Monday, September 28, 2015

A review: PITCH Talks Toronto, live from Rogers Centre!

right field horizontal
My final day in the Lugnuts office this calendar year was Thursday. On Friday, I grabbed my passport, converted to Canadian currency, and drove due East until I arrived north of the border.
I had been invited to take part in PITCH Talks, an event featuring baseball people talking with baseball people in a series of panels. Such notables as Alex Anthopoulos, Dan Shulman, Jonah Keri, and Arturo Marcano have spoken at PITCH Talks in the past -- and so had I, taking part in a Minor League Q&A with Triple-A voice Ben Wagner last season.

A major difference between this PITCH Talks and prior events was in the setting: This was no longer in a basement, or a rented space, or a club: This was at Rogers Centre, in the former Hard Rock Cafe beyond the right field wall, occurring at the same time that tens of thousands of Blue Jays fans were waiting to be allowed into the ballpark. Big congratulations to Kevin Kennedy and his crew for putting this together.
Our view from PITCH:
view from cafe
That's a darn good starting lineup, eh?
I had no difficulties passing through Customs before running directly into Toronto rush hour traffic. Hooray! (Living in Lansing causes me to forget about the idea of traffic from time to time.) By the time I was parked and walked toward Rogers Centre, time was running short -- and then I proceeded to walk nearly the entire way around the stadium in search of the gate we were told to enter.
Pitch talks entrance
This gate, courtesy @PitchTalksTOR
By the time I had arrived and was allowed admission by @Mattomic, a gentleman distinguished by having the only starting initial delivered via calligraphy in all of the TwitterVerse, I was rather sweaty and the first panel was already in progress.
I give you... Sportsnet Magazine's Kristina Rutherford and Arden Zwelling.
Kristina and Arden
My view of Kristina and Arden.
Angle 2
Courtesy of @PitchTalks
Kristina Rutherford has written a good many articles, though using the word "good" is selling her short. (A link to her archive.) In this setting, she and Arden had a blast. I'd compare it in a sense to Pardon the Interruption, a show sold on the recommendation that Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon's arguments in the newsroom were so entertaining, it was worth watching them argue on TV. Coworkers Kristina and Arden, meanwhile, played a game of "Can You Top This?" with stories and side notes gleaned from their reporting and interviewing -- I could picture them finishing off another story, or talking to another source, and receiving something so golden in response that they couldn't wait to share it. In his role as moderator, Arden set up his questions for Kristina with a bit of glee, the better to watch her spike them down. A query from an audience member about her toughest interview set her down the path of remarkable Jose Canseco inappropriateness and caused Arden to rollick.
This was where the panel hit its stride -- a rapid-fire series of candies in anecdote form, tossed here and there by the two of them, which I scrambled to pick up and remember while not missing the next one to come around. Come for the David Price analysis, but don't miss the story of Roberto Osuna, growing up in the most dangerous area in Mexico, or LaTroy Hawkins, emerging from lethal Gary, Indiana, with a huge heart and a love of collecting old jokes.
When they were done, it was entirely too soon.

(It's funny, I tried to take a pic of the next panel, and it turned out blurry. So I turned to the PITCH Talks Twitter handle -- and theirs is also blurry, haha. So we'll go with it, and you can Google up what Shi Davidi, Bill Chastain, and Marc Topkin look like in person.)
Shi writes for Sportsnet as a columnist; I happen to own the book he co-wrote with John Lott, "Great Expectations: The Lost Toronto Blue Jays Season" about the 2013 campaign. (The 2015 season might deserve its own book soon.) Bill is the Tampa Bay Rays' writer. Marc writes for the Tampa Bay Times.
As much as I could listen to Kristina and Arden telling stories all day long, this was the main course. This was meat-and-potatoes discussion about:
  1. Would David Price return to Toronto after this year? Kristina answered the same question, but this was bigger -- this was the guys in Tampa who've known him since 2008 or so answering directly about what he was going to do?I believe that Marc said flatly that David was leaving, and received a nice bit of good-natured boos from the crowd (which was a very good-humoured, well-read group of fans). And I believe that two reasonable hypotheticals offered was that Price was either likely to return to the south with the Atlanta Braves or reunite with Joe Maddon with the Chicago Cubs.
    They went back and forth on Price's psyche and his motivations, and it was all great. Cut it, stock it away, listen back to it (via iTunes, etc.) come the offseason.
  2. What is the future of the Rays? Tampa Bay can't continue to play in Tropicana Field, even though the lease extends through 2027. It can't (even if Shi likes the Trop more than most everyone else). The contact needs to be released, the team needs to reach a better area. MLB is flush, but that's unhealthy for the sport. (It is also unhealthy to have a team in the current Oakland facility, I believe. Fix each of those spots and you move the entire league forward.)Marc and Bill bandied this about -- what can be done, what has to be done, and all of the potential factors they foresee. Would Stuart Sternberg sell the team and purchase the New York Mets? Does this news throw a monkey wrench into anything?
There were other matters that came up, including the differences between former manager Maddon and current skipper Kevin Cash and the realization that much of Maddon's unorthodox bullpen maneuvering and lineup jockeying were more a part of the Rays' organizational philosophies than they were Joe Maddon idiosyncrasies.
All things considered, this was an excellent supplement to the first panel, providing a counterbalance to personal anecdotes with nuts-and-bolts breakdown and analytical opinions.

