2014 Connecticut Tigers Year in Review

With first-year manager Mike Rabelo at the helm the Connecticut Tigers finished the season with a trip to the playoffs and a 42-34 record. Rabelo, previously the team’s hitting coach, showed well in his managerial debut, and the results backed that up.

The Tigers relied heavily on college draftees from 2013 and 2014 with outfielders like Kasey Coffman, Michael Gerber, and Ross Kivett playing key roles in the offensive success of the team. Gerber, the Tigers 15th round pick this summer, finished the summer with seven bombs, enough to tie for seventh in the league, all while playing half of his games in a park that can be nearly impossible to drive the ball over the fence.

Infielders Joey Pankake and Brett Pirtle also chipped in with strong contributions following their draft selection in June. Pankake demonstrated why his bat made him a high round pick, hitting .292 with 16 doubles, two triples, and two home runs.

“I’m not sure where [Pankake] is going to play long term, but the kid can hit,” said one NL scout. “He has a smooth swing, understands the strike zone, and can drive the ball to all fields. I love the way he wears out the middle of the diamond. I’ll take his bat and figure out a place to play him.”

On top of those two recent draftees contributing to the infield, the Tigers Latin American pipeline supplied some talent to the Conncticut offense as well. Top 30 propsect Domingo Leyba played with confidence and hit .264 with a knack for finding the barrel despite playing the summer at just 18-years old.

In addition to Leyba, third baseman Steven Fuentes really made a name for himself with a strong close to the season. After playing sparingly at the outset of the NYPL campaign, Fuentes exploded with a .326/.390/.558 line in August. Fuentes has always been an explosive athlete with strength in his swing, and with the progress he displayed throughout his most challenging assignment as a professional, he has re-asserted himself as a prospect to watch in the Tigers system.

Throughout the rest of the roster the Tigers received intermittent contributions, and while his .203 average and two extra-base hits in 19 games doesn’t jump off the page, people paid attention when first-round pick Derek Hill was added to the Tigers roster in July. An 18-year old outfielder, Hill is loaded with tools and while he struggled at times to adjust to the level of competition, the talent was evident from the outset.

“I was surprised they pushed him to this league this year,” commented an opposing NYPL manager. “[Hill] clearly need to continue developing and this was a challenging assignment for him. That said, you can’t ignore the tools and I saw enough to believe he’s going to turn into an exciting player.”

With an offense that ranked near the top of the Penn league, it would be easy to assume the Tigers made the playoffs on the back of their bats, but that would not be the case. The Tigers did plenty from the mound as well, allowing 3.86 runs per game, good enough for fourth in the league.

After the staff started with a roster full of youth and inexperience as the organization completed their initial evaluations of the 2014 draft picks, the club began to take shape with an influx of experienced arms capable of handling the rigors of the NYPL.

The Tigers received strong performances from pitchers like Chase Edwards and Fernando Perez, and every fifth day the Tigers second round pick – Spencer Turnbull – took to the bump and flashed the type of stuff that gives him a Major league projection. Returning arms like Austin Pritcher and Tanner Bailey made strong contributions as well, but the Tigers success relied heavily on the incredible performance of their bullpen.

Twenty year old right-hander Johan Belisario finished the summer with a microscopic 0.79 ERA and allowed only 31 base runners in 34 innings.

“Belisario really surprised me,” noted an AL talent evaluator. “He walked out there with that tiny frame and started pumping solid-average fastballs in the 90-93 range and showed a nice breaking ball. He’s got a chance to pitch at higher levels.”

As if Belisario’s impressive campaign wasn’t enough, 2014 draft pick Gabe Hemmer devoured NYPL hitters; giving up just 19 hits in 25-1/3 innings, walking only six batters, and fanning a fantastic 41 hitters. Hemmer’s approach is slider heavy, but the slider is good enough and backed up by a fastball that can reach 95 mph, that he can make it work.

Yet another power reliever, Joe Jimenez flashed the most impressive velocity on the roster, running his fastball as high as 98 mph at times this year, and sitting in the 94-96 mph range night in and night out. Jimenez pitched one more inning than Hemmer, but matched his 41 punch outs and six walks. With the extra velocity, above-average slider, and an aggressive approach, you can see a high-leverage future for Jimenez, and he could move quickly through the system next year.

Rounding out the high-powered, dominating relievers, recent draft choices Josh Laxer and Paul Voekler both showed frequent mid-90s heat and the potential to advance through the Tigers system as quality relievers.

In the end, the combination of a 3.13 team ERA, 3.12 team strikeout-to-walk ratio, and a .260 average with 186 extra-base hits led to a balanced approach that afforded the Tigers the opportunity to win in a variety of ways. The Tigers used that flexibility to push themselves into the playoffs in Rabelo’s first season at the helm, a feat they will attempt to duplicate when the 2015 season rolls around.

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