Before diving too deeply into previewing the 2012 DSL Tigers, it must be noted that the club begins the season with a heavy heart. In January, as players made their way to the Tigers' Dominican complex, a public bus was in a severe accident that involved four Tiger players.
First baseman Juaner Aguasvivas, outfielder Javier Romero and pitchers Pedro Aybar and Adrian Paniagua were all injured to varying degrees. Aguasvivas suffered an injured hand and has since returned to action. Pedro Aybar is still dealing with a fracture eye socket and may not return until later this year. Paniagua and Romero are both hampered by injuries with their hip; Romero's of a more serious nature as one source recalled he "dislocated" his hip.
Without those three returning players, several young Tigers will be looked upon to step up and fill roles previously occupied.
Behind the plate the Tigers will be led by 20-year old Felix Santana. Coming off a year where he hit a very pedestrian .087/.125/.087 in just 13 games, the Tigers are poised to lean on him for the bulk of the innings behind the dish.
Newcomer Sandy Rodriguez has shown some promising defensive skills and a solid offensive approach for his age, but he likely won't see more than sporadic time behind the plate. Also seeing some action back there will be veteran Omar Oses, who gives the team a little flexibility with the possibility of playing the outfield as well.
The infield corners have the potential to provide some serious juice to the everyday lineup, led by big six-figure signing Adelyn Santa.
"We signed him for his power and arm strength," noted Director of International Operations Tom Moore. "He's day-to-day right now with a cut on his hand, but he's going to be the primary third baseman this year. We've got some high hopes for him."
Also mixing in at third base will be third-year pro Victor Ovalles. After hitting .107 in 11 games during his rookie year, Ovalles missed the entire 2011 season with a severe hamstring injury that he rehabbed at the Tigers' stateside complex in Lakeland.
"The hamstring is finally healed," said Moore. "He's DHing early because his shoulder is barking a little bit, but he's swinging the bat really well. Hopefully he can perform well and show that our patience with his injury was worth it."
Across the diamond, the primary first baseman will be sophomore Lenny Pena. The 20-year old Pena has a very good frame, standing 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, with plenty of natural strength. He has some of the more intriguing power potential on the team and there are hopes that he can be a vocal leader for the team as well.
Up the middle the Tigers will be relying on rookie Manuel Joseph at shortstop and Eurys Felipe.
"[Joseph] is a really good defender," said one NL scout.
"He's got lots of good instincts," noted Moore. "He's a small, wiry guy but he can really hit and he's really impressed me early on."
Felipe has earned praise as a "gamer" that is a heady player that loves to play and can be a plus runner at times. He's a solid second baseman that should help at the top of the order this summer.
While there's some punch around the infield, the outfield could offer plenty of intrigue as well.
The big ticket in the outfield will be right fielder Ignacio Valdez. The Tigers signed Valdez during the offseason and with some impressive scouting reports coming out of the Dominican Prospect League, there are high expectations for his debut season.
"He has a big-league body right now," said Moore enthusiastically. "He's an imposing guy with a real strong body. He's an average runner and he has some athleticism that gives him a little remaining projection. The ball really jumps off his bat!"
On the other outfield corner, Felix "Bam Bam" Santana is a bat-first guy that can put a charge in the ball. He's made some strides defensively but is still a prospect based on his bat.
Veteran and former shortstop Samuel Crafort has moved to center field and already shown solid defensive skills to go along with good athleticism and some interesting offensive potential.
While the offense may carry the DSL Tigers this year, the pitching staff still has a few names that fans should pay attention to.
As always, the Tigers will continue to employ a piggy-back or tandem starter arrangement that limits innings on young arms. Under that situation, very few arms will be designated as relievers only.
"Burgos is probably going to work as our closer this year," said Moore. "He's got the stuff and mentality to pitch in that role. He's wired for the end of games. He doesn't have the pure power stuff of last year's closer (Jose Valdez), but he still has an average fastball and good finish to his breaking ball."
Montero drew praise at the end of the 2011 season because of his ability to run his fastball up to 94 mph and he has shown some flashes of harnessing that power arm this spring.
In addition to those four relievers, the Tigers have signed three veteran players to help fill out the bullpen. Left-hander Jesus Guzman and right-handers Gregorio Minier and Daniel Falcon will all see plenty of action late in game situations as the team tries to preserve as many wins as possible.
One more reliever that may see action later in the year is right-hander Walter Lachapel. Presently, Lachapel is rehabbing from a minor shoulder injury and the club hopes he will be able to take the mound soon.
Of the starters, guys like Harold Rosario and Sandy Baez are two guys that could stand out this year.
"Rosario has made some impressive improvements," said Moore. "The breaking ball is more impressive now and the fastball has come along and he uses it well down in the zone."
Baez has really impressed some of the Tigers brass' as well. He likes to take the ball every few days and he really gets after hitters.
"I really think he could come stateside next year," said Moore. "His fastball is just below average but he has plenty of projection remaining."
Ivan Santana should see some time in the rotation later this summer, but the Tigers are still awaiting approval of his contract from MLB.
Tiger fans that follow the lower levels closely may recall TigsTown talking about Manzanillo in the past because of his ability to touch 95 mph with his fastball. He's made some strides and the 2012 season could be a big one in his development.
The Tigers will be leaning heavily on first-year and relatively inexperienced pitchers to carry the load and keep the team in ball games, leading many to believe the offense will have to carry the squad.
"With the guys we added, having Ovalles healthy and Santana with another year under his belt, I'm confident in the potential of the offense and the depth of position players," said Moore in closing.