me from a ways away
me from behind
me from in front
And then there was me, photos courtesy of @PitchTalks.
Arden Zwelling was my moderator, setting me up to tell stories to a legion of Blue Jays fans who were interested in hearing them. Looking back on it, it was rather a whirlwind. I think now of all of the stories that I could have told -- Kevin Pillar and proper haircare, for instance.
I talked:
  • Ryan "Go-Go" Goins, and his terrific energy
  • Kevin Pillar, his Canadian bandanna, and finding an MiLB routine that rubbed off on everyone
  • The legend of Anthony Alford
  • Rowdy Tellez, in response to Arden asking me about the other Jays' Minor Leaguers
  • Sean Reid-Foley, in response to a question about the young fireballer
  • Marcus Stroman's work ethic, in response to a questioner wondering what impact Marcus had made in Lansing during his rehab start
  • A rushed story of a West Michigan Whitecaps prank (darn it, I knew we were running out of time, so I panicked and hustled to fit this one in there, answering a question about MiLB pranks from 2014)
  • The Blue Jays' MiLB development, in response to a questioner wondering which organizations did well to develop their young talent. This was the last question that was fit in.
I may be forgetting things. I'm not forgetting that I definitely talked over Arden, and also talked way too much -- but it's an exciting thing to do a PITCH Talks, and I was honoured to be a part of it.
If you have any questions for me, particularly any questions that I'd be well-positioned to answer, ask away!

Let's finish with some images from the rest of the night, a 5-3 Blue Jays victory over Tampa Bay.
right field horizontalbautista unisrobbie alomarbehind the outfielder 

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The 2015 Lugnuts pitching corps in 2016

