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2011 Lakeland Flying Tigers Preview

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This piece is pretty self-explanatory. I'm previewing each of the Tigers' full season squads and not only talking about the players on the rosters, but giving some thoughts on how those rosters will add together in terms of team success. At the lower levels, the roles are sometimes more difficult to divine, but unless I'm missing something the players on this team's roles seem fairly clear.

(Expected) Rotation

Trevor Feeney RH
Drew Smyly LH
Cole Nelson LH
Jared Wesson LH
Victor Larez RH

The Flying Tigers' rotation lacks some of the flare we saw with the SeaWolves' group. I am very excited to see what Drew Smyly can do as a starter, simply because he is such a departure from the type of pitcher the Tigers usually take in the early rounds. He's a pitcher who gets by on having a feel for what he's trying to do against hitters and mixing velocities rather than reaching back and letting go. His lacking top-notch stuff has most saying he'll top out as more of a back-of-the-rotation guy and that's just not as sexy for fans as a fireballer who will go as far as his refined control will take him. Whether you like the change of approach from the Tigers or not, Smyly is Lakeland's top pitching prospect.

Next on that list would be Cole Nelson. Taken in the ninth round of the 2010 draft, Nelson got a sniff of the Florida State League last year but it was just two starts. Between stuff that didn't draw rave reviews come draft time - low 90s fastball and a slider - and reports of losing velocity from the stretch, he struck me as somebody who'd likely need work as a starter. Here he is in Lakeland, though, so there has to be something there the Tigers think they can tap into.

Beyond those two, we start to get into the organizational arms. Wesson and Feeney were both plenty useful for the Whitecaps last season, but Wesson has already turned 25 and Feeney will be there in June. For Wesson, just breaking camp is a victory considering the Tigers signed him as a minor league free agent. He'll try to build on that moral victory, though, by seeing if he can duplicate results that saw him strikeout 85 in 81 innings in Grand Rapids last year.

For Feeney, this will be a second go-around in the FSL. After getting pounded for 117 hits in 79 innings in Lakeland in 2009, the Tigers had him spend 2010 in West Michigan. He gave up 216 hits there (in 184.2 IP) but showed impressive strike zone control when the ball wasn't put in play. He had 123 Ks and just 22 walks.

Finally, we come to Victor Larez. Larez is a swingman whose career arc may be leaving him with his last shot at proving he should be holding down a spot on a staff. He'll turn 24 in May and will be pitching above Lo A ball for the first time. Typically, control is the bugaboo of Tiger pitching prospects but Larez's walk rates have been fine. He's just been too hittable as was evidence by allowing 150 hits with just 59 strikeouts last season in 130 innings at West Michigan.

Bullpen

Kenny Faulk LH
Matt Little RH
Michael Morrison RH
Ryan Robowski LH
Tyler Stohr RH
Shawn Teufel LH
Dan Gentzler RH

Unless the Tigers find they have something in Ryan Robowski, Lakeland misses out even moreso on prospects when it comes to their relief corps. Draft position tends to matter less the further you put your draft day behind you, but it could be telling that the only pitcher in this group taken before the 16th round was Tyler Stohr (6th, 2008) and he missed most of last season with an elbow injury. When he's healthy, though, he's been a high leverage reliever for Oneonta and West Michigan.

I also don't want to sell short what the lefty Kenny Faulk was able to do last season in West Michigan. His 78 strikeouts in 58.1 innings are flat out impressive and allowed the Caps to slide him into a high leverage role. Now he just needs to keep missing those bats without missing the strike zone so much (30 BB). I would imagine Robowski will be joining Stohr and Faulk as somebody who will get the ball when the Flying Tigers need to shut down the opponent late. He gave up 69 hits in 54 innings in the California League last year, but that league is notoriously difficult for pitchers and his 16 walks and 51 strikeouts tell a more promising tale for what to expect.

