Lakeland has used excellent starting pitching and solid hitting from one through nine in the order to convert games into wins. But over the coming weeks the team is likely to start feeling the effects of this success and potentially start losing some players to the next level on the Tigers' ladder, AA Erie.
The first (and most obvious) promotion will be for that of Justin Verlander. The team is keeping Verlander in Lakeland until the All Star game, which is this Saturday, the 18th, in Clearwater. No official announcement has been made, but Verlander appears to be the odds-on favorite to be the starter for the West division All Stars. But once that has passed, Verlander will become the third member of Lakeland's original rotation to leave the group (the first being Cristhian Martinez to elbow surgery, the second being Virgil Vasquez to Erie).
Fear not though, as Lakeland won't see the bottom fall out on them just yet. The club will still have Nate Bumstead and Jordan Tata (also both All Stars) to head up the rotation, and with the crowd at Erie, it's likely that they'll remain in Lakeland for the duration of the season, especially considering Lakeland has already clinched a playoff spot as the division's first half winner.
The other three rotation spots will be filled by Preston Larrison as he continues to work his way back from Tommy John surgery, Randor Bierd (just sent to Lakeland after a few starts in Erie) and Eulogio DeLa Cruz, who has been starting for most of the '05 season despite his likely future in the bullpen. Daniel Zell, who has been a swingman for the past couple years, could also fill in.
Another pitcher who probably won't be placed in the rotation just yet but that is making his way back is Felix Sanchez. Sanchez, who was acquired for Jon Connolly last spring, underwent surgery shortly after being acquired by the Tigers and hadn't pitched since. That changed when Sanchez made his debut last week with Lakeland. The 23-year old lefty has a fastball that can reach the upper 90's, but is said to have better control than the Tigers last experiment with a flame-throwing lefty, Steve Colyer.
Sanchez pitched in three games before returning to the disabled list just a couple days ago. No word yet on whether it was just a flare up, if they needed the roster spot to get Preston Larrison back, or if it was something potentially more serious. For now, Sanchez is on the disabled list, but hopefully he'll back soon, as the Tigers really like his arm, but need him to be on the mound and pitching for it to be useful.
Finally we finish up with a little mentioned catcher that just keeps hitting away and being a great benefit to his pitching staff. Danilo Sanchez quietly emerged as West Michigan's most reliable hitter last year, anchoring the lineup as one of the more experienced (read: older) players on the team.
This year, Sanchez has bounced around the order, but is producing wherever he's been placed, as he is tied for the team lead in home runs with 11, and currently sports an .831 OPS. Sanchez's .484 slugging percentage also puts him in the lead on the team for highest slugging percentage among the eligible hitters. Brent Clevlen, Kody Kirkland and the pitching staff may be getting most of the headlines, but Sanchez is the one out of the spotlight helping drive the machine that has become the L-Tigers.