TigsTown Preview: 2011 Erie SeaWolves

FREE PREVIEW OF PREMIUM CONTENT! Guided by Manager Chris Cron in his first year with the Tigers organization, the Erie Seawolves are headlined by a host of top prospects, including Jacob Turner, Casey Crosby, Chance Ruffin, and Francisco Martinez.

With consensus number one prospect Jacob Turner headlining the rotation and slated for the Opening Day start, The ‘Wolves rotation is loaded and ready to take on the Eastern League.

"These guys know what it takes, day in and day out, to go out take care of their business," said pitching coach Ray Burris. They're a talented group of guys, and I don't like to place expectations on them, but I think we're going to be able to go out and compete really well this year; hopefully starting with the first game on the seventh."

Behind Turner, the ‘Wolves will run out the foursome of left-hander Casey Crosby, and right-handers LJ Gagnier, Luke Putkonen, and Mark Sorensen.

In the midst of much debate, the Tigers have pushed Crosby to Double-A following another year missed due to injury, as Crosby never made a start for Lakeland last year after coming down with a sore left arm during spring training. According to multiple sources, Crosby has looked healthy and strong this spring, with his fastball reaching back up into the mid-90s regularly.

Gagnier returns to Lakeland after spending a chunk of time at Triple-A in 2010, and he will be looked to as a workhorse capable of logging 150-plus innings this year and keeping his team in the game each time out.

Putkonen and Sorensen are both among TigsTown's Top 50 prospects – 38th and 41st, respectively – and they have big league aspirations as they get their feet wet in Double-A. Both pitchers can work in the low-90s with above-average sink.

One long time AL scout that saw both pitchers last year in Lakeland said "I think they're both big leaguers; maybe not in major roles, but they'll pitch up there."

Backing up that starting rotation will be a bullpen full of hard throwers and near big league ready arms.

The back end of games will be held down by supplemental first round pick Chance Ruffin and Venezuelan native Lester Oliveros. Both pitchers have late inning stuff, though Ruffin is far more polished than they still raw and often wild Oliveros.

When asked what Erie fans should expect from him when he takes the mound this year, Ruffin wryly stated "A snap of the fingers and a high leg kick. It's a little funky, but it works for me."

Setting up Ruffin at the back end of games could be former Texas teammate Austin Wood. The two were teammates for two years for the powerhouse Longhorns, and they will be reunited this year in Double-A.

"It'll be nice having someone I know that can show me the ropes," said Ruffin. "He had to do it at Texas, and now he gets to do it in pro ball again. He's probably getting a little tired of me. It'll be nice to have a familiar face though."

Wood is coming back from a minor shoulder surgery in 2010, and he is set to make his Double-A debut later this week.

"I feel great right now," noted Wood. "I'm really excited and optimistic about this season."

Joining Wood in the middle innings and setup role will be left-hander Matt Hoffman and right-handers Jared Gayhart, Cory Hamilton, and Rob Waite.

Hoffman was the talk of the fall for the Tigers last year as his velocity spiked at the end of the 2010 season, and then spiked again in the Arizona Fall League; getting all the way up to 97 on multiple occasions according to most scouts.

Gayhart bounced back and forth between Lakeland and Erie in 2010 and he will fill and important role with the club this year thanks to his ability to go several innings when necessary. Gayhart has made a few spot starts in his career and according to Cron and pitching coach Ray Burris, he could be looked upon to help out in that role again in 2011.

Hamilton and Waite are both versatile relievers who have worked the middle and late innings at various times throughout their careers. Hamilton saw a slight velocity bump last year when he worked out of the bullpen; a trend the organization hopes to see continue this year.

While the pitching staff is loaded with high profile names, the offense isn't exactly barren. The top rated prospect according to TigsTown's rankings is third baseman Francisco Martinez, who slotted in at #4 in this year's list.

Pushed to High-A Lakeland in 2010, despite not having seen full-season ball yet, Martinez held his own in the Florida State League. After the Tigers shipped him to the AFL, they were determined to send him to Double-A for the start of this campaign.

Most scouts walked away this spring believing he may be a bit overwhelmed by the challenge, but that didn't stop the Tigers.

