2012 Lakeland Flying Tigers Season Preview

In some years, Flying Tigers fans aren't blessed with a roster filled with top talents and players they expect to see donning the Old English ‘D' in a couple of years. This year is a radically different case as Lakeland fans will be blessed with a loaded roster capable of putting on a show and competing for the North Division crown in the first half of the season.

The club will be extremely strong up the middle, starting behind the plate with the Tigers top pick in the 2011 draft, James McCann. McCann is a physical catcher with good receiving skills and the ability to drive the ball out of the park.

In the middle of the infield, fans will be dazzled by the defensive play of shortstop Dixon Machado and second baseman Hernan Perez. Both players are outstanding defenders, with Machado rating as one of the best infield defenders in the organization. He has exceptional range and a cannon arm, despite his slight frame.

Center field will be manned by Daniel Fields as he returns for his third season in Lakeland. Fields has flashed outstanding defensive potential in center, and if that becomes more consistent this year, the pitching staff may relish the opportunity to allow hitters to work the ball to the middle of the field.

"That defense could be a ton of fun to watch," said an NL scout. "[Machado] and [Perez] can pick it and McCann is a good catch-and-throw guy. They'll be really strong defensively.

That sentiment is supported by the pitching staff as well. Left-hander Alex Burgos notes that it is a "tremendous feeling knowing those guys are behind us. We don't have to worry about throwing strikes and trying to get quick outs because they'll convert them for us."

In addition to the defense, this team can be expected to score some runs. Perez has developed into a hitter capable of driving the ball to the gaps and hitting for average. Fields has re-worked his swing to gain consistency and unlock his considerable power potential.

While those two, along with Machado and McCann can contribute at the plate, they may not be the focal point of the offense. Top position prospect Nick Castellanos will be the everyday guy at third base and he is an offensive dynamo.

"He can do so many things at the plate," noted one member of the minor league development staff. "He can make hard contact consistently and he has added the strength to start driving the ball out of the park. He's special!"

Castellanos will be joined in the middle of the lineup by outfielders Tyler Collins and Avisail Garcia and first baseman James Robbins. While all three players offer considerable power potential, both Garcia and Robbins will need to harness their approach to tap into that pop.

Collins is a newcomer to the organization after being an over-slot signing out of last year's draft. After tearing up the New York-Penn League in 2011, Collins has skipped West Michigan and offers the polished approach, strength and natural hitting ability to give Florida State League hurlers nightmares.

Wade Gaynor returns to Lakeland with a different role than last year. In 2012 Gaynor will work at his typical third base as well as first base and the outfield corners.

"It's a little different for me," said Gaynor. "I haven't played those positions in a while, but I think it's coming back. It's a lot of fun and a good challenge for me."

Manager Dave Huppert's bench will be filled out by outfielder Luis Castillo and catcher Luis Sanz, both of who can provide solid defense and good experience on the field.

The excitement continues with the pitching staff as Lakeland fans will have a chance to see several promising young arms.

Left-handers Brian Flynn and Alex Burgos get the job done in very different ways, but both players are capable of dominating opposing hitters. Burgos is the classic crafty lefty that has a host of pitches that he commands and mixes very well. After a strong debut season in West Michigan last year, Burgos is hoping to take it to the next level in 2012.

"I worked on adding a cutter this spring," said Burgos. "I think that could really help me against right-handed hitters. I just have to stay within myself and do what got me here. Nothing really changes. I just have to work harder against tougher competition."

Flynn on the other hand is an absolutely over-powering pitcher. He can dial his fastball up to the mid-90s with ease and scouts sat up and took notice this spring. One AL talent evaluator noted after watching Flynn, "Holy crap can that kid throw. He's got a chance to be really, really good!"

Joining them in the rotation will be right-handers Kevin Eichhorn and Mark Sorensen, both guys with solid stuff that can help keep the club in ball games. The final member of the rotation may fluctuate throughout the year, but left-handers Shawn Teufel and Matt Crouse could both get opportunities to take the bump in the first inning.

As if the rest of the roster wasn't enough, the bullpen owns at least one arm to get really excited about. Right-hander Bruce Rondon is known as much for his massive size as he is his blazing fastball. Rondon can reach 100 mph and he should light up the Joker Marchant Stadium radar gun in the late innings.

Also in the bullpen will be right-handers Victor Larez, Matt Little, Patrick Cooper and Zach Samuels. While many of these guys could be asked to fill a variety of roles, none of them are as versatile as Cooper.

"I've started in the past and think I still can," said Cooper on Monday. "But because I'm in the bullpen I'd like to believe I can pitch long relief and also shut it down at the end of the game. I think I can do a lot of things to help the club."

The players were almost unanimous in their belief that they could compete in the Florida State League in 2012.

"We have a good chance to be at the top of the North Division," said Gaynor flatly. "The North is always tough, but we have a really good roster and we should be very competitive."

Lakeland fans may have had years where they wished they had more top prospects to watch, but this won't be one of those years. The Opening Day lineup for the Flying Tigers will feature three of the organization's top ten prospects and several others that cracked the top twenty. That's an incredible amount of talent and it should make for a fascinating season in Lakeland.


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