Finishing the regular season with an overall record of 73-58, the Flying Tigers reached the playoffs for the first time since 2005--thanks to a (37-29) first place finish during the seasons' second half. After sweeping Dunedin in the first round, the Flying Tigers defeated the Jupiter Hammerheads in the Championship Series' deciding game five--on the 20th anniversary of Lakeland's last championship.
Stocked with potential big leaguers at nearly every position, the 2012 Flying Tigers displayed some of the most talented players they have had in several years. Collectively, the Flying Tigers recorded an FSL best .267 batting average, and their .713 OPS was also in the top third of the league this season.
The star-studded Flying Tigers' lineup was led by top-prospects Nick Castellanos and Avisail Garcia for the majority of the first half of the season. Tormenting Florida State League pitchers, Castellanos paced the league with a ridiculous .405 batting average and 1.014 OPS during his 55-games with the club. Meanwhile, Garcia posted a .289 batting average and .771 OPS for Lakeland. Representing the North Division's All-Star squad, Garcia also won the Home Run Derby.
Corner outfielder Tyler Collins (.290 AVG .800 OPS) just may have been Lakeland's most valuable player this season. Collins posted a team-high 35 doubles 5 triples and 66 RBIs. Chipping in 20 steals and a team high 58 walks, Collins displayed his well-rounded game on a nightly basis. He routinely came up with the "big hit" and was an intricate part of Lakeland's success in the post-season.
Hernan Perez (.261 AVG .636 OPS) lead the team in steals (27), played outstanding defense and even recorded his first hit during a brief one-game call-up to the Detroit Tigers this season.
Despite battling the Mendoza line most of the season, shortstop Dixon Machado (.195 AVG .534 OPS) routinely put on a clinic defensively, showcasing his highly touted defensive skills.
In similar fashion, it's easy to scoff at first baseman James Robbins' numbers (.237 AVG .677 OPS) and FSL best 171 strikeouts. However, Robbins made it count when he did make contact, driving in 62 runs while recording 29 doubles and nine homers.
Despite losing most of their roster to Double-A Erie through promotions, Lakeland's squad remained competitive and in the hunt. Veterans Wade Gaynor (.254 AVG, .797 OPS) and Marcus Lemon (.324 AVG, .833 OPS) were key cogs in Lakeland's second half surge. Flashing his clutch bat, Gaynor slugged a team-high 14 homers and recorded 18 doubles and 65 RBIs.
Lakeland received a huge spark from Dean Green (.348 AVG .928 OPS) down the stretch as well; over 38 games Green clubbed 11 doubles, two triples, three homers and 36 RBIs.
From a pitching standpoint, the Flying Tigers' stingy bullpen featured some of the teams' top contributors this season. Their ability to put up zeros kept the team in the game, setting up numerous come-from-behind wins.
Armed with an electric fastball that routinely hit triple digits, Bruce Rondon may have exceeded his already lofty expectations, anchoring Lakeland's 'pen early on, and excelling in both Double-A Erie and Triple-A Toledo this season. The 21-year-old Venezuelan native notched 15 saves, posting a 1.93 ERA and 0.94 WHIP over 23 1/3 innings with Lakeland.
Following Rondon's departure, right-hander Tyler Clark stepped up and embraced the closer role, posting eye-popping numbers. Clark (6-1, 0.63 ERA) recorded nine saves and allowed just three earned runs over 42 2/3 innings with Lakeland. Regardless of his prospect status, Clark was arguably Lakeland's top pitcher this season.
In the shadows of Rondon and Clark, crafty southpaw Matt Crouse quietly put together an impressive season of his own. Regardless of the inning he was called upon, Crouse (8-2, 1.91 ERA) was a clutch arm, delivering in nearly every role imaginable for Lakeland this season.
At 25-years-old, right-hander Victor Larez (4-1, 1.72 ERA) was anything but young for the FSL. Regardless, his ability to limit base runners and bridge the gap to the later innings was an intricate part of Lakeland's success this season.
Rotation: Some Struggled, Some Succeeded
Luis Angel Sanz was one of Lakeland's most reliable starting pitchers this season. Sanz recorded an FSL best 11 wins and his 3.46 ERA was fifth best on the circuit. The 24-year-old right-hander also had the honor of being battery mates with his brother, catcher Luis Alberto Sanz.
Prior to his promotion and eventual trade to the Marlins' organization, prospect Brian Flynn was a key contributor, routinely tossing quality starts, giving Lakeland a chance to win ball games. The 22-year-old southpaw was 8-4 with a 3.71 ERA over 102 innings for the Flying Tigers.
On the flip side, 2012 was a season to forget for highly touted pitching prospect Alex Burgos (8-10, 4.90 ERA). The 21-year-old missed bats less frequently, and posted a less than stellar 1.67 WHIP over 121 2/3 innings--thanks largely in part to his FSL best 88 walks. Burgos will have a chance to make adjustments and get back on track this fall during instructs in Lakeland.
Fellow rotation member Shawn Teufel (5-7, 6.64 ERA) struggled mightily as well. Teufel got hit hard and often--137 hits--and walked 52 over 107 innings, yielding a 1.77 WHIP.
As the season came to a close, both Warwick Saupold (3.77 ERA) and Drew VerHagen (3.67 ERA) logged a small handful of starts; filling spaces left by injuries and promotions. Both Saupold and VerHagen showed promise and were solid additions to the Flying Tigers' rotation.
Big Leaguers Lend A Hand
Jacob Turner--the Tigers' top prospect heading into the season--made four starts for Lakeland this season on a rehab assignment. Turner posted a shiny 1.66 ERA and 1.11 WHIP, striking out 17 over 21 2/3 innings prior to his promotion and eventual trade to the Miami Marlins' organization.
This season also brought the Flying Tigers rehab appearances from three Detroit Tigers' relievers. Right-handers Luis Marte, Al Alburquerque, and southpaw Daniel Schlereth all saw action in Lakeland this season.
From a developmental view, this past season was hands down one of the best seasons in recent memory. The majority of the prospects that passed through Lakeland saw their stock rise.
James R. Chipman is the Lakeland Flying Tigers correspondent for TigsTown. Be sure to follow him on twitter @JAYRC_TigsTown.