When the August signing deadline approached last year the Tigers were in hot pursuit of 15th round pick Tyler Gibson. A Georgia prep product, the Tigers pulled him away from his college commitment with over $500,000 and in the process infused their system with a high upside, multi-tooled athlete.
"He's been interesting to watch," said Connecticut manager Andrew Graham. "He has had both good days and bad, but you can definitely see progress.
Gibson struggled in a four game cameo last fall, hitting just .143 in four games with the Gulf Coast League Tigers. Billed as a potential five-tool player that remains rough around the edges, those rough patches have been very evident over the last six weeks.
"He really needs to improve his pitch recognition," noted Graham. "He's getting himself out at times. The tools are real though. He can run and he's got some power in his bat too. If he can make progress with his approach, he could be exciting."
Gibson is destined to spend the summer back in the GCL as a 19-year old. While his numbers this summer may not reflect progress, game experience is the most vital need for Gibson in the short term, something he should get plenty of in rookie ball.
The Tigers went over slot in the 18th round last year as well, inking Nevada high schooler Brett Harrison at the last minute. Though he hit only marginally better (.238 in six games) than Gibson, Harrison has been a back-field star this spring.
"[He] has been my number three hitter when I manage," commented Graham. "He's arguably been the most consistent hitter we have in extended."
Harrison is a natural hitter with the ability to spray balls to all fields and while he lacks strength, he does have some bat speed and thump in his stroke.
"The way he has been hitting the ball, I won't be shocked if he forces his way to Connecticut this summer," said a club official. "He's lacing line drives everywhere!"
Though Harrison may see time in Connecticut before the year is over, he is likely to spend the first part of the summer in the GCL continuing to get his feet wet and hone his defense at third base; one part of his game that still requires some maturation.
Some lesser-known position players have also been making adjustments throughout extended spring. Corner infielders Jose Soledad and Jesus Ustariz and middle infielder Alwin Delgado are all getting acclimated to playing ball in the states.
"It's a big adjustment for them," said Graham. "You can see them growing and learning all the time. I think extended has really been a big help to them. They will keep growing all year long, but this has been a good foundation for them."
One Latin American player that had high hopes entering the year and has found himself demoted to the back fields is outfielder Danry Vasquez. After hitting just .162/.218/.222 in 29 games for West Michigan, the 18-year old Vasquez was sent back to Lakeland for additional seasoning.
"We were aggressive with him," said the club official. "You can see him getting his confidence back in extended. We still think very highly of him and I think you'll see a better performance out of him when the short-season teams start playing."
On the mound, right-hander Brenny Paulino has been a frequent topic of discussion among Tiger fans. Paulino had a chance to break camp with West Michigan this spring, but the Tigers opted to hold him back in extended spring training on a strengthening program, similar to what they did with left-hander Alex Burgos last season.
"He's making progress and getting stronger," said Tigertown Pitching Coordinator Greg Sabat. "It's too early to say where he'll go, but it's coming along every day."
There's still a chance Paulino could debut with West Michigan in the coming weeks, but the more likely destination at this point is the New York-Penn League with a possible promotion later on.
No matter where he lands, Paulino will be one to watch for Tiger fans, as he has one of the highest ceilings among pitchers in the Tigers system.
Several other Latin American pitchers are making waves in their first exposure to Stateside ball, including right-handers Yoel Espinol, Jose Valdez, Yorfrank Lopez and most impressively Angel Nesbitt.
"I don't know what it is, maybe something in the water, but Nesbitt's been up to 94 mph," said Director of International Operations Tom Moore. "He's another one of those guys that has seen a bump in velocity once coming to the States. It's exciting to see."
Right-hander Jose Valdez hasn't been shy about running his fastball up to 93 this spring while both Lopez and Espinol have shown more consistent low-90s readings since arriving in Lakeland.
"Some of these guys are starting to pop it a little better," said Graham. "They're surprising us a bit, but it is really exciting."
While the Tigers continue to work with numerous other players on the back fields, some like Brett Harrison and Angel Nesbitt begin making too much noise to be ignored. Along with the usual suspects like Tyler Gibson and Brenny Paulino, Tiger fans should be keeping an ear to the ground for progress from several of the other players mentioned.