TigsTown Preview: 2011 Lakeland Flying Tigers

Just as is the case with the upper level teams in the system, the Flying Tigers will be under the guidance of a new manager in 2011, as Dave Huppert will take over the reins in Lakeland. He will be handed the keys to a squad highlight by TigsTown's #5 prospect, outfielder Daniel Fields.

Though Fields is the top prospect on the team at number five, Lakeland fans will be treated with views of seven other players from the 2010 Top 50 prospects list.

Fields will return to Lakeland after a surprise assignment to High-A early last year. At just 19-years old, the shortstop turned outfielder held his own and posted a better than league average line of .240/.343/.371. At times last season he flashed the tantalizing power-speed combination that scouts love.

"I'm really looking forward to what he can do this year," said one Florida State League scout. "He's a really athletic kid that knows the game. He's got tools galore and another year of maturity could really help him blossom."

Flanking Fields on the outfield corners will be Avisail Garcia in right field, and a combination of Michael Rockett and Brent Wyatt in left. Garcia was rated TigsTown's #13 prospect in the off-season and the organization continues to await his breakout on the field.

Former Lakeland manager Andy Barkett dubbed Garcia a "championship caliber player" after seeing him in the Fall Instructional League the last two years. Still just 19-years old, Garcia is the system's best outfield defender. He also has immense potential at the plate, potentially giving Lakeland fans something to watch for on both sides of the ball.

Rockett is an unheralded prospect who is loaded with tools but held back by his approach at the plate. A good defender with a plus-plus arm in the outfield, Rockett can flash power and speed when he puts the bat on the ball.

Wyatt spent most of the 2010 season with the Flying Tigers, save for a 16 game trial at Double-A near the end of the campaign. Known for his gritty style of play and willingness to do whatever is asked of him. LFT fans could see Wyatt anywhere on the field in 2011. Throughout his minor league career Wyatt has played every position on the diamond except catcher.

On the infield, manager Dave Huppert is going to have plenty of options to choose from. His likely starters at third base, shortstop, and second base all ranked inside the TigsTown Top 30. Wade Gaynor moves up to High-A after a strong showing in the Midwest League in 2010.

"I know I just need to keep trying to get more consistent," noted Gaynor earlier this week. "I need to keep getting the bat to the ball quick and consistent, and even though I do things a little differently at third, I just need to keep making the plays."

To Gaynor's left, Lakeland fans will once again be witness to the defensive wizardry of Gustavo Nunez. Nunez is an elite level defender with tremendous first step quickness, outstanding range, good hands, and a plus arm. After last season, one scout rated him the best defensive shortstop he'd seen in five years or more.

For all the flash with the glove, Nunez's bigger challenge in 2011 will be finding some kind of offensive game. After a breakout performance with West Michigan in 2009, he fell flat on his face at the plate in 2010.

"He looked like he was in a funk all year," said one FSL manager. "He doesn't have a lot of strength, so he's not going to drive it. He needs to get it on the ground and run like hell."

One player on the infield who shouldn't have any trouble hitting is second baseman Corey Jones. Affectionately dubbed "CoJo" by his teammates, Jones is one of the best pure hitters in the system, capable of contending for an FSL batting title this year.

Taking throws from the rest of the infield will be a combination of Jordan Lennerton and Tony Plagman.

Lennerton returns to Lakeland after ripping the cover off the ball to the tune of a .301/.393/.505 line in 57 games at High-A. The slick fielding first sacker may not have much in the way of big league aspirations according to scouts, but he should provide some punch in the middle of the Flying Tigers lineup this summer.

Plagman was the Tigers' 8th round pick in 2010 and hit pretty well in his debut with West Michigan. He's another solid bat to put in the middle of the lineup, and there's a slim chance he could see some time in left field at some point this year.

The two infield reserves will be minor league veterans Shawn Roof and William Bergolla. Roof has played as high as Triple-A for the Tigers, but comes back down to help the Lakeland squad in 2010, while Bergolla made the team after signing a minor league free agent deal. The 28-year old has played nine seasons of affiliated ball and two more of independent ball

"From what you showed me on paper, I think that team could do some damage in that league this year," said an NL scout that covers several teams in the FSL. "There's a mix of decent prospects and some good minor league bats. I think the fans will have fun out at the park."

Receiving the pitchers and rounding out the offense will be two defense-first catchers, Julio Rodriguez and Eric Roof.

Rodriguez was rated the system's best defensive catcher in the 2010 TigsTools survey, and he should help control the oppositions running game all by himself. Armed with a lethal weapon for a right arm and excellent receiving skills, the Lakeland pitchers should enjoy throwing to him this year.