On Tuesday, I looked ahead to next year for the Lugnuts' position players. Today, it's time to talk pitching.
As a bonus -- I'll look ahead to what could be a pretty darn great starting rotation.
I made this at midseason, starring Sean Reid-Foley. (Photo: Kyle Castle)
Mark Biggs: The next step, it seems to me, is a trip up to Dunedin for the sinkerballer. His 4.28 ERA indicated that he didn't dominate the MWL, so I wouldn't be hugely surprised if Biggs came back to Lansing -- but I would be a little surprised.
Andrew Case: Heck, why not? Case began last year in Lansing, thanks to a surprise showing at the end of Spring Training, struggled, and then met with better success in Vancouver. He certainly could pop up again in the Lugnuts bullpen next year.
Shane Dawson: Dunedin Blue Jays starter, with a chance at Double-A by midseason. Keep on keepin' on.
Chase De Jong: Double-A starting pitcher in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization and a reasonable chance at a Major League debut next summer.
Jose Fernandez: A-Advanced Dunedin reliever, moving right up the ladder. I'd love to see if his fastball velocity can maintain in the 90s (and perhaps increase a touch).
Conor Fisk: A-Advanced Dunedin, likely as a starting pitcher. Good solid 2015 for Fisk!
Alonzo Gonzalez: Alonzo made his way from Lansing to Dunedin this summer. On August 8, his ERA was a pretty darn good 2.86, but he was roughed up in four of his final five outings. It would not be out of the question to see him reach Double-A early next year, but I suspect he returns to Dunedin.
Conner Greene: Double-A New Hampshire starting pitcher, with a potential Major League debut in his future.
Clinton Hollon: Step 1 - serve the remainder of 50-game suspension. Step 2 - return to Lansing.
Dusty Isaacs: A-Advanced Dunedin reliever; if he gets in great shape and continues to hone his 90s fastball / slider / change combination, there could be something great in store for the former Georgia Tech Yellowjacket.
Phil Kish: Ernst and Young this offseason, then back in the A-Advanced Dunedin bullpen.
Michael Kraft: Like Andrew Case, he started in Lansing and scuffled before moving down to Vancouver. Unlike Case, he wasn't all that great with the Canadians. Still, the path would seem to lead him back to the Lugnuts.
Chase Mallard: Chase actually led the Lugnuts in innings pitched in 2015, posting 123 frames. I'd expect him to pitch in Dunedin next season.
Tim Mayza: A-Advanced Dunedin reliever, with a chance to go to the Arizona Fall League at season's end.
Carlos Ramirez: A-Advanced Dunedin reliever; the velocity is great, but he's still learning.
Sean Reid-Foley: A-Advanced Dunedin starting pitcher is my guess -- and if he excels, he could jump. He started last year so raw and inconsistent with killer stuff. By the end of the year, I loved what we were seeing. The work ethic/fight is there for a big 2016.
Tom Robson: A-Advanced Dunedin starting pitcher and a sleeper prospect for great things.
Justin Shafer: Justin is heading to the Arizona Fall League this Fall in a relief role. Do the Blue Jays keep him as a reliever next year? Whatever is the case, he'll be in Dunedin.
Starlyn Suriel: After a year and a half in Lansing, Starlyn gets his first chance at A-Advanced Dunedin.
Jesus Tinoco: A-Advanced starting pitcher in the Colorado Rockies' organization.
Colton Turner: A-Advanced Dunedin reliever.
Jon Wandling: It wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility for Jon, who made only three starts for Lansing, to return to the Midwest League. I wouldn't mind it, he's a heck of an engaging guy. Otherwise, ship him up to Dunedin!

A rather blind but educated guess at the 2016 Lansing Lugnuts starting rotation, best-case scenario:
  1. Jon Harris, 2015 1st-round draft pick, Blue Jays #2 prospect
  2. Ryan Borucki, 2012 15th-round draft pick, Blue Jays' #11 prospect
  3. Clinton Hollon (following suspension), 2013 2nd-round draft pick, Blue Jays' #13 prospect
  4. Angel Perdomo, international free agent, Blue Jays' #28 prospect
  5. Tayler Saucedo, 2015 21st-round draft pick, 4-2 / 2.48 in pro debut between Bluefield/Vancouver
Honorable mentions: a returning Chase Mallard and Jon Wandling; an ascending Francisco Rios and Evan Smith (Jays' #27 prospect) from Vancouver; a super-ascending Juliandry Higuera, Miguel Burgos and Geno Encina from Bluefield.

PITCH Talks, tomorrow night in Toronto!

If you happen to be in Toronto tomorrow, come see me at Rogers Centre!
(Use the code "RBI" and get $5 off your ticket purchase!)
Our schedule:
  • 5:30 - Arden Zwelling & Kristina Rutherford on David Price
  • 5:45 - Jays & Rays Panel with Shi Davidi, Marc Topkin, and Bill Chastain, moderated by Arden Zwelling
  • 6:15 - Report from the Farm with Jesse Goldberg-Strassler, moderated by Arden Zwelling
  • 6:45 - Wrap Up
  • 7:00 - Blue Jays baseball!

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Blue Jays prospecting, looking toward 2016

This beautiful photograph was taken by Kyle Castle. From left to right: D.J. Davis, Boomer Collins and Ryan McBroom.
Consider that trio sitting in the dugout, looking out to the field and their future:
  • D.J. Davis was a first-round draft pick in 2012. He's grinding his way forward, his talent intact, working to live up to the high expectations that were placed upon him by his selection and signing bonus. He's 21. He's considered a prospect.
  • Boomer Collins was a nondrafted free agent in 2013. He's married. He's worked in refrigerator repair, and he's worked as a milkman. Baseball is his dream, but he's now 25. He's considered a non-prospect.
  • Ryan McBroom was a 15th-round draft pick in 2014. He was a non-prospect, I'd argue, and then this year happened, and he showed his skills as the best hitter in the Midwest League from Opening Day through the postseason, earning league MVP. (Let it not be forgotten that he batted .400, 8-for-20, in the playoffs.) (Let it also not be forgotten that D.J. Davis batted .474, 9-for-19, in his own right.) McBroom is 23. He is now considered a borderline prospect.

