The Lansing Trio revisited: Nicolino, Syndergaard, Sanchez

The Lansing trip from left to right: Justin Nicolino, RHP Noah Syndergaard and RHP Aaron Sanchez.

The Lansing trip from left to right: Justin Nicolino, RHP Noah Syndergaard and RHP Aaron Sanchez.

Originally published August, 2012




By Bob Elliott

MIDLAND, Mich. _ Born within 273 days of each other ...

Selected within 46 picks of one other by scouting director Andrew Tinnish in the 2010 June draft in a span of 15 hours and 21 minutes ...

And now, the three start consecutive nights for the class-A Lansing Lugnuts, dominating Midwest League hitters, on the long road to the Rogers Centre.

Can Aaron Sanchez, Noah Syndergaard and Justin Nicolino, all 20 years of age, return the Blue Jays to post-season form ending a post-season drought which hits 19 seasons this fall? 

They are the future.

Can all three become fixtures in the Jays rotation? 

Will they arrive 2015?

Before we try to answer that you should know a little more about the Lansing triad.


* * *
“If you’re looking to compare them to other threesomes, I could almost see Nicolino as Tom Glavine and Sanchez as John Smoltz, but Syndergaard doesn’t match up to Greg Maddux. He doesn’t have Maddux’s command -- no one does -- but Syndergaard has good command and better pure stuff.”
_ Jim Callis, executive editor, Baseball America.

BA’s ranked the best tools in the Midwest League naming Sanchez the best pitching prospect, while Nicolino was tabbed as having the best changeup.


* * *
Part 1 of the trilogy: Nicolino was born in Alliance, Ohio at 5:15 p.m. on Nov. 22, 1991, 42 days after against Jays lefty Jimmy Key held the Minnesota Twins to two runs in six innings of Game 3 of the American League Championship Series. 

Mike Pagiarulo hit a game-winning homer off Jays’ Mike Timlin in the 10th and two days later the Twins scored three runs on four hits against Duane Ward and David Wells in the eighth to oust the Jays.

Nicolino was the first of the three born, but was third to join the Jays system, drafted around 12:30, June 8, 2010, the 80th pick over-all in North America, from University High School in Orlando. He was given a $615,000 US signing bonus to pass on a scholarship to the University of Virginia.

“Noah is the youngest, I’m the oldest ... the oldest brother,” said the lefty, the son of a coppersmith.

“At home, I’m an only child, but here it’s like we’re triplets.” 

Sitting in the third base dugout at Dow Diamond, Nicolino explains how he dresses differently on start days, compared to other days he goes to the park. 

He’ll wear “a button-down Ralph Lauren shirt and True Religion dress jeans ... it’s my day to go to work.”

Jays area scout Carlos Rodriguez is credited with signing Nicolino.  

“I haven’t seen a lot of high school kids pitch inside,” Tinnish said. “Casey Kelly (former No. 1 pick of the Boston Red Sox, who broke in with the San Diego Padres Monday night) did it. More than any other thing what stood out was his main pitch was an inside fastball. He has an ability to pound the fastball in, a lot of high school coaches tell their pitchers “stay away, stay away and we don’t get into trouble facing guys with aluminum bats.

“He would pounded hitters in, again and again, then throw a breaking ball.”

Tony LaCava, Jays assistant general manager, said Nicolino “might be the most advanced of the three ... in terms of control and style.”

“He’s not a soft-tossing lefty by any means. He has a plus change and breaking ball,” said LaCava, watching the Jays at Comerica Park in Detroit.

* * *
“Nicolino reminds me of Jimmy Key, but with more velocity. He’s the best of the three. If there’s a surefire big leaguer amongst the three, he’s the guy.”
_ American League scout.  


* * *
Part II: Sanchez was born at 7:40 a.m. on Canada Day, July 1, 1992, in Barstow, Calif. ... the same day the first-place Jays edged the Texas Rangers 3-2 in extras as Juan Guzman pitched eight with Ward gaining the win in relief.

Sanchez was the first of the trio to join the Jays, drafted 34th from Barstow High over-all at 9:09 p.m. June 7, 2010. The Jays had the pick as compensation for free-agent infielder Marco Scutaro signing with the Boston Red Sox.

The Jays gave Sanchez, the son of a building inspector, a signing bonus of $775,000 to ignore class at Oregon. 

Sanchez and Nicolino spent the 2010-11 off-season sharing a condo in Clearwater. They worked out together, arriving at the Bobby Mattick Complex to work out at 10 a.m. each day. Then they’d head to the Dunedin causeway using live shrimp to fish for flounder or Spanish mackerel. And they room together on the road.

