With the draft not even a full two weeks in the rearview mirror, the Tigers roster will be in flux for several more weeks, before hopefully settling in for a strong playoff push as the calendar turns to August. The most uncertainty on the roster resides with the pitching staff, as the organization's player development staff works to establish workload limits for the new players; many of whom have been worked hard throughout their college season and careers.
Headlining the pitching staff will be first round pick Jonathon Crawford who recently signed for just over $2 million. Crawford may not spend long in the New York-Penn League, but while he is there, fans should expect some dominating performances from a right-hander than can run his fastball up to 95 mph and whose slider can miss bats.
Also seeing time with the pitching staff will be top ten picks Buck Farmer, Calvin Drummond and Zach Reininger. They will be joined by a host of other draft prospects, including Jon Maciel, Austin Pritcher, Johnnie Kirkland, Joe Mantiply, Scott Sitz, Ryan Beck, Brett Huber and Tanner Bailey.
Returning to the CT Tigers in 2013 will be left-hander Alex Phillips, who Graham expects to take the ball in tonight's season opener against Lowell. The 23-year old Phillips was a 21st round pick last year and posted a 2.51 ERA in 32-1/3 innings of relief work last year. So far this year, Phillips tossed one game for the West Michigan Whitecaps, giving up four runs on six hits in just two innings.
Also coming back to Connecticut is massive right-hander Hunter Scantling. Scantling allowed just seven hits in 22 innings last year for the club and the 6-foot-8 behemoth could be in line to be a key cog in the bullpen again this summer.
Three pitchers promoted from last year's Gulf Coast League squad will also look to contribute as Nick Carmichael, Drew Harrison and Preston Jamison will all be making the trip north. All three pitchers offer some upside and versatility to the team, but they remain raw and will need some work this season.
On the receiving end of the pitching staff will be undrafted free agent Tim Remes and 13th round pick Austin Green.
"Those guys will split time to start the year," noted Graham in a conversation over the weekend. "Green showed us some good arm strength in practice and I think he might emerge as the primary guy, but we'll see."
16th round pick Duncan McAlpine may also see limited action behind the plate, but he will be moved around to help the club at third base, first base and designated hitter as well. The Tigers have a long term plan that includes McAlpine moving behind the plate permanently, but he has not played the position regularly in recent years and he will work back into the fold.
The primary first baseman on Opening Day will be Venezuelan Summer League veteran Jesus Ustariz. He will be spelled by Duncan occasionally and could also give way to 14th rounder Ben Verlander at times.
The Tigers primary second basemen will be 40th rounder Taylor Johnson and 12th rounder Dominic Ficociello. Ficociello can play third base as well but the club intends to have him see most of his action at the keystone, where he shows good actions and surprising quickness for a player his size.
"[Johnson] really surprised us in practice given his draft round," said Graham. "He really jumped out at Rabs (hitting coach Mike Rabelo) and me the last couple of days."
The left side of the infield will be handled by third baseman Brett Harrison and shortstops Curt Powell and Javier Azcona. Harrison started last summer with the CT Tigers but was sent back to the GCL after hitting just .156 in his first 19 games. Azcona has been slipping from the prospect radar in recent years, having not seen the field since hitting .232 in 52 games for the 2011 Connecticut Tigers. Azcona has not been on an active roster in over a year and a half, for reasons the club will not disclose.
"Azcona came back and joined us in extended a couple months ago," said Graham on Sunday. "Since he came back he has been nothing short of impressive. He really looks good."
Previously, Azcona was a highly thought of prospect out of the Dominican Republic, ranked 24th by TigsTown following the 2010 season, and 47th following the 2011 season.
The CT Tigers outfield offers its own prospect intrigue with the younger brother of Tigers ace Justin Verlander, Ben, making his professional debut on an outfield corner. Joining him in the outfield will be TigsTown Top 50 prospects Austin Schotts and Tyler Gibson, as well as tenth round pick Kasey Coffman.
Schotts was recently sent from West Michigan to Connecticut after hitting a paltry .192 with only eight extra-base hits in 59 games at Low-A. Schotts was clearly overmatched at that level, but his speed and promising defense in center field could play well in the NYPL this summer.
An over-slot signee in 2011, Gibson is one of the toolsiest players in the entire system, offering exceptional athleticism, good speed, good defense and plenty of raw power. His hitting ability remained extremely raw last year as he batted only .157 with 68 strikeouts in 52 games in the GCL last year.
"[Gibson] really struggled early on in extended," commented Graham. "Then it seemed like something clicked for him and he got his average up to about .280 or so before the end. He's still pretty raw but some things are starting to go his way."
With a roster still in flux and a young crop of players that will be adjusting to life as professional baseball players, expectations are hard to peg for this year's team. But with prospects like Schotts, Harrison, Crawford, and Azcona, there should be some exciting times at Dodd Stadium this summer.