he took his collegiate struggles to the pro game, although still showing some signs that his prep-level talent might still be in his arm. But after 12 starts this year, averaging under 5 innings per start, Webb had an unsightly 5.97 ERA, surrendering 6 home runs in only 57.1 innings, despite a strong 2.58 ground-out to air-out ratio. After missing most of June and all of July with an injury, Webb came back to finish out the season pitching out of the bullpen. The numbers during the regular season were not compiled in enough innings as to be meaningful, but he did limit the opposition to only one walk in 8.2 innings, after walking 55 in 125.2 innings in his career as a starter. He kept up the solid pitching out of the bullpen in the MWL playoffs. The stuff may be there to excel in that role and rise much more quickly through the organization. If kept in short stints, I could see Webb reaching AAA by the end of the 2012 season.

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