As part of the short season New York-Penn League that runs from mid-June to September, the Connecticut Tigers don't get as much attention as the four main affiliates in the Detroit Tigers' farm system. However, fans in the northeast often get the first glimpse at the team's newest draft picks, and 2015 was no exception.
The Tigers managed a 35-38 record on the year, dropping seven of their final 11 games to finish six games behind the Tri-City Valley Cats in the New York-Penn League's Stedler Division. They finished with 284 runs scored in 73 games, the second-lowest total in the league. They ranked among the bottom five teams in the league in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS. This wasn't entirely their fault, though; many of the team's most impressive players, such as catcher Kade Scivicque, outfielder Victor Padron, and shortstop A.J. Simcox, were called up to Single-A West Michigan for the Whitecaps' late-season playoff run.
The pitching staff fared better, holding opponents to a 3.38 ERA, which ranked in the top half of the league. They issued the second-lowest walk total in the league, and their 1.23 WHIP was fourth-lowest. They didn't strike out many batters, though, and allowed 26 home runs in 639 2/3 innings, one of the league's higher rates. Like the offense, the pitching staff was hit with departures when Gerson Moreno, Drew Smith, and Trey Teakell were called up to West Michigan.
Pitcher of the Year: Drew Smith
In a draft class boasting 22 pitching prospects, third round selection Drew Smith surfaced as one of three lanky hurlers to lead the pack during the Tigers' selection process this summer. The 6'2" righty came to the Tigers from Dallas Baptist University, where he posted a 3.97 ERA in 25 appearances with the Patriots last season. Don't let the "bean pole" build fool you, however. While in Dallas, Smith routinely hit 97-99 miles per hour on the radar gun, fanning 70 in his 95 innings of work with the Patriots.
Smith began 2015 on assignment with the Gulf Coast League Tigers, but quickly made the transfer to Connecticut after just one game. He made himself at home in Norwich and proved to have no difficulty in the transition adjustment. In 11 games with the Tigers, Smith registered 27 2/3 innings, striking out 33 and allowing one earned run. Smith concluded his debut season with Single-A West Michigan, securing a win in his first outing. In all, the soft spoken 22-year-old proved perfect in 2015, finishing at 3-0, with 38 strikeouts, an 0.71 WHIP and a single earned run allowed in 31 innings of work.
Player of the Year: Will Allen
For Will Allen, the journey into professional baseball was anything but simple. Following his selection as the Tigers 2014 13th round selection, the Ole Miss Catcher came face to face with his first hurdle. After signing with the Tigers, he suffered a torn right shoulder labrum during the NCAA Super Regional. Allen's next step would be surgery to repair the damage. Kicking off the 2015 season as a member of the Lakeland Flying Tigers, Allen hit .222/.263/.222 through five games, finishing 4-for-18 at the plate with a pair of RBI.
Allen's move to Norwich at the end of June didn't cause many waves in joining up with the Connecticut Tigers. He was 6-for-27 in the month of June through eight games, posting one extra base hit and tallying another pair of RBI on the year. It wasn't until August that Allen hit the ground running, earning a well-deserved All-Star game selection, along with four of his Connecticut teammates. Allen wrapped the month of August hitting .405/.473/.468 with 32 hits, 17 RBI and a .941 OPS. The 23-year-old concluded his 2015 campaign hitting .324/.387/.417, leading the Tigers in hits (66), runs (28), doubles (13) and RBI (31).
Breakout Player: Brett Pirtle
It's tough to find a breakout player in a level featuring so many new draftees, but infielder Brett Pirtle may fit that bill as well as anyone. At the age of 24, Pirtle may not have been the youngest face in the squad this season, but it was his developed skill set that helped him contribute on the offensive side of the ball. The Mississippi State product played 40 games with Connecticut in 2014 after being selected by Detroit in the 30th round of the MLB draft. Though compact in size, the infielder hit a respectable .294/.335/.406 in his inaugural outing in the farm system.
Pirtle returned to Norwich again in 2015, finding time to fit in at the Advanced-A level with the Lakeland Flying Tigers. Lakeland proved to live to the challenge of advancing a level and Pirtle was held to hitting .180/.255/.200, posting nine hits and four RBI through 14 games with the Flying Tigers. Back in Norwich, Pirtle saw notable improvement in his 30 games this season, wrapping the year by hitting .333/.382/.421 for an .803 OPS.
Biggest Disappointment: Steven Fuentes
Since entering the Tigers organization at the age of 18, Venezuela native Steven Fuentes grabbed attention offensively, hitting .257 and .272, respectively, in his first two seasons of professional ball. His production over his first two years included 99 hits, 18 doubles and 49 RBI.
Following a season spent with Connecticut in 2014, Fuentes split his 2015 outing between Single-A West Michigan and the Tigers, continuing his fixture at shortstop. The 20-year-old struggled both offensively and defensively, barely hitting above .150 through 35 games with the Tigers. He finished 18-for-120 at the plate with 44 strikeouts. In the field, the youngster was tagged for a team-high 14 errors at shortstop.
In his 16 games spent with the Whitecaps, Fuentes didn't fare much better, hitting .163/.236/.204 with two doubles and a pair of RBI. Overall, Fuentes concluded the season hitting just .157, finishing 26-for-169 at the plate with 16 errors in the field. At 20-years-old, Fuentes is young, leaving a fairly healthy amount of room for growth for the switch-hitter. He will need to adapt to the challenges he has faced if he is going to progress up the ladder, though.