It's not quite the four lefty rotation that Toledo will have to start the 2011 season, but pitching coach Jerry Coleman has been handed an Opening Day rotation with three lefties ready to go.

2010 second round pick Drew Smyly is the headliner of the bunch, as he will make his official pro debut at High-A. Smyly's fastball ranges from 89-91 mph and he has been up to 94 when he reaches back for a little extra. His cutter could be a lethal weapon in the humid conditions of the Florida State League.

The other two lefties in the rotation are Cole Nelson and Jared Wesson. Nelson was a nice find by the Tigers last year, working at 89-91 as he left Auburn, but then jumping to 92-94 after some minor mechanical tweaks as a pro.

"I just need to keep working hard to keep my mechanics in order," said Nelson. "I'm really looking forward to this season. I was getting the feel for my slider and change-up during spring training, and I'm ready to go."

The Tigers aren't the only ones that like what they've seen from Nelson.

"He's more than a little interesting," said an NL scout. "He's a big kid and he can get out of whack pretty easy. You can see him working through it, but there's good stuff in there. If he irons it all out, he could be a nice prospect, but he's a big kid, and they take time."

Wesson has been another nice find for the Tigers, signing as an undrafted free agent out of Mississippi State in 2009. Another success story of minor mechanical tweaks by the developmental staff, Wesson's fastball can range as high as 94 mph in short stints, but he will work lower than that during most starts.

Rounding out the rotation will be veteran right-handers Victor Larez and Trevor Feeney. Feeney spent the 2009 season with the Flying Tigers before going down to West Michigan in 2010 and becoming a Midwest League All-Star.

The Lakeland bullpen looks like a crew that could hold some leads for the rotation, armed with two guys with closing experience, and another with the stuff to fill the role.

Left-hander Kenny Faulk saved twelve games and posted a 2.16 ERA with 12 strikeouts per nine innings for West Michigan last year, and he will be leaned upon heavily in the late innings in 2011.

"I really think my slider is coming along," said Faulk. "I was primarily a fastball-change guy before, but I'm getting comfortable throwing my slider more and more."

Two other players in line for some late inning opportunities are right-handers Tyler Stohr and Michael Morrison. Both players are on the road back from Tommy John surgery last summer, and they will likely be handled gently through at least the first half of the season.

Despite the injury less than a year ago, both pitchers have showed serious stuff throughout the spring. Tigertown Pitching Coordinator Greg Sabat recently noted that they both have "big league arms that can get up to around 95 mpg."

The bullpen will also have two capable lefties, one of which will be familiar to Lakeland fans. 2010 draft pick Shawn Teufel rocketed from the draft through Low-A to High-A before the end of last season, and after the promotion of Rob Waite earlier this week, Teufel gets another crack at Lakeland to start the 2011 season.

There is a chance that Teufel and Jared Wesson switch roles at some point, as the organization believes Teufel has the necessary command, pitches, and mentality to succeed as a starter; a role he was slated to fill with West Michigan.

The other bullpen lefty will be a new face to all Tiger fans, as Ryan Robowski joined the organization as a piece of the trade that sent Armando Galarraga to Arizona.

At the time of the trade, one scout for an AL team simply noted "He's got solid stuff and MLB potential."

Robowski, a 16th round pick of the Diamondbacks in 2009, posted a lofty 5.17 ERA in the rarified air of the High-A California League last year, a number many analysts believe should come down quickly in the much more pitcher friendly Florida State League.

The last two relievers in the Lakeland bullpen will be right-handers Matt Little and Dan Gentzler. Little made seven appearances for Lakeland last year after cruising through Connecticut and West Michigan. He allowed just two hits in ten innings of work for the Flying Tigers.

Gentzler will raise some eyebrows when he comes out of the bullpen, as he works from a below side-arm angle with plenty of funk and deception. The non-drafted free agent out of Maryland could be a stop gap on the roster as the team awaits the return of Scott Green from the 7-day DL (sore shoulder).

This edition of the Lakeland Flying Tigers offers several top prospects for fans to track while also having a strong likelihood of running a quality product out on the field. This group should also exude some of the best qualities of the game of baseball; a group of guys that like to have fun.

"We have a lot of fun together," said Cole Nelson. "You know, Mississippi State beat Auburn a while back and Wesson made sure I heard all about it. Then Auburn beat Arkansas the other day and I gave it right back to Smyly. We joke around and have a lot of fun on and off the field."

If that type of camaraderie is any indication, this Lakeland club could be a fun one to follow for many reasons in 2011.

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