TigsTown.com - James Chipman

2016 Lakeland Flying Tigers Preview

The Lakeland Flying Tigers open up the 2016 season Thursday as they host the Tampa Yankees. Due to Joker Marchant Stadium's major overhaul, Lakeland finds themselves calling Henley Field home, for the first time since 2002. Led by returning manager Dave Huppert, pitching coach Jorge Cordova and hitting coach Nelson Santovenia, the Flying Tigers look to rebound from yet another disappointing season last year.

Lakeland's roster is absolutely loaded with talent this season, including 17 members of the 2016 TigsTown Top 50. Unlike last season's squad that struggled mightily to score runs, this edition of the Flying Tigers -- at least on paper -- appears to pack some serious punch. The outfield features top prospects Christin Stewart, Mike Gerber and solid players in Ross Kivett and Ben Verlander.


Stewart, the Tigers supplemental first round pick in the 2015 draft, hit .285 with a .880 OPS across three levels, after quickly signing with the Tigers last June. The 22-year-old's projected above-average bat and power should anchor the heart of Lakeland's batting order.


Mike Gerber was one of the Tigers most improved prospects last year. The 23-year-old former 15th rounder torched MWL pitchers, posting an impressive .292 batting-average and .822 OPS over 513 at-bats at Class-A West Michigan.


Primarily known for his defense and arm-strength, Kivett hit .267 while swiping 28 bags over 524 games with the Class-A Whitecaps last season.


Providing some relief, Ben Verlander returns to Lakeland for a sophomore season after posting a .213 batting-average and .574 OPS for the Flying Tigers last season. The well-balanced outfield quartet should both patrol the field well and give opposing FSL pitching fits this season.


Leading the charge in the infield are rising prospects Zach Shepherd, who will man the hot corner and shortstop A.J. Simcox. Last season Shepherd held his own in an aggressive assignment in Class-A West Michigan, posting a .667 OPS as a 19-year-old. Meanwhile, Simcox, the Tigers 14th rounder from last year's draft posted a .330 batting-average and a .762 OPS, while flashing above-average defense across three levels.


Former 7th rounder Joey Pankake will be Lakeland's super-utility man, and familiar faces Curt Powell and Jared Reaves return to Lakeland for their third campaign with the Flying Tigers.


Over at the corner, Wade Hinkle expects to be Lakeland's everyday first-baseman. The 26-year-old hit .248 with a .706 OPS for the Double-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels last season.


Rounding out the position players are catchers Kade Scivicque and Grayson Greiner. Scivicque looks to build off of last season's solid .269 batting average and .714 OPS across two levels. On the flip side, Greiner looks to rebound from a disappointing season that saw him hit just .183, with a .504 OPS over 312 at-bats as Lakeland's primary backstop.


Unfortunately, Lakeland will begin the season without their ace, as right-hander Spencer Turnbull works his way back from injury. Last season Turnbull was 11-3 with a 3.01 ERA and 106 strikeouts over 116 2/3 innings. Turnbull, a former second-rounder, should anchor the staff once he returns.


Crafty southpaw and last year's second-rounder Tyler Alexander looks to build off last season's success. Alexander dominated the NYPL, posting a ridiculous 0.97 ERA and 0.59 WHIP over 37 innings.


Endrys Briceño returns to the Flying Tigers, giving them a solid 1-2-3 punch at the front end of the rotation. Now over a year and a half removed from Tommy John surgery, Briceño seems poised for the breakout season that Tigers prospectors have been clamoring for.


Rounding out the back-end of the rotation, Lakeland features Artie Lewicki and Jairo Labourt. Lewicki rebounded from a slow start, posting a 3.18 ERA over 12 second half starts, and a strong post-season. The third piece in the package that sent David Price to Toronto, Labourt struggled in his brief tenure with Lakeland down the stretch. Labourt's electric fastball, promising slider and left-handedness make him a prospect to keep an eye on this season in Lakeland.


The Flying Tigers bullpen is anchored by flame-throwing prospect Joe Jimenez. Armed with an electric fastball and wipeout slider, Jimenez tormented MWL batters last season, posting a 1.47 ERA, 0.79 WHIP and 61 strikeouts over 43 innings.


Edgar De La Rosa missed most of last season thanks to torn Lat muscle. "De La" is healthy and excited to return to Lakeland where his high-90s fastball and bulldog mound presence will be utilized to bridge the gap to Jimenez late in games. Undersized right-hander Johan Belisario continued to defy the odds and silence the naysayers last season, posting a 1.79 ERA with 54 strikeouts over 55 1/3 innings. Rounding out the hard-throwing, late-inning relief quartet is Adam Ravenelle, who is finally healthy, and reportedly now throwing mid-90s heat as well. Adenson Verastegui, Jeff Thompson, Gage Smith, and Willy Paredes round of the rest of Lakeland's impressive pitching staff.


Armed with a roster filled with legit prospects and a solid supporting cast of org soldiers, the Flying Tigers should be an interesting team to watch this season.

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