Dating back to a deal for Josh Donaldson during the 2014-15 offseason, the Blue Jays have made five significant trades of Minor League talent for Major League talent:
  1. On November 28, 2014, they traded infielders Brett Lawrie and Franklin Barreto and pitchers Sean Nolin and Kendall Graveman to Oakland for Donaldson.
  2. On July 28, 2015, they traded pitchers Jeff Hoffman, Miguel Castro and Jesus Tinoco to Colorado for Troy Tulowitzki and LaTroy Hawkins.
  3. On July 30, 2015, they traded pitchers Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd and Jairo Labourt to Detroit for David Price.
  4. On July 31, 2015, they traded pitchers Jacob Brentz, Nick Wells and Rob Rasmussen to Seattle for Mark Lowe.
  5. That same day, they traded pitchers Alberto Tirado and Jimmy Cordero to Philadelphia for Ben Revere.
Let me also add a pair of not-as-significant deals: shortstop Dawel Lugo for Arizona utility infielder Cliff Pennington, and pitcher Chase De Jong and infielder Tim Locastro to the L.A. Dodgers for international free agent signing slots in order to ink 16-year-old Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., the top hitter on the market.
17 Minor Leaguers traded. If they had all been kept, there is no doubt in my mind that Barreto, Graveman, Hoffman, Castro, Tinoco, Norris, Labourt, Tirado and De Jong would all have made the 2016 Toronto Blue Jays' top prospect list (with Lugo close, Brentz and Wells also serving as possibilities, and Cordero continuing to throw 100 mph while Locastro proves magical wherever he goes).
The current prospect list (source: looks a little like this:
Rolling our way through the 30:
  1. Dalton Pompey - He'll be in the Major Leagues to stay next year as starting OF for Toronto.
  2. Jonathan Harris - The pressure will be on, the spotlight bright, as the Jays' 2015 first-rounder hits full-season ball. I wouldn't be surprised if he skipped right to Dunedin and ended the season in New Hampshire.
  3. Anthony Alford - YOUR New Hampshire Fisher Cats starting center fielder.
  4. Sean Reid-Foley - The biggest arm in the system heads back to Dunedin. (If he excels, here's your top trade-bait bargaining chip.)
  5. Max Pentecost - 2015 was lost because of injury. The first-round catcher aims to get back on the horse in 2016, but expectations should be tempered in the first half.
  6. Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. - Let's just agree to ignore young Vlad in the early-going. In 2017-2018, we'll check back in and see how he's progressing.
  7. Richard UreƱa - YOUR Dunedin Blue Jays switch-hitting starting shortstop.
  8. Rowdy Tellez - YOUR New Hampshire Fisher Cats starting first baseman.
  9. Conner Greene - A surprising 2015 saw the 20-year-old Greene catch helium, improve his mph to 96, and jump up to Double-A. His learning curve can't continue, can it?
  10. Mitch Nay - The last two years have seen Nay disappoint compared to what was expected of him. He's only 22, he'll be moving up to Double-A, and he's now moving firmly below the radar.

  11. Ryan Borucki - Just like with Max Pentecost, 2015 was a lost season for the talented Borucki. He'll likely head to Lansing in 2016 and try to get things going again.
  12. D.J. Davis - He's fast, he's strong, he's toolsy, and he's done with the Midwest League after two full seasons in Lansing. It's time to see what the 2012 first-rounder can offer at the A-Advanced level, and he'll get his shot.
  13. Clinton Hollon - A 50-game suspension prematurely ended Hollon's return from Tommy John. Questions persist, as well they should, but the talent is there. Back to Lansing when the suspension ends.
  14. Dwight Smith, Jr. - Smith continues to just play ball, neither overwhelming nor underwhelming. 2016 should see him in Triple-A, with a chance at a Big League debut coming soon enough.
  15. Danny Jansen - An injury held Jansen to only 46 games in the Midwest League, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see him back in Lansing. I also wouldn't be surprised if he was labeled the best defensive catcher in the system before long.
  16. Justin Maese - The GCL Blue Jays' R. Howard Webster Award winner moves forward. Is Lansing too big of a jump? Send the 19-year-old third-rounder to Vancouver and see how he does.
  17. Matt Smoral - A cursed season for Smoral, after struggles with command ended in a wicked line drive. Get well soon, Matt.
  18. Matt Dean - Heading off to the Arizona Fall League is always a good sign for an aspiring prospect. He'll move up to Double-A and continue his re-conversion to third base, allowing Tellez to take first base on a full-time basis.
  19. Tom Robson - Though 2015 saw Robson looking uncomfortable and uncertain at times in recapturing his mechanics, he's back now from Tommy John and his velocity is better than ever. Put him in the Dunedin starting rotation, and see how he does. If the mechanics are there and the stuff is there, he'll be back on track for a 2017 MLB debut.
  20. Lane Thomas - The coaches love Thomas's swing and ability. He transitioned from center field to third base to second base and dealt with a wrist injury by the end of the season. Relax, recooperate, and then write his name in directly in the middle of the Lugnuts' starting lineup. This is a hitter who bears watching

