Three years ago, the Lakeland Flying Tigers won the Florida State League championship. That Flying Tigers team, led by familiar names like Tyler Collins, James McCann, and Nick Castellanos, did not win its division, but went 73-58, and got hot at the right time in the playoffs.
Since then, things have gone downhill. The Flying Tigers turned in solid halves in 2013 and 2014, but were unable to make it back to the postseason. In 2015, things were even worse, as the Flying Tigers finished both halves of the season with losing records, including an abysmal 22-43 mark in the second half.
The problems started on the offensive side of the ball, where Lakeland ranked dead last in the Florida State League with 441 runs scored. They had a solid number of extra base hits, including 32 triples and 51 home runs, but their .302 on-base percentage was third-worst in the league, and their .628 OPS was second-to-last. Curt Powell was the only Flying Tigers hitter to bat over .300, while Dominic Ficociello came close at .297.
Unfortunately, Lakeland's pitching wasn't much better. The Flying Tigers played several extra innings games, which didn't help their staff's longevity, but they finished second-to-last in the league with a 3.49 team ERA. They also finished near the bottom of the league in strikeouts, and allowed the third-most hits.
Pitcher of the Year: Kevin Ziomek
Kevin Ziomek broke onto the scene in his first full season with the Tigers organization in 2014 as a member of the talent-laden pitching staff in Single-A West Michigan. Despite a fastball resting at just 90 miles per hour, superb pitch placement by the 23-year-old has proven that velocity isn't everything. After leading the Whitecaps with 152 strikeouts in 123 innings last season, Ziomek also managed to wrap the year as one of three pitchers to reach 10 wins.
Moving into Advanced-A Lakeland in 2015, the trend continued for the 6'3" lefty. He pounded the zone for 154 2/3 innings, racking up 143 strikeouts while maintaining a 1.14 WHIP. Ziomek produced his best work in August, allowing just six runs in 40 innings and coming within inches of a no-hitter against the Tampa Yankees. Beyond the outlandish amount of extra inning play with Lakeland, Ziomek concluded his first Advanced-A campaign with a team-high nine wins. He also led his team once again with 143 strikeouts.
Player of the Year: Francisco Martinez
A less-than-stellar offensive showing from the Flying Tigers made it a challenge to pinpoint many silver linings, but quiet consistency from third baseman Francisco Martinez gave Lakeland a much needed boost at times. At the age of 25, Martinez is hardly a new face to the game. Dividing his time between Seattle and Detroit since his debut in 2008, Martinez returned to action with the Flying Tigers this season as a corner infielder, where he led the team in many offensive categories.
Martinez hit .270/.300/.404 in 131 games with the Flying Tigers, leading the squad in runs (56), hits (137), doubles (30), home runs (10), and RBI (58), and he finished second in stolen bases (20). Martinez's numbers didn't make many waves league wide, but he played a key role in preserving a campaign that could have gone even further south in his absence.
Breakout Player: Paul Voelker
If there is a recipe for accelerated success through an organization, Paul Voelker has possibly discovered the secret. The 23-year-old righthander was barely into his second season with the Tigers organization when it became clear that he wasn't going to stay put for long. Following 10 games with Single-A West Michigan, Voelker was two-for-two in save opportunities, fanning 20 in 16 innings. For Voelker, a sophomore slump never found its way to the former Dallas Baptist closer as he made the most of a midseason promotion to Advanced-A Lakeland.
With the Flying Tigers, Voelker again dazzled, racking up three more victories without a loss while securing seven of eight save opportunities. Voelker held opposition to just four earned runs in 22 innings, striking out 26 with a 1.64 ERA. Voelker appeared in 14 games with Lakeland before receiving an additional promotion to Double-A Erie, where he concluded the season. Voelker remained perfect until suffering his first loss with Erie on July 28, concluding the season at 6-1 with 18 saves in 20 save opportunities.
Biggest Disappointment: Grayson Greiner
The combination of a daunting 6'6" frame and cat-like quickness behind the plate helped to catapult the Tigers' 2014 third round selection onto the radar, following his time spent as a backstop with South Carolina. Greiner surfaced at the Single-A level with West Michigan last season, posting admirable numbers through his 26 games with the Whitecaps. Greiner hit .322/.392/.444 down the stretch with a pair of home runs and 16 RBI.
Coming into 2015, Greiner made the jump to Advanced-A, where he struggled to kick start the same momentum he had experienced the year before. He broke out a bit in June after a sluggish start, going 12-for-38 at the plate with five RBI. In September, he staggered to stay above water, finishing the month by hitting .133/.188/.133. Greiner concluded his Advanced-A campaign hitting .183/.254/.250 with three home runs and 21 RBI.
While he struggled offensively, it's difficult to assess his overall performance without any reports on his defense and game calling. Catchers are notoriously slow developers at times -- even the ones who played at big schools like South Carolina -- and a rough season is by no means the end of the world for a player with Greiner's defensive pedigree. Expect a more mature version of the 22-year-old to surface next season as he regains his footing.