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Lansing pitching, not piggybacking
07/05/2012 10:00 AM ET
You know those conversations in baseball that we are not privy to? You know, those Major League trade talks that always heat up this month or those Minor League debates over promoting prospects that will continue into August and September? Well, when Blue Jays Class A pitching coach Vince Horsman is asked behind close doors about his starting pitching trio of Justin Nicolino, Noah Syndergaard and Aaron Sanchez -- who make up three of Toronto's top seven-ranked farmhands -- this is what's actually said:

"It's like, 'OK, let's split hairs. Who do you have ahead and who do you have at the bottom?' As far as those three guys, I'm like, 'Are you kidding me? It's 1, 1A and 1B. They're all that good.'

"These are high-ceiling kids," Horsman added, for our benefit. "In watching them develop, we're looking at front-of-the-rotation type of guys -- 1, 2 and 3 starters in the big leagues -- and they're 19, 20, so it's awfully exciting."

Here is how the three became one: Two weeks after the Blue Jays drafted the 6-foot-4 Sanchez (34th overall, out of a California high school) and the 6-foot-5 Syndergaard (38th overall, out of a Texas high school), both signed their first pro contract. The 6-foot-3 Nicolino (the 80th overall draftee out of a Florida high school) wasn't yet to be convinced to begin his pro career. So he went out to Toronto's training complex and met Sanchez, with whom he shares representation.

"We've kind of been like brothers ever since," said Nicolino, 20, who rooms with Sanchez, 20. "And Noah was just this big dude -- he was so big, I didn't know he was that young. He's like another brother too. As big as they are, I'm supposed to be the older brother 'cause I'm the oldest, so it's kind of funny."

Syndergaard, 19, and Sanchez each pitched in the Gulf Coast League together in 2010, and all three spent at least part of 2011 at Short-Season Vancouver before reuniting with the Class A Lugnuts. Their pitching lines add to the familial feel.

"We're great friends, we all have the same goal and that's to get to the big leagues," Syndergaard said, "and we're all using the same plan to get there."

Nicolino 3 1 1.74 16 10 62 3.88 12 59
Sanchez 7 0 0.63 16 9 57 3.56 30 62
Syndergaard 4 2 3.35 16 9 53 2/3 3.35 17 70


The plan was to start slow. Nicolino and Sanchez didn't exceed three innings once in any of their first five starts, and this wasn't because they weren't pitching well enough to advance deeper into the game. In their collective debut on April 9, the Lugnuts box score shows that the pair combined to strike out nine over six one-hit innings. (Sanchez earned the win because he relieved Nicolino, though they would reverse roles in future games.) Syndergaard, meanwhile, didn't pitch into the fourth inning once until outing No. 8, at which point he was 2-0 with a 1.74 ERA and 28 strikeouts in 20 2/3 frames.

"The piggybacking was to get their feet wet, not to put too much pressure on 'em and keep 'em under control," Horsman said. "They're all young kids. You want them to get off to a good start and have success, and they did that. It's just part of the development phase. They all wanted to pitch more than that, but they also understood why. It didn't deter them."

Piggbacking -- or alternating pitchers between the rotation and the bullpen so as to maximize the entire staff while minimizing its workload -- is nothing new. In fact, Horsman recalled (not fondly, by the way) participating in the tag-teaming strategy not long after he signed with Toronto as an amateur free agent hurler in 1984. Still, it's an important tool organizations employ to cautiously grow lower-level prospects (or mix in a Major Leaguer on rehab assignment), whether they like it or not.

"At first, it was kind of weird. I had never heard of the piggybacking thing until I got into pro ball," Nicolino said. "When you're a starter, it's a lot different coming out of the bullpen. You don't want to be the guy that comes in and ruins the rest of a game. When me and Sanchez were pitching, I didn't want to come into his game and blow his lead."

"It isn't ideal coming out of the bullpen being labeled as a starter for your career," admitted even the unflappable Sanchez, who has compiled 1.17 ERA in relief and a 0.23 mark in the rotation.

For Syndergaard, the one among the three who has cracked's Top 100, pitching out the 'pen has been miserable. A year after recording a 1.54 ERA in five relief appearances for Rookie-level Bluefield, the right-hander has registered a 7.29 mark in seven such games at Lansing. What has he learned from the experience this season?

"How to deal with adversity, I guess," he said.

Who Throws The Pitch Best, According to...
Nicolino Syndergaard Sanchez Coach Horsman
Fastball Sanchez Syndergaard Syndergaard "Sanchez has more life on it, where Noah's is true."
Breaking ball Sanchez Sanchez Sanchez "Sanchez has it, but 'Nic' has the best command."
Changeup Nicolino Nicolino Nicolino "'Nic' has the best command, but it's 1A, 1B, 1C."


GMs, farm directors, coordinators and coaches are not huddling in rooms trying to figure out how to impede the path of their brightest young players. It's not even about pushing a first-year starting-pitching project outside of his comfort zone to see how he will react. No, upper management, scouts and coaches want to put the likes of Nicolino, Syndergaard and Sanchez in the best possible position to succeed -- not now, but in the future.

So these blossoming Blue Jays are not alone when it comes to pitch counts, innings counts or coming out of the 'pen.

