With Manager Andrew Graham at the helm the CT-Tigers will look to improve on last year's 39-35 record and a narrowly missing the playoffs. Graham will be rejoined in Connecticut by pitching coach Jorge Cordova while his new hitting coach will be former Tigers prospect Mike Rabelo.
With short-season baseball it is difficult to establish sound expectation for the team. Many of the new draftees, of which the Tigers roster currently has eleven, are unknowns to the coaching staff and many of the younger players are being tested in larger ball parks and under the lights for the first time.
"We're a lot younger than we were last year," said Graham during Saturday's media day in Norwich. "It will be really interesting to see how this plays out."
The youth of the team isn't the only thing that could make things interesting this year. Many of the youngest players on the roster noted their excitement over playing under the lights; a very different experience for most of them and the realization of a dream come true.
"We just expect them to play hard," said hitting coach Mike Rabelo. "We expect them to represent themselves and the organization in a professional manner and the rest will take care of itself. The guys in that locker room don't know what to expect, so how can we know what to expect out of them?"
Though team expectations remain murky, individual expectations can be vetted from amateur track records and progress during extended spring training.
The Tigers will have two catchers making their professional debuts in the NYPL with eleventh round pick Ben Pickar and 37th round pick Charlie Neil.
Pickar joins the Tigers with a reputation as one of college baseball's best defenders behind the dish. His catch and throw skills stood out during the team's Saturday workout and the early expectation is that he should help control the opposing team's running game.
"That kid can throw it," said a veteran area scout that covered Pickar in college. "He should gun some guys down right out of the gate in pro ball. He'll have a reputation real quick."
At the other end of the spectrum, Neil offers interesting tools but remains very raw. A local college product, having played four years just down the road at Yale, Neil focused more on soccer in college than baseball. His inexperience was evident during workouts this weekend but the raw tools were also on display, making him a fun player to watch this summer.
Throwing to Pickar and Neil will be a blend of college talent from the last two drafts and several young Latin American prospects that are getting their first taste of Stateside ball outside of Lakeland.
The Opening Day starter will be right-hander Montreal Robertson. A 29th round pick in 2011, Robertson posted a 2.73 ERA in 24 relief appearances with the GCL Tigers last summer. More impressive than his raw numbers were consistent reports from scouts and coaches that he was dialing his fastball up to 97 mph last year.
"We converted him to the rotation during extended," noted Graham. "He's stretched out pretty good. He was working consistently 92-93 with his fastball and was even showing 96 once in a while as a starter."
Though the rotation is expected to change throughout the season due to promotions and inning restrictions, Graham expects right-handers Edgar De La Rosa and Endrys Briceno, and left-hander Jack Duffey to round out the rotation for the first few games.
All three known starters were impressive at times last year in the GCL. De La Rosa finished his 2011 season with a 3.19 ERA in 12 starts. He stands in at 6-foot-6 and is beginning to fill out his frame, giving him an imposing presence and the potential to be a breakout performer in the NYPL this summer.
Fifth round pick Joe Rodgers joined the team on Saturday just in time for the team's workout and he may see some time in the rotation as well. A polished college pitcher that doesn't lack raw stuff, Rodgers will be one of the more promising players to watch on the pitching staff.
The bullpen makeup continues the blend of college and young Latin arms. Recent draftees Matt Davenport, Charles Gillies, Alex Phillips and Slade Smith all figure to get plenty of opportunities to show the staff what they have, and they are expected to be joined by fourth round pick Drew VerHagen once his contract and physical are finalized in Lakeland. For all of these new draftees, the excitement of starting their professional careers is palpable.
"I'm really anxious to get started," said Phillips. "I'm going to have to make some adjustments. It's going to take a lot of concentration and dedication. I have to be mentally ready every day. That's a lot different than college ball."
Right-hander Angel Nesbitt has been turning heads in extended spring training. After sitting 88-90 mph with his fastball in the DSL last year, Nesbitt showed up in Lakeland pumping 92-93 mph heat this spring, making him a potential late inning arm for the CT-Tigers once he gains experience.