Tinnish saw Sanchez pitch four times always with area scout Blake Crosby. 

“There was not one particular moment that stood out,” said Tinnish. “He had such a good delivery, he sat at 92, even when he hit 95 he was effortless. There wasn’t that one moment, but there was consistency. When I got a chance to meet him he was a kid focussed on getting to the big leagues. 

“I’ve seen him sit on 95 and not even break a sweat. Every time I see him his curve ball gets better.”

The Jays have had great success with threesomes born so close together once before.

Now 273 days between three starters may not seem far apart, yet is no where near the a 15-day difference when George Bell, Jesse Barfield and Lloyd Moseby were born in the autumn of 1959. 

Moseby was with the Jays for 10 seasons (1,215 starts in the outfield), Bell for nine (1,140) and Barfield for nine (904). 

What impresses people like Jays assistant GM LaCava is Sanchez’s improvement.

The Jays grading system is 92-to-93 MPH is a six, 94-to-96 is a seven.

“He’s gone up a full grade, he was a six, now his velocity is a seven,” said LaCava. “And he’s still a projectable power pitcher.” 


* * *
“No wonder they didn’t trade Sanchez. We heard they had all kinds of offers for him at the deadline. They did the right thing holding onto him. He’ll be the best. You phone me if he’s not the first one of the three to make it.”
_ Veteran evaluator.


* * *
Part III: Syndergaard came into this world at 6:23 a.m. on Aug. 29, 1992, the day David Cone made his first start for the Jays.

And four picks and seven minutes after Sanchez was chosen, Syndergaard was selected 34th over-all from Legacy High in Mansfield, Tex. He was compensation for the Jays not signing lefty James Paxton of Ladner, B.C. 

Syndergaard was asked if he realized that the three starters were considered as an entry by Jays fans and scouts.

“We’re joined at the hip right now,” said Syndergaard, the son of a quarter horse trainer. “All three of us are good friends, Aaron and Justin are closer. They’ve know each other longer,”

Do they sit beside each other on the bus?

“I try to get my own seat,” said the 6-foot-6 Syndergaard, whose 6-foot-5 uncle Moose Hartman a tackle with the 1941 Rice University Owls was inducted into the Rice Hall of Fame in 1971. 

With his high school buddies in Mansfield now wearing Blue Jays caps, he started 2011 in Bluefield, was promoted to the Vancouver Canadians and then Lansing for the final two games. 

“I loved Nat Bailey Stadium, Vancouver fans created a great atmosphere to pitch in,” said Syndergaard, who stays in touch with his host family Janna and Bill MacLagan.

Rich Miller of the Canadians called in Sanchez and Syndergaard to tell both that they were being sent back to the States, adding “you guys pick whether you want to go down to Bluefield or up to Lansing.

“We didn’t answer right away, we were both so rattled,” said Syndergaard.

Former minor-league lefty Allen Davis, who pitched nine seasons in the minors with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Montreal Expos and Philadelphia Phillies organizations, is the reason Syndergaard had so much success. He took instruction from Davis, played for Davis’ Skill Center Spikes.

“He treated me like a man, he didn’t nit pick,” said Syndergaard called “The Big Swede” around Dunedin by Jays minor league pitching coaches ... except he’s Dutch.

Steve Miller, Jays area scout, saw Syndergaard pitch nine times. 

“What stood out --- that one moment -- was a game I saw him pitch in the playoffs, he was throwing a one-hitter with 14 or 15 strikeouts,” said Tinnish. “The last pitch of his high school career was 95 m.p.h. on the black ... to strike out a kid.

“He has a combination of power and command, is a good athlete.”

The Jays gave Syndergaard a $600,000 signing bonus to turn his back on a scholarship at Dallas Baptist. 

So to sign the Lansing Three the Jays shelled out $1.9 million, less than the $2 million they gave their first-round pick, right-hander Deck McGuire from Georgia Tech, now at double-A New Hampshire. 

“Noah’s a physical guy, his fastball breaks like it’s coming off a cliff,” said LaCava, “he drives the ball downward.” 


* * *
“Ask Toronto scouts which of the three is the best and he’ll tell you it’s this guy, then he’ll go into Lansing. Next time you see him he gives you a different answer. These are guys have been scouting for 40 years. Syndergaard is some one to dream on, that if everything falls right, he matures, stays injury free without any bumps, he’ll be the best. ”
_ National League pro scout.


* * *
The man entrusted with bringing along this triumvirate of prized arms, counting their pitches, explaining bad outings is a Hall of Famer.

Lansing pitching coach Vince Horsman goes into the Nova Scotia Hall of Fame Nov. 3. Dartmouth’s Horsman pitched 141 games in the majors with the Oakland A’s, Twins and Jays and lefty is one of only three players from his province to make the majors. 

