2012 VSL Tigers Season Preview

Every year the Tigers seem to field one of the youngest teams in the Venezuelan Summer League. That trend should continue in 2012 with at least 15 players slated to make their professional debuts with the club this year.

The pitching staff will feature the most returning players and the construction of the staff will look familiar to those that follow the VSL closely. The Tigers will again employ a piggyback or tandem-starter routine as they break in many of their young arms.

Among the crop of starting pitchers, the Tigers will work in three returning players with good potential; Johan Belisario, Eduardo Rojas and Angel Vasquez, all of whom still have high expectations within the organization.

"Belisario has had a really good camp since reporting in April," said Tigers Director of International Operations Tom Moore. "We've loved him since we signed him. I would say I'm cautiously optimistic that this may be his year to break out."

Vasquez offers a different skill set than many of the young arms the Tigers have in Venezuela, and that set mirrors what fans have come to expect from the young pitchers in the system.

"[He] can really bring it at times," said a veteran scout for an NL team. "I've seen him up to 95 mph at times but he lacks consistency. There's a lot to dream on though."

Moore confirmed those peak velocity reading for Vasquez and also noted that he "has the top of body you want to sign every single day."

For an 18-year old arm coming off a 2011 season where he finished with an 0-4 record, 8.84 ERA and 2.43 WHIP, there's a lot expected of Vasquez this year. Those kind of expectations come with big time arm strength at a young age, and Tigers fans can hope that he begins to translate some of that raw stuff into results this year.

The Tigers will also have several newcomers in the rotation this year, including Alfred Gutierrez, Luis Cedeno and Eduardo Jimenez.

Among the most intriguing arms in the starting rotation this year will be Anthony Castro.

"There's some crudeness to his game," said Moore. "He needs to become more refined but there's some arm strength there. If the pitchability comes he could move quickly."

Castro turned 17-years old last month and he can already works his fastball into the upper-80s consistently while touching the lower-90s with some regularity.

Jose Fuentes and Reinaldo Robles are two more pitchers that the Tigers have expressed excitement about, and both will be getting plenty of innings in the rotation.

"We scouted Robles as a possible July 2 guy last year," noted Moore in last week's conversation. "We followed him closely. He's a strong-bodied kid that's already in the mid- to upper-80s. He can throw a curveball but his change-up is more advanced right now."

Fuentes was also signed last July, though he was not as highly thought of by many talent evaluators at that time. He will pitch the entire 2012 season at 17-years old and according to reports out of Venezuela he has really improved since turning in a strong performance during Liga Paralela in the off-season.

Left-hander Junior Camaripano could also see some time in the rotation, but the Tigers envision him as more of a swingman this year, picking up innings in a variety of roles throughout the season.

"[He's] a lefty with a little lower arm angle," said Moore. "He's a lot more confident throwing strikes this year and he can really spin a breaking ball. With his two-pitch combination he should have a good year for us this year."

Backing up the starters out of the bullpen will be experienced arms like Luis Rodriguez, Jose Rodriguez and Jairo Sanchez, all of whom will play critical roles in keeping the back end of games together.

Another arm that has late-game potential is newcomer Adensen Verasteigui. For a young arm he can already work with an average fastball that site between 88-91 and will scrape a little higher than that. He's an aggressive arm that will attack hitters in late game situations and despite his inexperience he should be a valuable member of the bullpen.

Eudis Idrogo and Cruz Cedeno will also see time out of the bullpen, though fans may have to wait to get their first taste of Cedeno as he awaits contract approval by Major League Baseball.

Working with the pitching staff will be a cast of four catchers that blend offensive and defensive potential among them.

Gabriel Tenia and Jose Ovalles return behind the plate for the Tigers this year, and they will be joined by rookies Franklin Navarro and Arvincent Perez.

Navarro and Tenia have earned an early reputation as the more offensive-minded backstops while Ovalles and Perez have a better reputation for working with the pitching staff and controlling the running game.

Tenia has been on the radar of TigsTown.com readers for a couple of years now as an athletic backstop with solid overall potential. He's still new to the position but the Tigers have hopes that he begins to translate athleticism to baseball skill this year.

"[We're] looking for some strides from him this year," said Moore confidently. "He's needed innings as a catcher. He's still learning the position and he's been a work in progress, but he's been improving. Hopefully his power is more consistent this year and he can be a middle-of-the-order threat for the club this year."

As is usually the case with the Tigers, all four catchers will split their time between donning the "tools of ignorance," filling in at designated hitter and getting reps at first base.

The rest of the infield will be held down by Steven Fuentes, Javier Betancourt, Jose Zambrano, David Alvarado and Eliezer Castillo.

Fuentes is likely to be the everyday guy at shortstop while Betancourt takes most of the reps at the keystone. Both players were priority signings for the club last summer and they should see plenty of time on the field this year, despite their extreme youth.

"Fuentes got some great experience in our early camp in January," commented Moore. "He got to spend some time around guys like Dixon Machado, Hernan Perez, David Gonzalez and Eugenio Suarez. Our hope is that he learned some things from those guys."

The Tigers weren't the only team interested in Fuentes last year as a scout for a rival American League club noted, "He's a hell of an athlete. He can do some things out there and he could be a player if the game slows down for him."

Guys like Alvarado and Castillo are what Tom Moore referred to as low- to mid-range bonus guys that "have some ability." Along with Zambrano, they will see time throughout the infield this summer before possibly settling in at a permanent position down the line.

The infield may also be propped up by an experienced player that the Tigers are working toward signing in the coming days. He was recently released by another organization and the club is working to bring him onto the roster for this summer.

The outfield will be highlighted by a converted catcher in Jhosua Montero. Though he only high .168/.202/.263 in 30 games last year, Montero has one of the higher ceilings among position players on the club.

"[He] is a sturdy, strong-framed guy," said Moore while detailing his scouting report. "The ball jumps off his bat really well. He has line-drive power now but there could be some home-run power as he adds some loft. He'll be a left fielder for us until he gets more comfortable, and then he could move to right."

Carlos Perez has arguably the second-best ceiling of the outfield group, and he will get plenty of time out there, as will Orvin Tovar. Perez has skills in every phase of the game while Tovar offers more of the advanced bat that should help keep the offense motoring along throughout the season.

Rounding up the outfielders, Anderson Yance will likely serve as the fourth outfielder that moves around plenty and still gets plenty of at-bats to showcase some of the pop he has in his bat.

In 2011 the Tigers finished with a pedestrian 29-42 record with an average age of just over 18-years old. While the team will remain very young in 2012, there is some optimism that the higher ceiling players littering the roster could make for a better record in the four-team VSL.

"I guarantee you we finish in the top four in the league," said Moore as he chuckled. "In all seriousness though, we're pretty excited about some of the talent we have down there this year. We've been fortunate and sent some really nice players to the States over the last few years, and I think we could send another three, four or five guys over after this year."

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