This is the second in a series of posts recapping each of the Tigers' six domestic minor league teams' seasons. I'm starting at the bottom and working my up, so the first post was about the GCL Tigers. I mentioned this in that first post, but I'd like to reiterate that these are intended to be team recaps. That means the players discussed the most will be those who were most essential to the team's season. They may not be top prospects or prospects at all. They just had to have played a pivotal part - good or bad - in how the team's season went.
The New York-Penn League is a short season league populated with a lot of college players fresh out of the draft. There are obviously plenty of players who are in different parts of their pro careers playing there, but that's a very broad stroke idea of a big part of the league's population.
It's not surprising, therefore, that the Connecticut Tigers were able to field a competent squad. The Tigers, after all, went with college picks for 30 of the 33 players signed in the 2011 draft. Not only that, the Tigers were fairly conservative with their picks this year and therefore had very few 2011 draftees play at a level higher than the NY-Penn. Knowing this, it's a little disconcerting their only player to pop up on Baseball America's Top 20 Prospects for this league was third round pick, Aaron Westlake (at no. 12). That goes double when you realize most of the prospects ranked ahead of Westlake are two and three years younger than him.
But we can talk about the strength of the Tigers' system elsewhere. Our point today is to look at the 2011 Connecticut Tigers. With their 39-35 record, the Tigers managed the best winning percentage of all the Tigers' minor league squads and fell one game short of the playoffs. They were by no means a dominant team, though. If you look at their record at the end of each of their 74 games, they were above .500 on just 22 of them and under .500 on 40. They got hot at the right time, though, and after bottoming out at 21-27 finished strong to win 18 of their last 26.
That was good enough to earn them a shot at the postseason on the last day of the season. A win against last place Lowell would have earned them a playoff bid but the Tigers lost a dramatic, 16-inning heartbreaker, 6-5. When I say heartbreaker I mean it, too. The Tigers were down 5-0 in the eighth but scored one in that inning and four more in the ninth to force the extra innings. In the tenth, the Tigers had what looked like a bases loaded single for the win, but it was ruled the ball hit the runner heading to third. That threat didn't pan out and six innings later, since Vermont had won their game earlier in the day, their season was over. It was the end to a fine season, though, so let's take a look at what led them to that point.
If we start at the most basic level, we see that the Tigers scored 323 runs and allowed just 285. Putting that in league context, they scored just a hair less than the league average. On the prevention side, their 3.85 runs allowed bested the league average (4.4) by a little better than half a run. That may make it sound like this team was carried by their ability to keep runs off the board, but you have to look a little closer than that.
First of all, the Tigers play in what has historically been one of the most difficult minor league stadiums for scoring runs. If you take a look at minor league park effects from 2008-2010 or just 2010 by itself (I couldn't find them for 2011), you will see Connecticut is consistently among the leaders for preventing runs. Keeping that in mind, we realize the load was probably carried a little more evenly between the team's ability to score and prevent runs.
That view is further supported when we look at the team's slash line of .253/.328/.373 compared to the league average of .250/.328/.354. The first two categories are nearly identical, but the Tigers had a tick higher power than the league average despite having such a stingy home park. So who can the team's fans thank for their better than average output?
That's a pretty easy question to answer if we look to the offensive statistic wRC+, which is made available for minor leaguers at the invaluable fangraphs.com. If you look at the team's regular contributors - which I loosely defined as those with more than 100 plate appearances - there are four players who stand out as the team's offensive leaders.
They are Dean Green, Jason King, Eugenio Suarez and Tyler Collins. Green is the big dog of this group for a number of reasons. Not only did his line of .341/.395/.520 show that he was one of the league's most productive hitters, he was also second on the team with 272 plate appearances. So the team's 11th round pick in the 2011 draft was not only pounding the ball, he was out there doing it nearly every game. That ability and consistency allowed him to lead the team in hits (84), doubles (19), RBIs (44), batting average and total bases (128). Once Westlake joined the team, it was mostly as a designated hitter but he was still a very valuable cog in this lineup.
When you look at the categories where Green led the team, you may be a little surprised to see home runs and slugging percentage missing. That's because of the team's most frequent left fielder and the Tigers' sixth round pick, Tyler Collins. Collins didn't join the team until July 21st, but he jumped into his first professional season with both feet. He showed an ability to hit for average and power while having enough speed to take a base when the opportunity was there. He and Green combined to give the team a formidable duo in the three (Collins) and four (Green) spots in the lineup.
Now, when you see those clubbers hitting third and fourth and I tell you pint-sized (5'11" and 155 pounds) shortstop Eugenio Suarez was hitting ahead of them, you probably make some assumptions about Suarez, right? In that spot at that size, you probably envision a slappy hitter who does a good job of making contact and uses his speed to keep his batting average up. Well, that's a reasonable guess but it's not an accurate description of Suarez's game in 2011. He is fast enough to have stolen 9 bases in 14 tries and leg out a team-high five triples. But a lot of his value was tied up in his .426 slugging percentage rather than his batting average (.250) or on-base percentage (.323), which you'll notice were both right at league average. He also probably shouldn't be called a contact hitter since his 43 strikeouts were the team's second highest total. Still, even if Suarez didn't contribute in the way you'd expect from a smallish shortstop, he was a valuable part of the team's success.
