TigsTown Preview: 2011 Connecticut Tigers

The Detroit Tigers affiliate in the short-season New York-Penn League opens its second season in Connecticut with new manager Andrew Graham at the helm. Graham will guide a mix of returning NYPL players and new draft picks through the summer.

"My main goal is to teach these kids about professional baseball," said Graham in a phone interview on Wednesday. "I want them to learn how to act like a pro on and off the field. We're going to be on time, play hard and execute."

The 2011 NYPL season will be Graham's first as a manager, but already understands his role at this developmental level of the minor leagues.

"We all want to win, but that's not the focus at this level," said Graham. "The focus is on developing players. That's the major goal."

Graham previously manned posts as a catcher in the Tigers organization and as the Roving Catching Instructor. An experienced backstop with plenty of knowledge to pass on, Graham will have two catchers on his Opening Day roster, with Venezuelan Adolfo Reina and 2011 draft pick Zach Maggard.

"Reina has done a great job in extended spring training," noted his manager. "He's made great advances in his offense and defense after missing last season with an injury. He's showed some great leadership traits as well."

Reina is expected to see the bulk of the time behind the plate, while Maggard will fill-in as a solid backstop that can manage the pitching staff.

The infield corners should have some pop for the CT-Tigers with three draft picks expected to start the season there. At first base, the Tigers will have former Michigan State Spartan Jeff Holm in the lineup for the opener and Barry University graduate Dean Green will join the team in the coming weeks.

At the hot corner will be 4th round pick Jason King out of Kansas State. King has dynamic potential as a power hitting threat from both sides of the plate and an outstanding work ethic.

"That league is tough to hit in," said one NL scout. "That said, I think he'll hit for some average and a fair amount of power right off the bat. He's a nice player that's getting underrated nationally a little bit coming out of the draft."

Up the middle the Tigers will employ a Latin American product, a 2011 draft choice, and an undrafted free agent.

Colin Kaline – grandson of former Tiger great Al Kaline – will see plenty of time at second base after finishing his career at Florida Southern.

Mississippi State shortstop Jonathan Ogden was just signed in the last couple of days and he will join the Tigers very soon. He was a key defensive cog for the Bulldogs this season and he should contribute right away as an experienced college player with good fundamentals.

Ranked 24th in TigsTown's 2010 rankings, Javier Azcona will likely see time all over the infield this season, Azcona is as toolsy as they come but remains quite raw and the advanced environment of the NYPL will be a stiff challenge for him.

In the outfield, the Tigers will have Les Smith, Chad Wright, Bo McClendon, Samir Rijo, and Edwin Gomez. Wright is expected to be the everyday center fielder according to Graham, while Gomez and Rijo should get the bulk of the at-bats on the corners.

"[Rijo] just has to keep making adjustments," noted Graham after working with him throughout EST. "He's getting stronger every day and he has a chance to be a good player."

The Tigers will start the season with Luis Sanz, Wilsen Palacios, Pedro Perez, Matt Crouse, and Tyler Barrett in the starting rotation.

Crouse and Barrett both joined the organization as draft picks last week, while Perez joined the organization as the player to be named from the Red Sox in exchange for Brent Dlugach.

Possibly the most intriguing arm in the rotation is TigsTown's #44 prospect Wilsen Palacios. After visa issues pushed back his arrival in Lakeland, the Tigers are hoping he can catch back up quickly.

"When he came back to the country he looked really good," said Graham. "We were able to stretch him out to about 55 or 60 pitches already so he'll be limited to that in his first start. He's got such great stuff though, he could put up some good numbers."

Luis Sanz has been pitching well in his own right in extended, as he has been back up to 92-94 mph with his fastball at times.

The bullpen will have 13 pitchers to start the year, including seven pitchers that saw time in Connecticut last year.

Patrick Lawson, Rayni Guichardo, and Clemente Mendoza all worked out of the Tigers rotation last year but will fill bullpen roles in 2011.

Returning relievers from 2010 include Drew Gagnier, Kevan Hess, Tim Mowry, and Jeff Barfield.

"Hess got a chance up in Lakeland recently," added Graham. "He pitched pretty well while he was up there and hopefully he learned some things he can bring here with him."

2011 draft pick Dan Bennett, Ryan Woolley, and Nick Avila will all see time in relief this summer, with Bennett looking to jump into the closer mix after shutting down games for Florida State this spring.

Possibly the most exciting reliever on the roster is right-handed fire-baller Melvin Mercedes. After missing much of 2010 after undergoing Tommy John surgery, Mercedes is back and ready to go in the late innings.

Once dubbed a "wild pony" by TigerTown Pitching Coordinator Greg Sabat, Mercedes is another candidate to pick up saves for the Tigers with his mid-90s heat and a slider that flashes as a plus pitch.

Fans of the CT-Tigers are still getting used to having Tiger baseball in Norwich, but they should be getting used to some of the hallmarks of what the Tigers preach to their young players.

"We're going to play hard every game out," said Graham when asked about what fans should expect out of his club. "I was a scrappy player when I played and we're going to be a scrappy team. We're going to work as hard as we can every time out. We should be able to look in the mirror and know we gave everything we had."

No matter how talented the team or how the season is playing out, that type of mentality will make a trip to the ball park fun for fans in Connecticut.


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