Any discussion about the Flying Tigers' roster likely includes some swooning over their rotation. And, rightfully so.
Lakeland's staff is headlined by 20-year-old phenom Jake Thompson. Last season, in just his first full-season of pro-ball, the right-hander posted an impressive 3.13 ERA with 91 strikeouts over 83 1/3 innings at Class-A West Michigan. Already featuring a mature build (6'4" and 240 pounds), Thompson features a low-90's sinking fastball, a slurvy breaking ball and an improved change-up.
Right-hander Endrys Briceno slots in the rotation behind Thompson. It's easy for the casual fan to scoff at Briceno's mediocre 4.47 ERA and 1.50 WHIP over 116 2/3 innings last season. The stuff is there though. The thin and wiry 6'5" Venezuelan features nice arm action, an effortless delivery and a projectable three-pitch arsenal, making it easy to dream on his potential.
Crafty southpaw Jordan John allowed just two homers and posted an impressive 2.92 ERA over 111 innings at Class-A West Michigan last season. The 23-year-old has a 6'3" 220 pound frame that screams future inning eater. Already touting some of the best command in the organization, John features a deep, solid-average four-pitch repertoire, including a fastball, slider, curveball and straight change.
Continuing with the trend, Edgar De La Rosa is also a giant at 6'6" and 240 pounds. The 23-year-old right-hander posted a 5.61 ERA over 120 1/3 innings last season. Numbers aside, there's plenty to dream about when evaluating DLR's game though. Armed with a fastball that is capable of scraping the mid-to-upper 90s (in short bursts) and a projectable change-up, DLR is definitely an intriguing arm to keep an eye on this season.
Rounding out the rotation, 24-year-old right-hander Kevin Eichhorn will see time in Lakeland for the third consecutive season.
The majority of the Tigers' top prospect relievers have graduated to the upper levels of the minors. Regardless, Lakeland's roster features a few intriguing bullpen arms and some solid org soldiers, making the pen a potential asset this season.
Cal Drummond pitched in a variety of roles last season with the Class-A Whitecaps. The right-hander posted a 2.23 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and 47 strikeouts over 40 1/3 innings. The 24-year-old features a 4-pitch arsenal, including a projectable low-to-mid 90's fastball and mid-80's slider.
Utilizing his deceptive 3/4 delivery, southpaw Josh Turley quietly racked up 79 strikeouts over 77 2/3 innings last season. Pitching in middle relief for the Whitecaps, Turley posted a 2.09 ERA and 1.04 WHIP. Turley possesses a kitchen sink for a repertoire, including a low-90's running fastball, a slider, a change and a knuckleball.
Right-hander Angel Nesbitt appears to have an early shot at closing out games for Lakeland this season. I had Nesbitt's fastball in the mid-to-upper 90's last season in West Michigan. Predominately bridging the gap in the latter innings last year, Nesbit posted a 3.22 ERA, striking out 54 over 67 innings of work.
Rounding things out, Brennan Smith, Slade Smith and Guido Knudson all return for their second taste of the FSL. Right-hander Yorfrank Lopez projects to be the Flying Tigers' long man in relief and Will Startup will be the second lefty in the 'pen.
Jeff Holm and Connor Harrell join the Flying Tigers outfield this season. Harrell enjoyed a hot spring, including a five at-bat span that yielded four no-doubter homers. Harrell was selected by the Tigers in the 7th round last season. Holm split time between the outfield and first-base last season. A MWL All-Star last year, Holm posted a respectable .270 batting average and .741 OPS with a team high 74 RBI. Chad Wright and Jeff McVaney also return to man Lakeland's outfield this season. McVaney was red-hot the first couple months of the '13 season, earning him a selection to the FSL All-Star Game in Dunedin. Wright put also together an impressive campaign last year, batting .286 and walking almost as much as he struck out (40BB/41K).
Manning shortstop and returning to Lakeland for his third consecutive season is the slick fielder Dixon Machado. The 22-year-old has battled injuries over the years and struggled mightily at the plate, failing to produce an OPS above .600 the past three seasons. Regardless, fans will be in for a treat, as Machado's defensive skill set is arguably tops in the Tigers' system.
Lance Durham and James Robbins will alternate between first-base and DH this season. Durham, 24, led the Whitecaps with 60 walks, 17 homers and 30 doubles last season. Robbins returns to Lakeland after struggling a bit last season in Double-A Erie. The 23-year-old had a season to forget, batting .224 with a .585 OPS, striking out 171 times.
Lakeland's infield also features some quality "dirtbag/grinder" types again this season in Tyler Hanover, Brandon Loy and Jared Reaves. While the trio lacks loud projectable tools, they bring their lunch pails every day, play the game hard and produce a solid product.
Featuring a nice combination of potential high-ceiling prospects, some gritty grinders and solid org soldiers, the 2014 edition of the Lakeland Flying Tigers should be an exciting team to watch.