The best pitcher Horsman ever worked with was Drew Hutchison. Now, he’s got three and sticks up for Anthony DeSclafani, who has won 10 games.

“Nicolino is a polished guy who commands all three of his pitches, Sanchez has a tremendous upside and Syndergaard may look like a big kid from Texas who throws hard, but he’s developed a curve ball and does a tremendous job controlling the running game.”

General manager Alex Anthopoulos and minor league pitching co-ordinator Dane Johnson came up with a plan to look after the young arms. Until June 15 they were piggy-backed with another, one started, another would pitch in relief.  

Now Nicolino and Syndergaard are allowed to pitch either six innings or 80 pitches, Since Sanchez missed two starts with a bicep problem he’s limited for four innings or 60 pitches.

“Other managers tease about how good the three of them are,” said manager John Tamarago, who broke in with class-A Pittsfield in 1996. 


* * *
Spotted in the hallway leading to Great Lakes Loon clubhouse is Razor Shines ... the man who ended Derek Bell’s career with the Jays. Playing third in a spring game he doubled Bell off second -- on a pop off, as Bell was lollygagging going back into second. What followed was the most serious rip on a player we’d ever heard Cito Gaston deliver.

“I know which is the best, but I’m not saying,” said Shines, a hitting coach in the Los Angeles Dodgers system. “Sanchez competes, he gets after it. Nicolino can split both sides of the plate with two pitches, sometimes three. If you’re not on it, you’re gone. 

“I like Syndergaard a lot, he’s going to get better.”

Inside the clubhouse is Cambridge’s Jeff Hunt, former Ontario Terriers.

“They’re the best three pitchers in the league,” said Hunt. “Sanchez and Syndergaard throw so hard.”  


* * *
The trinity will try to avoid the disabled list, improve in triplicate and continue to made adjustments up the ladder to Dunedin, to New Hampshire and to Buffalo (oops) on their way to being card-carrying members of the Blue Jays rotation.

Can Nicolino, Sanchez and Syndergaard the class-A Lansing Lugnuts bring back those days?  

Tinnish says there isn’t a consensus on how to rank the troika.

Is the proper order Sanchez, Syndergaard and Nicolino?

Is Nicolino the top dog? 

Or Syndergaard?   

“Everyone has their own opinion,” Tinnish said. “If you polled 10 guys in the front office who have seen all three, you’d have a bunch of different of opinions. Debates are on going, we like all three a lot. 

“I’d be shocked if they all didn’t get to the big leagues, all have a chance to be very good.” 


COMPARING: Aaron Sanchez and Noah Syndergaard sat in the third base dugout at Dow Diamond, while Justin Nicolino stood.

The three Blue Jays prospects have been rated by scouting directors, by general managers by Baseball America ... now it was their turn.

They were asked to rate each other, which of the three has the best ...

Fastball: Syndergaard and Nicolino pick Sanchez. Sanchez replies “I’m not saying anything.”

Curve: Syndergaard and Nicolino pick Sanchez. “Me,” smiles Sanchez.

Changeup: Syndergaard, Sanchez and even Nicolino pick Nicolino.

Slider: Sanchez and Nicolino select Syndergaard.

Control: “Not me,” says Sanchez. 

Pick-off move: “I’ve only picked off two guys,” Sanchez said. “I got a couple of guys off second,” replies Nicolino.

Sense of humor: “well they call me a dumb lefty,” said Nicolino.

Hair: “My hair is awful, I’m letting it grow out,” said Nicolino, who asked if he could have his picture taken wearing his cap. “I hardly have any,” said Syndergaard.

State to live in: “Most players come from Florida, Texas or California,” said Florida resident Nicolino. 

“California has the hottest girls, Texas has the best country girls,” says California Sanchez says nodding towards Texan Syndergaard. 

First to the big leagues: “I knew you were going to ask that question,” Syndergaard said. “My answer is all three of us get called up the same day, we move into the rotation at the same time.” 

There were three openings within a four-game span in June.

“Why not? We all get there at the same time,” Nicolino asked. “We finished the season together last year, we’re together this year.”

Sanchez was first arriving in the Jays clubhouse July 23, 2014.

Next came Syndergaard on May 12, 2015. 

And last man ito the pool was Nicolino on June 15, 2015.

All three should be here a long time. 

RHP Aaron Sanchez 8-4 2.29 24 17 86.1 56 29 22 50 92
LHP Justin Nicolino 9-4 2.52 26 20 114.1 102 38 32 18 112
RHP Noah Syndergaard 8-5 2.74 26 18 98.2 80 41 31 113