  21. Carl Wise - The 2015 fourth-rounder wasn't so great in Vancouver, but I'm chalking that up to the exhausting schedule of a long summer stretching from college through the pros. Give him an offseason to rest and then work out, followed by a ton of hard work with the Blue Jays' hitting instructors, and I'm intrigued to see how Carl performs in Lansing in 2016.
  22. Andy Burns - Andy succeeded beyond expectations with Buffalo this year. If he keeps this up, he'll be wearing Blue Jays blue and white at some point next year.
  23. Roemon Fields - The 2016 season will open with Roemon leading off in Triple-A, and will finish with him in Rogers Centre.
  24. Juan Meza - He'll be 18 years old next February. He was pretty darn terrible this year, stats-wise, in limited action. Let's agree to let Juan pitch without scrutiny for a while and catch up with him, like young Vlad, in 2017-2018.
  25. Reggie Pruitt - Another talented teenager without much of an eye-catching portfolio yet. Whether it's back to the Gulf Coast League or up to the Appalachian League in 2016, Reggie is a bit of a ways away. Don't rush him.
  26. Jose Espada - The Jays' fifth-round pick in June, Jose will be 19 next year. He's a six-foot right-hander who throws hard. Bluefield, ahoy!
  27. Evan Smith - I could've sworn entering the year that we were going to see Smith in Lansing in 2015, but nope. So we'll just have to get him in 2016. He was drafted in the third round in 2013 out of Semmes, Alabama, and he struck out not so many guys this year in Vancouver while giving up a chunk of hits. Then again, he's a 6'5 lefty and there aren't all that many of those.
  28. Angel Perdomo - From all of the raves I had heard about Perdomo, I expected him to be a much harder thrower. Apparently, he isn't at the moment. What he is is a 6'6 lefty who breezed into Vancouver and struck out 31 batters in 21 1/3 innings after a promotion from Bluefield. The opposition batted .231 against him in the Appy League, and then hit only .152 in the NWL. At age 22 (next May), his 2016 stop is in the Midwest League.
  29. Travis Bergen - The Jays' seventh-rounder last June, he struck out 11 Northwest Leaguers in just 5 1/3 innings, and then was sidelined for the rest of the year. Once he's healthy again, he's coming to Lansing.
  30. Shane Dawson, Jr. - Yes, sir, that's how you fill out a top prospect list! Shane was the top defensive pitcher on the Lugnuts' last year and he pretty much led the league in competitiveness. The man is going to will his way to the Major Leagues, continuing with Dunedin/New Hampshire next season.