Free agent signing Efrain Nieves should provide a veteran presence to the bullpen as a solid lefty. Nieves won't be the only veteran lefty, as 2011 20th round pick Tyler Barrett returns to Connecticut to help round out the relief staff as well. Barrett started six games for the Tigers last year, posting a 4.95 ERA before elbow problems shut him down for the rest of the season.
"With the time off after the inflammation last year, my arm feels good," said Barrett. "It's a different mindset for me this year as a reliever. Instead of trying to save some as a starter, I have to give it my all for three outs and just get through the inning. It's an exciting opportunity."
Also in the bullpen will be right-handers Eric Heckaman, Jake Sabol and Tim Kelley, all of whom should provide some solid innings of relief for the Tigers this year.
The pitching staff will be backed by an infield that should provide solid defense and contribute to the offense as well.
The top prospect on the infield is third baseman Brett Harrison. Harrison signed as an over-slot guy in the 18th round last summer. After playing just seven games after signing in August, he stood out as one of the most impressive and most consistent players in extended spring training.
"[He] is a really nice looking young player," said roving instructor Kevin Bradshaw. "He looked good in Lakeland this spring. We'll have to see how he handles it here. This will be a big test for him."
Up the middle the Tigers will rely on recent draftees Jared Reaves and Jordan Dean and third-year pro Carlos De Los Santos. During workouts on Saturday, the coaching staff had Dean at second and Reaves at short, an arrangement that should be fairly consistent this year.
For Dean, making his professional debut isn't just about taking the next step in his baseball career, but about wearing a uniform he's only dreamed about.
"I grew up going to Tiger games," said the local Midland and Central Michigan product. "My Dad took me to games all the time as a kid. This is really exciting!"
The primary first baseman for the Tigers will be the perennial leader of the Tigers All-Name Team with 6-foot-4 Juaner Aguasvivas. As a 21-year old in the GCL last year, Aguasvivas ripped the cover off the ball to the tune of a .315/.364/.567 line that fans can only hope he duplicates in the difficult offensive environment of the NYPL.
Infielder Edgar Corcino will see time all over the infield, including third base and first base, and possibly even second base.
"We had him at second when we needed him to be more of a utility guy," said Graham. "I'm going to play the hot hand this year. If Corcino is hitting, he'll be in the lineup. If they're all hitting, well, that's a good problem to have and we'll just have to figure it out."
The outfield is home to the top ranked prospect on this year's squad with 18-year old Danry Vasquez. Vasquez ranked number three in the TigsTown.com Top 50 entering the season and he debuted with West Michigan in April. After hitting a paltry .162 in 29 games for the Whitecaps, Vasquez was demoted to extended spring training and will look to get his season back on track in Connecticut.
"I don't think he's ever failed before," said Kevin Bradshaw on Saturday. "We have to see how he handles that mentally. He's still got to come to the park ready to play every day. That's the test for him."
At his best, Vasquez is an outstanding pure hitter with a frame that suggests he should have some power down the line.
Vasquez will be joined in the outfield by Edwin Gomez, Patrick Smith, Jeff McVaney and Zach Kirksey. Gomez was a fourth round pick of the Tigers in 2009 and while he has begun to fill out his 6-foot-3 body, he remains extremely raw as a baseball player.
Smith may be the team's best defender in the outfield and he should help save the pitching staff some runs with his ability to go get it in the gaps. Another player with a little exposure to the higher levels this year, Smith played eight games with West Michigan, hitting just .071 with a home run.
"After going up to West Michigan I know I have to make some adjustments," said Smith. "You have to learn something new every day and I think I learned some things there. I'm excited to get going and try to make those adjustments."
McVaney and Kirksey joined the Tigers on Saturday and should see some time almost immediately with the club. McVaney was the Tigers eighth round pick earlier this month and he should see most of his time in left field, while Kirksey was a 29th round pick out of Mississippi and he should spend most of his time as the club's designated hitter.
With the roster having an excellent blend of raw prospects, veteran players and new college products, the CT-Tigers do have the makings of being both an intriguing team for prospect-watchers and a competitive team for the fans in Norwich.
"I saw the guys on the field for the first time [Friday]," said Vice President and General Manager CJ Knudson. "It's an exciting time of year and I think this team can win some games this year."