From Trenton to the Bronx: Jonathan Loaisiga’s journey to the Yankees

There weren’t many – if at all – who would’ve thought Jonathan Loaisiga was going to be the first pitching prospect to make his New York Yankees debut in 2018.

Some would have said Chance Adams, who climbed up farm system rankings in 2017, when he had a combined 2.45 ERA, .193 BAA and 135 strikeouts compared to just 43 walks in 27 starts split between Double-A and Triple-A.

Others would’ve brought up Justus Sheffield, who currently stands as the organization’s top pitching prospect and is striking out nearly 11 batters per nine innings with a 3.47 FIP and 1.07 WHIP in five games with the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, his final minor league stop before the Bronx.

Albert Abreu would’ve been brought up. Dillon Tate’s named would’ve been mentioned. Domingo Acevedo would’ve been viewed as an option. Both Josh Rogers and Erik Swanson – two second-tier prospects who have out-performed their expectations thus far – would’ve been in the conversation, too.

But it’s Loaisiga, a 23-year-old Nicaragua native who has only pitched in six games above High-A ball, that will be replacing Masahiro Tanaka in the rotation on Friday night against the Tampa Bay Rays.

The Yankees had high hopes for Loaisiga since this past winter, when they added him to their 40-man roster. Evaluators echoed the organization’s sentiment, as MLB Pipeline ranked the hurler as the team’s 12th-best prospect, while River Avenue Blues had him at seventeen.

Loaisiga’s path to New York was a unique one. The San Francisco Giants signed the youngster as an international free agent in 2012 but an injury plagued 2014 and Tommy John surgery a year later forced him to miss two full seasons of baseball, resulting in his release in 2016. Danny Rowland, the team’s director of international scouting, took a chance on Loaisiga after impressing scouts in a 23-and-under tournament in the winter of the same year.

But it wasn’t long before injuries entered the picture once more.

After making one appearance in Single-A, where Loaisiga allowed two runs, two hits, one walk and two strikeouts in just 2.1 innings of work, he heard the dreaded words that no pitcher wants to hear – especially for a second time: Tommy John surgery.

Loaisiga was fully recovered from his elbow injury to participate in the 2017 season.

That’s when the Yankees noticed they had something special in him.

The right-hander pitched in 11 games ranging from rookie to A-ball, where he impressed with a 1.38 ERA, 0.61 WHIP and 33:3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 32.2 innings. According to George A. King III of the New York Post, it was during one of his starts during his terrific 2017 campaign when Tim Naehring, the Yankees’ Vice President of Baseball Operations implored General Manager Brian Cashman to add Loaisiga to the 40-man roster, insisting that opposing scouts were taking notice of his potential.

By all accounts, Cashman and his team made the right decision. Loaisiga has continued to impress this season.

After making four starts with the Tampa Tarpons – where he 3-0 and had 11.5 strikeouts while walking less than one batter per nine innings – Loaisiga received a promotion to Trenton.

On the surface, his numbers in Double-A don’t necessarily reflect a pitcher who is skipping over a level and jumping right to the major leagues. The opposition is batting .286 against him, while allowing more hits (28) than innings pitched (25). He’s also pitched to a 4.32 ERA, a number that fans may see and consider poor.

The Yankees, however, are looking past that. They are looking at his FIP, which is currently 3.28. They are looking at his ground ball percentage of 42.4%, a number that isn’t just impressive in its own right but is even more important due to the cozy confines of Yankee Stadium. They are looking at 32 strikeouts compared to just three walks, numbers that may be viewed as an anomaly but, when looking at Loaisiga’s career, have become his calling card.

Fans are excited for the next Baby Bomber to make his debut with the team. With a track record of Luis Severino, Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres all finding varying levels of success upon promotions, it’s a given.

At the same time, some are skeptical of the decision.

“I’m surprised he was brought up over [Justus] Sheffield,” said one National League executive. “[Loaisiga] throws very hard and his strikeouts compared to walks is incredible. But he just doesn’t miss bats with his fastball. It’s very straight and his secondary stuff is a work in progress. He’s going to give up a lot of hits.”

Who knows? Maybe Loaisiga can develop into a front of the rotation arm. Maybe he has “max four-starter potential,” something the executive mentioned.

Or maybe he can be the one thing the Yankees are in dire need of right now: a reliable pitcher to start every fifth day.

Dan Federico is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.

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