Rounding out the bullpen, you will have Teufel, Little, Morrison and Gentzler. These guys will have to pitch meaningful innings from time to time, but I expect them to be earlier inning guys or used in situations that make use of their strengths. Little was a 31st round pick in last year's draft and mixed in 37 innings between Connecticut, West Michigan and Lakeland. His composite body of work looked good (25 H, 1 HR, 21 BB, 42 K) but only ten of those innings came in Lakeland. Teufel (25th pick last year) is the pen's third lefty and was a late addition to the squad due to injury shuffles. He had a path through the system similar to Little's (throwing at the same three levels). He was able to throw well at each level (35 IP, 26 H, 2 HR, 15 BB, 39 K total) including 14.2 innings in Florida.

Morrison missed all but five innings of last season, and ended up having season-ending surgery. The 29th pick from the 2009 draft will try to bounce back. Finally, Gentzler was an undrafted free agent the Tigers picked up to help out last season. He split last season between the GCL and Lakeland, and will try to duplicate that success this season.

Pitching Summary:

As you can probably tell, I'm a bit underwhelmed by the Flying Tigers' staff. Smyly and Nelson's progress is important for the system, but the overall group is short on excitement. Of course, not having top prospects doesn't necessarily equate to an awful season. I'm not overly optimistic about how successful the rotation will be overall. However, if they can log innings the pitchers I identified as the key reliever - Stohr, Robowski and Faulk - might be able hold things down late.

Position Players

Catchers

Julio Rodriguez
Eric Roof

Rodriguez will be the one to watch of these two. He spent most of his time in Connecticut last season and his line of .270/.317/.360 looks good for a catcher in that league. He later struggled in 28 games in Lakeland, but if his bat can keep up with what he did in the NY-Penn, his defense could carry him. Mark Anderson of TigsTown has him as the Tigers' best defensive catcher in the system. Roof will continue in his role as the Tigers' backup catcher wherever he's needed.

Infielders

Tony Plagman 1B
Jordan Lennerton 1B/DH
Corey Jones 2B
Wade Gaynor 3B
Gustavo Nunez SS
William Bergolla UT
Shawn Roof IF

Plagman will look to be the next of the system's first basemen whose progress could prove to be nearly irrelevant. Cabrera being a corner stone of the organization isn't Plagman's fault, though, and the Tigers' 9th round pick from last year's draft hit well in West Michigan (.272/.337/.436, 22 BB, 47 K in 273 PA).

To his right most days figures to be another plus from last year's Caps squad, Corey Jones. The second baseman doesn't wow with his defense or power, but he banged out a .360 average in 226 West Michigan plate appearances last season. He did so with a .417 BABIP, but will try to earn his keep as a contact hitter who takes about an average number of walks.

On the left side of the infield will be Gaynor and Nunez. These two had about polar opposite career trajectories last season. After a promising 2009 that earned some notice, Nunez fell off a cliff, hit the ground, and then rolled into a pit. Well, that may be a bit much but his .222/.263/.281 line from last season earned him a return trip to Lakeland. Gaynor was just the opposite. He was awful in Oneonta in 2009, but had things click to the tune of a .286/.354/.436 line in West Michigan. That was enough to earn the team's Player of the Year honors, and he'll now be competing to try to prove he can stay at third in a system that features Nick Castellanos and Francisco Martinez.

On the bench for Lakeland will be Jordan Lennerton, Shawn Roof and William Bergolla. Lennerton actually figures to pull down some time as the designated hitter, and will earn the role if he comes anywhere near what he did in Lakeland in a partial season in 2010 (.301/.393/.505 in 239 plate appearances). During that hot streak, he hit for power (.204 ISO), took a lot of walks (30), but also struck out 54 times. Lakeland could really stand to have him continue to flash that power, even if they can't count on him hitting .300. Roof and Bergolla will continue in their career roles as career middle infield backups. Roof won't hit much, but it's hard to know what to expect from Bergolla. He hasn't played affiliated ball since 2008, but had some success as high as Triple A back when he was playing.

