By Alexis Brudnicki
SPECIAL TO SPORTSNET.CA
LANSING, MI — As far as Toronto Blue Jays prospects go, Lansing is the place to be.
The capital city of Michigan is the home of Lansing Lugnuts, the Toronto Blue Jays low-A farm team and they have played host to some intriguing guests of late.
On July 11, former Blue Jays slugger George Bell and roving infield instructor Mike Mordecai dropped by. The following day, minor league field coordinator, Doug Davis, came to town. Also of late, roving pitching instructor Dane Johnson, roving hitting instructor Anthony Iapoce and Blue Jays assistant general manager Tony LaCava have paid visits.
Lansing has become a popular destination for Blue Jays brass, but not for vacationing purposes. They have been coming to see a Lansing Lugnuts team that has been at the top of their league standings for the entire season. And while there’s nothing unusual about front office staff visiting a farm team, the timing of LaCava’s latest visit is curious.
With Major League Baseball’s July 31 non-waiver trade deadline fast approaching, Lansing top three starters, Aaron Sanchez, Justin Nicolino and Noah Syndergaard remain the talk of the organization and prime trade bait.
Right-hander Aaron Sanchez, who had his worst outing of the year in Thursday’s 15-3 loss to Quad Cities while surrendering five runs in 1.1 innings, saw his ERA jump from 0.72 to 1.41. In 64 innings, the 20-year-old has walked 36, struck out 72 and held opponents to a .157 batting average.
Sanchez, drafted 34th overall in 2010, has the best command of the three and arguably the best stuff in the entire Midwest League with "three above average major league pitches right now," according to Lansing pitching coach and former Blue Jay Vince Horsman.
Meanwhile, Sanchez’s roommate and best friend, left-hander Justin Nicolino, has posted a 2.38 ERA in 72 innings, walking 13 while striking out 71. He owns the best changeup of the trio.
Right-hander Noah Syndergaard, the youngest of the bunch at 19, but the tallest in the family of pitching brothers at 6-5, has six wins to go with a 3.06 ERA in 64.2 innings with 18 walks and 80 strikeouts. He has the most impressive fastball of the three and is currently adding a slider to his repertoire, which already includes a changeup and a curveball.
Horsman, who has worked closer with the three-headed pitching monster more than anyone else this season, says his goal is to help them improve, whether they end up pitching in the Majors for the Blue Jays or someone else.
"It’s about the kids and trying to get them better off," the Halifax native explained, "or to get value for the organization. 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. It’s all about the kids and about them honing their craft and being as good as they possibly can be."
As for the kids themselves, they know they’re prime trade bait but the possibility of being dealt to another organization doesn’t concern them.
"My job is to take it day-by-day and not think about stuff that I can’t control," said Sanchez. "If I get traded, I get traded. That’s not in my hands. I try to go about things that I can control. I can control every pitch that I throw. I can control what I do out there on the mound with the work that I put in every four days between starts.
"Yeah, it’s crazy that it can happen, that you can be traded, but I don’t think our mindset is like, ‘Oh we might get traded, this might happen.’ I think we take it day-by-day.’"
Nicolino remains similarly focused.
"You can’t look at tomorrow," the Blue Jays second-round pick (80th overall) in 2010 said. "You have to play today and you have to see what goes on today before you can look ahead to tomorrow. If it happens, it happens. It’s a business. Baseball is a business also off the field because on the field you get to have fun; you get to play. Off the field, anything can change at any time."
Though their baseball fate is out of their hands, the three like the direction their current organization is heading.
"It’s been an unbelievable franchise from the time of my draft to now," Sanchez said. "Alex (Anthopoulos), Tony (LaCava), everyone in the front office has done a tremendous job with the players they’ve drafted, with the kind of character these kids have in the organization, and I think they’re drafting winners.
"As you could see last year, five of our seven (farm) teams made it to the playoffs and four went to the championship, two of them won it. I think we’re headed in the right direction and everyone in Toronto should be happy for what’s coming up."
Syndergaard – taken four picks after Sanchez in the 2010 draft at No. 38 – is not only the youngest but the shyest of the pitching band of brothers. He says that the friends he’s made in the Blue Jays organization will continue to impact him for the rest of his life, no matter where he’s playing.
"The relationships I’ve built here are going to stay with me the rest of my life," he said. "I’ve created friendships that will last forever. Even when we’re outside working on stuff, Sanchez and Nicolino and I, even when we’re playing catch we’ll work on stuff. And if we’re doing something wrong, we’ll coach each other. That’s nice to have."
Sanchez couldn’t agree more.
"It’s fun to have memories on the field, but I think that the friendships that we’re making now are going to last a lifetime," he said. "It sounds so cliché because I’m sure everybody says it, but really, when I first signed, me and Justin lived with each other our first off-season and we’ve been best of friends since.
"Now that Noah’s been a part of our group we push each other every time we’re out there. "When it was just me and Justin piggybacking he’d put up zeros and I’d be the one to come in and I wouldn’t want to be the one to break the seal. So it was fun. We thrive off each other, we feed off each other, and competition is what we love to do."
When Nicolino was drafted in 2010, he never thought he would develop such close relationships with his teammates.
"You kind of come into pro ball and you hear all these things about how you’ve got to watch out for guys and certain guys might be bad or whatever, but in my two years of pro ball so far it hasn’t been like that," he explained. "With Sanchez, basically from Day 1 we met and it was like a brotherhood. Same with Noah.
"Noah, he’s the youngest guy out of all of us, but you would think that he’s the big brother, when really, I’m the oldest and it seems like I’m the smallest with those two. I’ve enjoyed it. All my teammates that I’ve gotten to play with so far have made my pro baseball career unbelievable."
That is why when Aug. 1 arrives, the Lansing trio not only hope to remain together, but within the Blue Jays organization.
"It means a lot (to be a part of the Blue Jays organization) just because it’s the only Canadian team," Nicolino said. "I got to pitch last year in Vancouver and those are the only two teams that are in Canada.
"Getting to do that is just something special because having a team on the east side of Canada and then all the way on the west, it makes it that much more fun for baseball."