Even for avid Yankee fans, the name Jonathan Loaisiga probably held little significance until November 20 of last year. Each season, MLB teams need to decide which young players to protect from the Rule 5 Draft by adding them to the 40-man roster. Highly touted young pitchers Albert Abreu and Domingo Acevedo unsurprisingly had their contracts selected, being some of the top Yankees pitching prospects at the time. But somewhat unexpectedly, the young Nicaraguan was protected though he had never pitched above Short Season Single-A at the time.
Clearly, this was a sign of things to come as the Yankees have aggressively moved Loaisiga through the system this year, culminating in his Big League debut last Friday. He made just four starts in High-A Tampa and six starts in Double-A Trenton before being called up to The Show, a sure sign of the Yankees confidence in his stuff. Skipping Triple-A is something the Yankees rarely do, with the last pitcher promoted from a lower level being Chase Wright in 2007. This kid has moved up the ladder faster than any Yankee pitcher in recent memory with the possible exception of staff ace Luis Severino.
But his meteoric rise through the Yankee system is made even more remarkable by the significant obstacles Loaisiga has overcome in the past few years. Johnny Lasagna, as he’s affectionately known by teammates, started his MLB journey with the Giants back in 2014. He bounced around rookie ball for the better part of two seasons before being released by San Francisco after the 2015 season due to persistent injury issues. There are rumors he actually agreed to leave the US to go play in Italy in January of 2016, but in February the Yankees offered him a Minor League contract and added him to their farm system.
His career suffered yet another major setback in his first season with the Yankees when he blew out his elbow and underwent Tommy John surgery. His persistent injury issues remain a red flag as his career progresses, but he has remained relatively healthy since. The Yankees placed him in rookie ball upon his return from surgery last year, and he did no less than pitch to a 2.63 ERA and 2.19 FIP in his six starts at the level. His continued success in Staten Island warranted his addition to the protected roster after last season’s conclusion.
This year Loaisiga posted a 58:4 strike to walk ratio in the Minors, also doing an excellent job of keeping the ball out of the air. And while he walked as many guys in his MLB debut as in his prior 45 IP in the Minors, the rest of his outstanding skill set was on full display against the Rays last Friday. He attacks hitters with a mid-to-high 90s fastball that he locates well and used about 50% of the time in his first start. He also draws upon a plus low 80s curveball with an elite spin rate, and a high 80s changeup that shows some excellent fade away from lefties. All the weapons in his arsenal were on display in his five shutout innings in his debut, as well as his strong makeup and ability to escape jams.
Moving forward, there’s strong reason to believe his excellent first start was no fluke. While the Rays offense is hardly elite, Loaisiga generated 17 swinging strikes on just 91 total pitches, and did so with each of his three main offerings. Missing bats, keeping the ball out of the air, and fooling hitters with three separate pitches is a surefire recipe for success at the Big League level. While the walks would normally be a red flag, his outstanding record of control in the Minor Leagues points to the wildness likely being a byproduct of nerves and adjustments in his first Big League outing.
For all the good that has already been on display by the young pitcher, there are two big concerns moving forward. The first has to be his health. Despite his recent track record of durability, Loaisiga has an ugly injury history including elbow and shoulder issues. Though he’s just 23-years-old, his longevity moving forward will be something to watch. Secondly, he has not yet shown an ability to go deep in games. Not once in his young career has Loaisiga pitched past the 5th inning in a ballgame. Admittedly, some of this has to do with workload management by the Yankees to protect his fragile arm. But Loaisiga was typically sitting at 75-90 pitches when he was removed after the 5th, an unsustainably high rate of pitches per inning. If he can stay healthy and start going deeper into ballgames, he has all the makings of an excellent Major League starter going forward.
There is no doubt Johnny Lasagna has overcome his fair share of adversity to reach this point. Given his injury history and near exit from professional baseball, it is a remarkable achievement in itself that he has reached the Majors. But now, with a strong repertoire and a solid debut behind him, the challenge for Loaisiga will be to demonstrate consistency and durability in the Bigs. Moving forward, it will be fascinating to watch whether this youngster has the potential to stick in the the Majors and become yet another success story in the Yankees excellent recent record of pitcher development.