"I didn't think he was ready for High-A last year," said an NL scout. "After a little time to get his feet wet, he played pretty darn well. It might be a rough first month, but I think he'll be alright in the end. I like him a lot."

Joining Martinez around the infield will be fellow third baseman Bryan Pounds, shortstop Audy Ciriaco, second baseman Brandon Douglas, and first basemen Rawley Bishop and Michael Bertram.

Pounds returns to Erie after splitting his 2010 season between there and Lakeland. After an up and down season last year, he is looking to get back on track and play his game.

"I really want to focus on my speed this year, and just trying to make good contact," said Pounds. "Last year I started trying to hit for power too much, at the expense of other parts of my game."

Pounds will see time at third base when Martinez is out of the lineup, but could also see some time at first base and in left field.

"I played left a couple of times last year when I was in Lakeland," said Pounds. "My first game out there was the first time Brent Wyatt was on the mound, and I made an error behind him. I'm starting to get more comfortable though."

Douglas and Ciriaco should for an interesting double-play combination, as both are trying to prove themselves as prospects. Douglas has done nothing but hit since signing out of Northern Iowa in 2009, and he will have to continue that trend if he wants to overcome the slug of second basemen ahead of him on the big league depth chart.

Ciriaco was recently removed from the Tigers' 40-man roster to make room for reliever Enrique Gonzalez. Moving back to shortstop after spending last season at the hot corner in both Erie and Toledo, Ciriaco needs a big year to put some shine back on his prospect star.

First base and designated hitter will regularly be manned by a combination of Bertram and Bishop, two players who have demonstrated their ability to be quality minor league hitters.

One player who could see time all over the field in 2011 is Justin Henry. A natural second baseman, Henry played the keystone, shortstop, third base, and even the outfield this spring, in anticipation of a role that could have him moving around on a daily basis.

"It's not 100% set in stone, but I kind of think I'm going to be that guy that gets some time everywhere," explained Henry. "That's the way it went in the spring. That's fine with me though. I don't mind that. I just want to get on the field."

The regular outfielders for the ‘Wolves will be Ben Guez, Jamie Johnson, and Deik Scram. Scram will be Erie's most experienced Double-A player, with 2011 being his fourth season at the level.

After bouncing around between Lakeland, Erie and Toledo last year, Guez is hoping to settle in and become a more consistent presence this time around.

"I'd love to stay in Erie this year and maybe earn a promotion," commented Guez. "I can't control that though. All I can do is go out and play hard, and try to be a more consistent player. Where I play is out of my control. How I play is what I'm worried about."

The Tigers have tasked Johnson with handling the jump from the Low-A Midwest League all the way to the Eastern League. The 2009 seventh round pick put together a fine season with West Michigan in 2010, and he knows what he will be expected to do with Erie this time around.

"I just have to play my game," said Johnson simply. "I need to be a sparkplug and give 110% ever time I'm on the field. Whether it's stealing bags, catching fly balls, hitting, or anything else. That's my job and I know it."

Rounding out the roster the Seawolves will have Jeff Kunkel returning for a fourth tour through the Eastern League, and he is slated to backup 2010 sixth round pick Bryan Holaday.

Already renowned as a plus defender, the Tigers have cleaned up Holaday's defensive mechanics even more, giving him a chance to be a top flight receiver. With his defense rarely a question, Holaday acknowledges that the pressure is on his bat to perform and get him to the big leagues.

"I just have to be more consistent," Holaday said. "I know what I can do, and I worked really hard this off-season on trying to not to do too much or change too much. I just need to trust my swing and let it happen, and that's something Toby [Harrah] really helped me with this spring."

This year's Seawolves Opening Day roster has a wealth of talent, including 13 players from TigsTown's Top 50 prospects list. Manager Chris Cron knows he has a talented roster, and he's ready for the season to begin.

"On paper this thing looks just about as good as it can get," stated Cron. "We've got a good mixture of young kids and more experienced guys; all with a lot of talent. These aren't just talented baseball players though. The Moms and Dads raised these kids right. They're good kids. I'm really looking forward to the start of the season because of both the talent and the quality of the guys."

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