Who's missing?
Relievers who deserve a second look...
  • Sidearming lefty Chad Girodo, a college teammate of Kendall Graveman, zoomed from Dunedin through New Hampshire and up to Buffalo this year. He's going to Arizona Fall League this autumn, and -- write it down -- he'll be in the Major Leagues next year.
  • Brady Dragmire and Justin Shafer are also going to the prospect-laden AFL. Dragmire was a shortstop when he was drafted out of high school (where he grew up down the street from Rowdy Tellez). His stuff is quick and it moves. Next year, he'll be 23 years old in Double-A with a chance to jump even higher. Shafer is actually a bit older by a handful of months, but was drafted in 2014 and spent 2015 in Lansing (excluding a series of games in Dunedin). He's being tried in the bullpen, where his velocity and stuff plays much bigger.
  • Wil Browning is a sidewinder who won the R. Howard Webster Award as A-Adv. Dunedin's team MVP. Put him in New Hampshire's pen next year and let's see what he can do. His equivalents at the upper levels were friends Blake McFarland and Danny Barnes, both right-handers, both quirky, and both with track records that push them up to Triple-A to start next year. And if you start the year in Triple-A, you just might be getting a certain call at some point...
  • Tim Mayza is a cult favorite of mine. He's a left-hander, which helps, he throws in the mid-90s, which helps, and he was throwing multiple innings by the end of the year, which also helps. By the end of 2015, I fancied him the top Lugnuts' top relief prospect. We'll see how he does in Dunedin in 2016.
Diminutive position players who don't deserve short shrift...
  • 5'10 Jon Berti is everything that is ever loved about the archetypal grind-it-out, work-harder-than-you, get-the-uniform-dirty ballplayer. He's a dirtbag: he'll walk, run, he'll steal, he'll make huge defensive plays, he'll supply huge base hits. He's getting to the Major Leagues at some point in 2016 and fans are going to fall in love with him. At the Single-A level, 5'9 Chris Carlson did the same for the Lugnuts, and I'm interested to see if he can keep things going for the D-Jays.
  • Jorge Flores is listed on as being 5'5, though I'm sure he'd rather that they added an inch or three. Typing as someone who is proudly 5'6 and a quarter, Jorge and I are right around the same height -- but he's one heck of a ballplayer. He slashed .276/.360/.347 in Double-A New Hampshire, which puts him right in line for a trip to Triple-A Buffalo next year at the ripe old age of 24. I could see Jorge in the bigs by 2017 or 2018, if not sooner.
  • Ryan Schimpf is going to be 28 next year, I know, but he's only 5'9 and he tied for the Eastern League lead with 20 home runs last year. It's always worth mentioning Ryan Schimpf, and a blast to watch him hit blasts.

Who did I miss?

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

2015 MWL Championship Series Preview

Championship Series logo
The Western Division Champion Cedar Rapids Kernels, affiliated with the Minnesota Twins, advanced to the MWL Championship Series in four games, driving out the Quad Cities River Bandits and the Peoria Chiefs in quick succession.
Kernels pitchers allowed only four walks and five earned runs (nine runs total) in 38 innings, an ERA of 1.18. The starts were magnificent: Felix Jorge struck out seven batters while giving up just two runs in 7 1/3 innings; Sam Gibbons allowed one run in eight innings; Randy Rosario was reached for four unearned runs in six innings; and Keaton "Man of" Steele struck out nine in eight innings of two-hit, one-run baseball.
That didn't leave too much work required of the bullpen, but Yorman Landa (4.0 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 7 K) and Nick Anderson (3 appearances, 3 saves) took care of most everything else. Game, set, match.
As for the offense, Twins #5 prospect Nick Gordon batted .412 (7-17); Chris Paul hit .400 (6-15), and the Kernels blasted 12 extra-base hits and drew 10 walks. (They also struck out 34 times, which, hey, it happens.)
In general, this Kernels team is ready to play -- and win -- low-scoring battles.

In the first round, the Eastern Division Champion West Michigan Whitecaps, affiliated with the Detroit Tigers, shut down the favored, pitching-heavy Fort Wayne TinCaps thanks to their own amazing pitching, 5-2 and 2-1. In the second round, they took on a far better offensive team in the Lansing Lugnuts -- and, after losing the opener 5-4, advanced thanks to a barrage of hitting, 8-3 and 14-5 (with 22 hits in the finale).
Even better, as far as West Michigan is concerned, is that star starting pitchers Spencer Turnbull and A.J. Ladwig were allowed to rest during the division finals, letting them line up in Games 1 and 2 against Cedar Rapids.
The offense appeared top-heavy during the regular season, but now stalwarts Ross KivettMike Gerber, Will Kengor and Joey Pankake are receiving terrific production from 2015 draftees A.J. SimcoxChristin Stewart and Kade Scivicque, not to mention a suddenly resurgent Francisco Contreras. The only hole in the West Michigan lineup is likely switch-hitting second baseman David Gonzalez, but he's in the lineup for his stellar defense more than anything else.

The Whitecaps host the first two games of the series at pitcher-friendly Fifth Third Ballpark, sending Tigers' #5 prospect Turnbull and dart-throwing Ladwig against Jorge and Gibbons.
To my mind, West Michigan has to fare well in these two games, because afterward their pitching effectiveness decreases as they head out to Perfect Game Field at Veterans Memorial Stadium. The Lugnuts had slim pitching depth; the Kernels bring the opposite. The Man of Steele waits for the Whitecaps in Game 3, followed likely by Rosario.
(Should a Game 5 be in the offing, I'd expect West Michigan veteran Ross Seaton to pitch far better than his short-lived Game 3 outing against the Lugnuts on Tuesday night... but I'd be more comfortable with Turnbull on the mound.)

