While their current record (3-10) doesn’t quite reflect it, the Lansing Lugnuts have one of the biggest clusters of prospects in the Midwest League. I’m going to talk about three of them here: 1B Matthew Dean, 3B Mitch Nay and CF D.J. Davis. One big factor in the Lugnuts’ poor record so far isn’t necessarily reflective of these three young hitters. I use the term “young” deliberately because, while the Lugnuts average age is consistently slightly lower than the Midwest League average, the age of their key players is generally much lower.
With an average batter’s age of 21.5 years old in the Midwest League, these three Lugnuts show their youth. Dean is the oldest of the bunch at about 21 years and four months. Nay won’t be 21 until after the end of the season and Davis won’t be 20 until July 25. It’s a similar story on the pitching side of things too but I’m not going to get into that just yet.
All three players come to the Lansing Lugnuts, the Toronto Blue Jays’ Class-A affiliate, with some buzz. Dean, after a slow start to his professional career, rallied in 2013 to win the Appalachian League batting title, hitting .338/.390/.519 with a share of the team lead in home runs with six. Nay was very solid in Bluefield in his first professional season in 2013, hitting .300/.364/.426, also with six home runs and helped the Vancouver Canadians to their third consecutive Northwest League championship, winning the NWL Playoff MVP award in the process. Davis is the biggest question mark of the three, loaded with tools (including plus-plus speed) but is still developing as a hitter and base stealer. He hit .240/.323/.418 but also blasted six home runs last season in Bluefield, in his Age-18 season.
This report is coming from a recent trip to Lansing where I watched these young players over the course of two games but I’ve also seen them all a couple of times before: in Bluefield, West Virginia in July of 2013 and in Florida during spring training of 2014.
I’ll start with the left-handed hitting Davis who I’m still not entirely convinced will be able to reach his potential. Throughout the numerous times that I’ve seen Davis, he’s had tremendous difficulties hitting offspeed pitches. He’s particularly vulnerable to breaking balls out of the zone but I’ve seen him freeze on curveballs that drop into the zone and on changeups too. I’ve also seen him get thrown out on the basepaths despite his outstanding speed (that he displayed by making an outstanding catch in the outfield on Wednesday).
That said, his tools are very real. In addition to his great speed, Davis has some surprising power for a guy who is probably not actually his listed size (6-foot-1, 180 lbs). Davis is probably shorter than listed but is very strong. I witnessed Davis crush a 97-mph fastball 404 feet away to the wall in Cooley Law School Stadium on April 9. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t get any fastballs to hit for the rest of that series and went 1/7 with four strikeouts in the two games I saw him play.
Davis has been doing much better with the bat in the last six games, hitting in all six of them and only striking out five times in 21 plate appearances. I haven’t seen many of those games so I can’t tell how the opposition is pitching him. It’s important to note that for most teams, this is their first time facing Davis in a league that is generally better scouted than the Appalachian League. This hot streak could be a sign of progress for D.J. Davis, but it could also be a case of him getting enough fastballs to make the pitchers pay.
Matt Dean, the oldest of the bunch has tremendous raw power and has improved his swing mechanics noticeably since I first saw him last summer. I could see in Bluefield that Dean occasionally got long with his swing but this mechanical hitch was in the process of being ironed out. When I saw Dean taking batting practice in Florida this spring, I could see that he has consistently shortened his swing and was starting to really generate big power. One of the few low-to-mid minor leaguers in the Jays’ system who really used his lower half when swinging, Dean’s right-handed power is at least plus with the potential to be plus plus.
Hitting .300 with a .440 slugging percentage, Dean has a home run and four doubles on the young season. His peripheral numbers bring up a bit of a red flag in the early going, with just one walk and 15 strikeouts. Dean has always been vulnerable to the strikeout and this is the one area that he’s going to have to be able to improve to really make an impact. As a first baseman, he definitely has the power to make it but the plate discipline is going to be a big factor going forward. In the games I saw, Dean was having some good at bats but tended to lose longer battles. He did have some timely hits and has been a very productive member of the Lugnuts.
While Trey Wilson, one of the Lugnuts’ radio broadcasters (who also saw all three of these players in 2013 as the Bluefield radio announcer and media director) told us of Dean’s excellent defensive transition to first base that started last year, he is still a bit raw, particularly in corralling errant throws on the infield.
Mitch Nay might be the quietest of the three players but, in my mind, he is probably the one most likely to reach his potential, hitting .306/.346/.388 so far this season. Seeing Nay work last year was impressive. He not only had the best BP sessions of anyone on the Bluefield Blue Jays in 2013, he also crushed a light-tower shot in one of the games I saw. Another right-handed power hitter, Nay was even more impressive in spring training this year, hitting long line drives and massive fly balls in batting practice on the several occasions that I watched him hit. I was a bit disappointed seeing his BP sessions in Lansing this April, however. He didn’t seem to put a charge into the ball in quite the same way and his lack of power this season has me a little concerned but it is still only Nay’s second pro season and his first in full-season ball.
The positives are many. Nay’s contact ability is outstanding, giving him the ability to barrel up a ball almost anywhere in the strike zone. He also has the best approach at the plate of any of the Lansing Lugnuts, striking out only seven times in 52 plate appearances. His ability to wait for his pitch and use his at bats productively is almost detrimental to his ability to hit for power: I actually think that he’s being more conservative right now as he gets used to the pitching and is getting by on his reactions rather than being more aggressive. I can see him as an elite power hitter who is also able to take pitches where thrown and not sell out at bats for a home run swing. I firmly believe that as he gets more at bats under his belt, Nay will start to hit for more power, recognizing what kind of pitches he can unload on.
Defensively, many people think that Nay will not end up at third base in the long term. I’m still on the fence. He’s only 20 and definitely has the arm for the position. He also has some quick reactions and decent range but has shown issues with throwing accuracy, particularly when throwing on the run.
These three players for the Lansing Lugnuts make up the core of the offense (along with a few others like catcher Santiago Nessy and shortstop Dawel Lugo). There is a lot to like with this team that is still developing.
Tags: Toronto Blue Jays