Outfielders

Daniel Fields
Avisail Garcia
Michael Rockett
Brent Wyatt

Here, we finally see Lakeland get their fair share of talent. I don't mean to knock the rest of the team's position players, but you'd forgive prospect watchers for not getting too excited about a team's whose top every day prospects were a defensive specialist catcher and the system's bronze medal third baseman. In the outfield, though, we get something to watch.

Fields is repeating at Lakeland after surprising people last season by holding his own. So many were chastising the Tigers for plopping him in the deep end of the pool and pointing out his 119 strikeouts, that they seemed to forget his .240/.343/.371 line was about average for the league. That was from a 19-year-old playing center field. His 55 walks show a lot of promise in my eyes and a good eye could be a real asset when he learns to make better use of his speed on the bases. If he improves his pitch recognition and gets a little more loft under his batted balls, this could be a big year for a kid who will still be very young for the Florida State League.

Of course, Fields is still older than the other kid who will be getting a lot of attention on this team, Avisail Garcia. Garcia will still be a teenager until June but should be in right field and is sized beyond his years at 6'4" and 232 pounds (according to the media guide). Despite all the girth, his young legs still carry him well even if people will naturally wonder how long we'll be able to say that. Tiger fans will just have to hope that if the speed goes away as expected, that the expected power will step in as its replacement. He hit for average with West Michigan last season (.281) but with just 25 extra base hits, managed just a .356 slugging percentage. If his approach at the plate matures as he gets used to pro pitchers, that could certainly help his power. In 2010, he walked just 20 times while striking out 113. We've seen those kind of strike zone problems trip up quite a few talented Tiger prospects in the past few years. There are things to work on, but the Tigers and their fans are excited about this kid. That shows in the fact that he was invited to major league spring training at such a young age. Let's hope guys like Maggs and Victor gave him a few tips he can carry into the season.

The remaining two spots, and probably sharing left field for the most part, will fall to Rockett and Wyatt. Rockett struggled mightily (.235/.266/.369, 12 BB, 81 K in 402 PA) in West Michigan and I assume will be in a fourth outfielder role here. Wyatt will be making a return to Lakeland where he should be a useful part of the Flying Tigers' lineup - probably even in the second spot in the lineup some nights. In 2010, he hit .258/.367/.363 and made it pretty clear what his best attribute was on offense. Those on-base skills will be welcomed during games when guys like Nunez and Garcia might seem like out machines.

Position Player Summary:

I thought Fields may have shown himself to be the Tigers' best position prospect last season before they drafted Nick Castellanos. Add in Garcia as a player some people would have used as a counter-argument to Fields in that role and this squad gets intriguing. I don't know if the two youngsters are ready to carry a FSL lineup, though. The team's offensive success will probably be largely determined by how well Gaynor, Jones and Plagman adapt to this league's pitchers.

If they handle it well, they could complement Wyatt and Lennerton for a decent lineup. If that trio struggles with their respective promotions, it's hard to see where the slack will be picked up. Nunez finding some modicum of usefulness at the plate would offer a big boost from expectations after his 2010 season. Overall, my expectations of the offense are going to be conservative. Unfortunately, aside from Rodriguez, Nunez and Fields up the middle, they might not be able to make up for lost runs on defense either.

Overall Expectations:

The important prospects on this team could make big steps forward and still find their roster as a whole overmatched. It's typically foolish to expect that kind of progress from a group of players and that might not bode well for this team's record. It's possible the talented players could step up and provide more offense than I'm anticipating. When I look at this team, though, I see a dangerous mix of a shortage of pitching talent, offensive uncertainty and an overall defense that might grade out as too close to average to buoy the other two.

I really hate that I feel like I'm being negative about the Tigers' farm teams' chances this year. I certainly hope things turn out better than the expectations I'm laying down. It just seems so far that it would take a lot of things going the Tigers' way. The recent history of that happening with their prospects hasn't been great.