My bias naturally favors the Eastern Division's Whitecaps.
Hey, the division's due. The last team from the East to capture a Midwest League pennant was the 2010 Lake County Captains.
It all starts tonight at Fifth Third Ballpark.

Last (Jewish) year, the Lugs were up 1-0! A memoir

From 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, I called the Lugnuts' 5-4 win over the West Michigan Whitecaps. It was on the road, it was a slim win, and it put the Lugs within one victory of advancing to the Midwest League Championship Series. It improved Lansing's record to 3-0 in the postseason. It was pretty awesome.
At 10:30 a.m. on Sunday, I drove in to Cooley Law School Stadium to get a head-start on the day's media needs: statpacks were compiled, credentials were created, game notes were updated, and rosters were copied for the benefit of fans and coaches alike. 3 p.m. marked the arrival of Chris Vosters, the Voice of the Great Lakes Loons. I showed him how to work the equipment and gave him a brief orientation. At 5 p.m., I left the ballpark, two hours before the scheduled Lugnuts/Whitecaps first pitch for Game 2.
Sunday night was the start of Rosh HaShanah, the two-day observation of the Jewish New Year. There's no working on the New Year -- although there is a lot of eating. (The dinner I was invited to on Sunday night in West Bloomfield featured these courses: gefilte fish, matzoh ball soup, salad, kugel, pickles and roast beef, fruit, cookies and cherry cobbler. I may be forgetting four or five dishes.)
Before sundown, I received a pair of text messages from the ballpark -- metaphorical fires that needed to be put out. West Michigan's excellent team photographer, Emily Jones, needed a place to set up, allayed by a referral to the Lugnuts' head groundskeeper. West Michigan's excellent broadcaster, Dan Hasty, needed a working phone line. Of all days in the entire season, suddenly the visiting phone line had gone dead! I hurriedly messaged a Plan B shortly before dinner began.
Departing the dinner at about 9:30 p.m., I might have turned the broadcast on while driving back to Lansing... and in the interests of fairness, I might have switched back and forth between Chris's call and Dan's call. But the true might on this night belonged to West Michigan's wonderfully-named Joey Pankake, who went 4-for-5 with a double and a two-run homer in an 8-3 Lugnuts Game 2 loss.
A decisive Game 3 would be necessary to decide the Eastern Division champion.
I did not listen at all to Game 3. I attended synagogue services in the morning and napped through the afternoon, taking a break to read this story and this story. The evening was spent over a lovely spaghetti and meatballs dinner -- some people prefer Chinese food, but my vote for Jewish holiday cuisine nearly always tilts toward Italian. And that was that, with all talk of baseball absent and unnoticed.
That might not be entirely true.
As I was dutifully about to prepare this dinner, my family called me up from back home in Maryland to share with my oblivious ears, "The Lugnuts are up, 1-0!" And when my significant other made her arrival, ready to share the dinner with me, she came bearing the news, "Someone is leading, 3-2, but I don't know who." And then later my family called up again to say, with doom in their voices, "They're down 6-4!"
About an hour afterward, my baseball season was over.
(I subsequently learned that final score was 14-5, and that the Whitecaps had collected 22 hits. What happened?!)

The Lansing Lugnuts are all heading home now, except for the ones who have instructional league ball in their future, or the Arizona Fall League -- I'm looking at youJustin Shafer. The next steps for all of them are also the next steps for me. Decompress. Sleep. Reconnect with family. Eat favorite foods. Sleep. Watch a little football. Hang out with people you haven't spoken to since last winter. Get away from baseball for a little bit. 
And then dive right back into baseball, because it's pennant-chase time and the national pastime is awesome.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

2nd Round, Game 1 preview: Tom Robson vs. Jeff Thompson

9-12-15 lineup Game 1
The Midwest League Eastern Division Championship Series -- a mouthful! -- gets underway this afternoon from Fifth Third Ballpark in Comstock Park, Michigan. The starting matchups are set: Tom Robson vs. Jeff Thompson today; Starlyn Suriel vs. Artie Lewicki tomorrow; and Shane Dawson vs. Ross Seaton on Monday (if necessary).