To Suarez's right on days was another key contributor to the Tiger offense, Jason King. King was the Tigers' fourth round pick out of Kansas State and signed quickly enough to open the season with the Tigers. Not only did he start the season with them, he played just about every day until he tore his left ACL on a collision at first base on August 13th. Before he went down for the season, though, King hit .251/.341/.415. Usually hitting in the fifth spot behind Green, he was able to knock in 31 runs, good for second on the team despite missing the season's last three weeks.
Now that we've seen the team's four most successful hitters were usually batting in the two through five spots in the lineup it's easy to see how they scored runs. They didn't do it a alone, though. Chad Wright was the team's everyday center fielder and leadoff man. He didn't set the world on fire at the top spot, but used a team-high 41 walks to make himself a capable table setter and his speed to lead the team in stolen bases (14). The Tigers also got good production from the previously mentioned Aaron Westlake (.264/.328/.377) and one of their most often used catchers, Zach Maggard (.281/.302/.430 in 139 PA).
Putting the best hitters in the lineup spots where they could do the most damage allowed the team to carry the players who weren't as successful. The regulars who caused us to have to look a little harder to realize this was a decent offensive team were guys like catcher Pat Leyland (.220/.279/.280), second baseman Colin Kaline (.222/.328/.265), infielders Matt Perry (.260/.331/.336) and Javier Azcona (.232/.278/.398) and first baseman and right fielder Jeff Holm (.236/.315/.356).
Of course, just because the hitting was better than it seemed and the stadium suppresses run scoring doesn't mean the team didn't get some solid pitching. Their 3.06 ERA was tied for second in the league and the team's 2.31 strikeout-to-walk ratio was good for third best in the NY-Penn. Those are numbers that can't just be chalked up to playing half your games in a friendly ballpark.
A lot of it can be chalked up, though, to having a strong starting rotation. Brennan Smith, Luis Sanz, Wilsen Palacios and lefty Matt Crouse accounted for 55 of the team's 74 starts and the four of them had a combined ERA of just 2.58 and covered nearly half (320.2) of the team's 646.1 innings pitched. When you consider 22nd round JUCO pick Tommy Collier was excellent (1.85 ERA, 39 IP, 28 H, 1 HR, 10 BB, 35 K) in 7 of the remaining 19 starts, you realize this team could count on its starters most nights.
Smith was the workhorse of the group, though. His 14 starts covered 94 innings in a league where teams are probably secretly happy to get five innings from their starter. He wasn't just an innings eater, either. He gave up just 76 hits, three homers and 19 walks while striking out 66. Those numbers may not have been good enough to expect his 1.53 ERA, but they did mean he led the team in both quality and quantity. The best indicator of this was when he had had four straight starts (covering 30 innings) when he didn't give up a run as the team pushed for the playoffs. The streak ended at 34.2 innings, as he gave up two runs in seven innings in the season's final game.
With Smith doing most of the work and Sanz (2.81 ERA, 83.1 IP, 67 H, 4 HR, 23 BB, 76 K) and Palacios (3.08 ERA, 79 IP, 63 H, 7 HR, 24 BB, 48 K) making up two-fifth of the remaining rotation, it's clear the draft didn't play as big a part in the rotation as it did the Tigers' lineup. In fact, 24th round pick Crouse was the only regular member of the rotation from the draft. He lagged behind the others in ERA (3.22) and hits allowed (68 in 64.1 IP) but used control (just 13 walks) to remain effective as the rotation's sole lefty.
Unfortunately, the team's bullpen couldn't claim to keep up with the stellar performance of its starters. A couple of its more solid contributors were Ryan Woolley (13th round) and Dan Bennett (19th round) but those two both split time between Connecticut and West Michigan. The remaining arms in the pen consisted mostly of Jeff Barfield (35 IP, 35 H, 11 BB, 28 K), Melvin Mercedes (33.2 IP, 32 H, 16 BB, 21 K), Pedro Perez (31.1 IP, 27 H, 21 BB, 32 K), Rayni Guichardo (28.2 IP, 38 H, 8 BB, 21 K), Fernando Celis (28 IP, 26 H, 9 BB, 20 K) and Nick Avila (27.2 IP, 21 H, 7 BB, 18 K). As you can see, there wasn't really a dominant in that bunch even though Melvin Mercedes has the potential to get there if and when he's fully recovered from his Tommy John surgery.
So there you have about 2,000 words filling you in on how the Tigers were able to come within one win of being Detroit's only farm team to make the postseason. I find it interesting how this year's draft played such a crucial part in providing the meat of the lineup but played a relatively minor part in either the rotation or the bullpen. Just like we did with the GCL Tigers, we'll wrap this up by giving away a couple of postseason awards.
Team Cy Young
Brennan Smith, 4-3, 1.53 ERA, 94 IP, 76 H, 3 HR, 19 BB, 66 K
Some of the shine of this season may be dulled by the fact that Smith was only with the Tigers because he was demoted from West Michigan. However, he was brilliant for this squad and as I mentioned above, did his best to carry them into the playoffs in the season's final weeks.
Team's Top Position Player
Dean Green, .341/.395/.520, 33 R, 44 RBI, 18 BB, 35 K, 1/1 SB
Green was the linchpin of the offense as I described above. That means he gets the award despite being a 1B/DH and the fact that Tyler Collins is a better prospect who shined a little brighter in a briefer time with the team.