Take another American League East organization as an example. Even the Baltimore Orioles' prize prospect Dylan Bundy, who didn't allow an earned run in 30 Class A innings before moving on up, has been limited to five or fewer frames per game. The O's have made clear that no matter where Bundy pitches the rest of 2012 -- even if it's in Baltimore -- he won't clear the 130-inning plateau.

"It doesn't sound to me that what they're doing to Bundy they're doing to everybody else," one National League pitching coordinator-turned-scout said. "They're doing specific to that guy's needs, and that's where you get the results.

"I don't think it should be an organizational policy that every single guy that comes in their first summer is piggybacking. I used to use it in individual situations to teach things to [prospects], as far being efficient with pitches. When you're talking [about] your top prospects and top Draft picks, if you feel as if they have to be somewhat guarded, I would rather just guard them in an individual way as one of the five starters."

Unless, our scout said, a given club is as pitching-rich as Lansing: Behind its aforementioned trio, are lesser prospects but equal pitchers Anthony DeSclafani (2.93 ERA in 61 1/3 innings), David Rollins (2.97 in 72 2/3) and, before their mid-June promotions to Class A Advanced Dunedin, Marcus Walden (3.11 in 66 2/3) and Jesse Hernandez (2.29 in 78 2/3).

This is where piggybacking puts more of a focus on innings accrued, in the age of the "magic 100-pitch count" that pervades modern baseball. "If you throw a guy out for five innings a start, some of those starts he may throw 45 pitches, and some of them he might throw 80 pitches," our scout said. "So as you're monitoring that, there are built-in highs and lows as far as workload and recuperation. So that works more efficiently than fake pitch counts."


If Nicolino, Syndergaard and Sanchez stay healthy and on turn the remainder of the season, they could each make as many as 11 or 12 more starts at five innings a piece. This is because, as of late last month, the Lugnuts have moved to a traditional five-man rotation. Each man has his game. Nowhere to shed blame. No more piggybacking.

"Now that I have my own start every five days," Syndergaard says with some relief, "I know what I'm doing. I known when to warm up, when to stretch, what lifts I am doing that day, how far to throw -- everything set, it repeats."

As a result, each member of the Little But Tall Three could double his 2010 single-season career-high in innings pitched: Nicolino from 61 to as many as 122, Syndergaard from 59 to 114 and Sanchez from 54 1/3 to 117.

So Toronto's brass isn't conditioning three of its best pitching prospects to go three innings, nor four, not even five. Sometime in 2013, all three could be going six and seven frames at a time alongside one another at Dunedin or perhaps Double-A New Hampshire. And by 2014 or '15, who knows?

"That would be fun if we got to experience the Minor Leagues with each other and hopefully break the rotation at the same year at the same time. It pushes us so much more," Sanchez said. "I know, with me and Nicolino, when he would go out there and put up a zero, it would make me want to do that so much more because I didn't want to be the guy that broke the shield. We've been feeding off each other since day one, and it's only making us better."

* * *

A draftee's decision ... made
Remember California prep prospect Rio Ruiz? The subject of this column's June 7 edition, which examined his unique situation before and after last month's big day, has decided to skip college and sign with the Astros. Houston, which selected the first-round talent in the third round due to concerns over Ruiz's health, college commitment and financial demands, agreed with the 18-year-old third baseman on a $1.85 million bonus -- five times the prescribed slot amount. Cleared to play ball, Ruiz toured and took BP at Minute Maid Park on June 25. He will join fellow top picks Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers Jr. in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League.

Prospect Up
With his speedy rise through the Minors entering 2012, No. 60 prospect Jedd Gyorko was looking like a solid big league regular. After 45 games at Triple-A Tucson -- in which he's racked up 27 extra-base hits and 42 RBIs -- it's time to wonder how good Gyorko can actually be. His defense will never be much more than average and, once he gets there, Petco Park will limit his offensive firepower. But right now he's more than keeping pace with another National League West third-base prospect, and we know how highly regarded No. 17 Nolan Arenado is around the game.

Prospect Down
No. 64 prospect Brad Peacock is either just another top pitching prospect who's been swallowed whole and spit out by the Pacific Coast League (read: Miller, Shelby and Peralta, Wily), or his performances have been so bad it wouldn't matter if he had been pitching in Class A. After Wednesday's effort -- a fourth straight loss and a fifth consecutive start allowing five or more runs -- the Nats-turned-A's right-hander has run his ERA up to 7.00 in 17 overall games for the Sacramento River Cats. And it's not even that he's lost control (at this point, that's looking like a more favorable alternative). The 24-year-old Peacock is just straight getting hit around: Opponents are batting .310 against him -- this, after his competitors' average was all the way down at .188 in 2011. Can that disparity really be blamed on the PCL? The answer here is, No.

Memo from Mayo
For Draft and prospects expert Jonathan Mayo's analysis, visit's Prospects Central. In a column this week, Mayo explained why there are so many top teenage prospects -- seven in all -- competing in this Sunday's All-Star Futures Game.

Your Questions, Answered
Tweet your prospect-related queries to @AndrewMiLB and @MinorLeagues.

Reading Material

Prospect Tweet Worth Re-tweeting: "Welcome to beautiful Altoona, the place for real life Frogger in order to get food" -- Double-A Reading's Trevor May @trevmay54.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.