Returning from Tommy John surgery, former 2011 4th-rounder Tom Robson has the ability to throw an effortless sinking 93-97 mph, complementing that heat with a curve and a change-up. At his best, he is untouchable: the epitome of a groundout, strikeout machine. When he is off, he becomes wild and/or hittable.
In short, the Lugnuts are hoping for the best from Tom and are giving him 85 pitches to work some magic today. If he shows command trouble, however, expect to see Conor Fisk (or perhaps Tim Mayza) ready to bail the Lugs out with some long relief.
The Whitecaps are largely unfamiliar with Robson who made one start against them in 2014 (5 innings, 6 hits, 2 runs, 1 earned, 4 walks and 2 strikeouts on May 10th) and has not faced them this year. The hope is that that unfamiliarity plays to his advantage.

Drafted in the 3rd round in 2013 out of Louisville, the 6'6 Jeff Thompson has the ability to dominate today. On August 22nd, he struck out 10 Lake County Captains in seven two-hit scoreless innings. On September 3rd, he held the Fort Wayne TinCaps hitless over six innings, striking out four more.
But in between those gems, Thompson faced the Lansing Lugnuts. He served up five runs on eight hard base hits in a 7-5 Lugnuts win at Fifth Third Ballpark on August 28th. Thompson was also knocked around by the Lugnuts in his first start against them, giving up four runs (three earned) on seven hits in just three innings on May 6th.
Hey, let's go back even earlier, to 2014. There was Thompson, ready to take on the Lugs on May 2nd -- and departing due to injury after only one inning, allowing one hit, two walks and two runs.
Those are your two starting pitchers today, both of them prospects, both of them with dominant stuff, and both of them utter mysteries as to whether they'll fire a masterpiece today or get knocked around.
Notable Matchups vs. Thompson
  • Justin Atkinson: 0-for-2 with two strikeouts
  • Chris Carlson: 1-for-3 with a run scored
  • D.J. Davis: 1-for-2 with a run scored
  • David Harris: 1-for-2 with an RBI double and a run scored.
  • Gunnar Heidt: 1-for-2 with an RBI single
  • Danny Jansen: 1-for-2 with an RBI single, a run scored and a walk.
  • Jason Leblebijian: 0-for-2 with a sacrifice bunt
  • Ryan McBroom: 1-for-2 with an RBI double and a run scored
  • Richard Urena: 0-for-2 with a walk

Why did the Lugnuts defeat Great Lakes in the first round? The offense, which was so great all season long, maintained its excellence. Lansing batted .338 as a team, collecting 10 of its 24 hits with runners in scoring position.
Notching the club's first walk-off win all year in the series-clinching Game 2 doesn't hurt at all either.
Veteran Jason Leblebijian came to the plate 10 times, reaching base six of those times thanks to five hits and a walk. And 9th-place hitter Gunnar Heidt, who batted 3-for-19 against the Loons in the regular season, was simply marvelous in the two playoff games: four hits (three doubles) in seven at-bats, not including a huge sacrifice fly in the seventh inning of Game 2.
Heidt 2 640
Gunnar Heidt (image courtesy: Kyle Castle)

In the first round against Fort Wayne, West Michigan received absolutely nothing from its postseason All-Star, outfielder Michael Gerber, who went 0-for-8 with two strikeouts and the team's only error. The slack was picked up by fellow outfielder Ross Kivett, who went 5-for-8 with three runs scored, a double, a walk, a steal and two RBIs. 
The Whitecaps did especially well at getting to TinCaps starters Ernesto Montas and Dinelson Lamet early; Montas only pitched 4 2/3 innings, allowing seven hits, and Lamet fared even worse, giving up four hits, three walks and five runs in a mere 3 2/3 innings.

A textbook Lugnuts win looks a little like this… 
  • The offense keeps on rolling, sending Thompson to the showers with a barrage of early extra-base hits. Robson gives the Lugnuts five innings, allowing no more than two runs, and things go well from there. Lugnuts 7, Whitecaps 4.
A textbook Whitecaps win looks a little like this…
  • Robson gets discombobulated and West Michigan's gang of polished college hitters make matters worse, nickle-and-diming the Lugnuts for a run here and two runs there throughout the early innings. Thompson shows the Lugnuts what he's done to everyone else in the league, authoring six impressive strikeout-filled innings. West Michigan rolls, 8-1.

That said... Get ready for another heart pounder.