When a team brings in almost every major contributor from a team that won its league, one has to feel good about the upcoming season. Add to that the fact that the team returned Brent Clevlen, easily the top hitter of the group, one that simply need to battle through some adversity, and you had quite a team in the making.
Well, that's exactly what Lakeland got.
After running away with the first half division title, they held on for the second half division title as well, laying claim to the undisputed division crown of the West division.
Unfortunately, the L-Tigers, as they're so affectionately known, fell just a bit short, losing to Palm Beach in the final round of the Florida State League playoffs. Despite falling short, that shouldn't take away from the great season Lakeland had.
Leading the way were a few of the top performers in the entire organization, starting with Clevlen.
After a poor 2004 for Clevlen in which his offensive numbers across the board fell, he made a comeback in a big way. Clevlen had a huge start to the year, and after correcting some minor issues in his swing, picked things back up and went on to have a true breakout season. Not only did Clevlen lead the FSL with 102 RBI, but he also posted an OPS of .871.
Of course, Clevlen wasn't the only hitter to emerge for Lakeland. While Joker Marchant Stadium is typically regarded as more of a pitcher's park, that didn't stop Lakeland's offense from powering up. Six of Lakeland's players reached 16 home runs or more, including 22 by Danilo Sanchez and 23 by Garth McKinney.
Those big hitters weren't the only ones getting the L-Tigers to the elite level in the Florida State League, as they also got plenty of production from the top of the order hitters. Those that emerged were mainly Vincent Blue and Juan Francia (before he was promoted to AA Erie).
Blue, besides continuing to swipe bases – he took 40 by he way – improved his plate discipline substantially, walking once every 11 times he came to bat, while lowering his strikeout numbers.
To say that the team's meteoric rise to the top was due to the offenisve onslaught would be forgetting the incredible pitching the team received, including from the top, where the team's top three pitchers all absolutely dominated the opposition.
Any discussion involving dominating and pitching has to start with Justin Verlander, who quickly emerged as not just one of the best pitchers in the organization, but simply one of the best pitchers in all of minor league baseball. With a dominating fastball and excellent complimentary pitches, it's no wonder how Verlander carried a 1.67 ERA through 13 starts with Lakeland.
After those 13 starts, Verlander was moved up to Erie, but the other two "aces" of the team remained; Jordan Tata and Nate Bumstead. Both Tata and Bumstead would remain in Lakeland for the duration of the year, proving to be two of the best pitchers in Florida, recording 25 wins compared to just six losses.
Eulogio DeLa Cruz emerged as the reliever the Tigers had been hoping he'd become, possibly in part because the Tigers moved him into the rotation for part of the year, forcing him to use his off-speed pitches. DeLa Cruz recorded more than a strikeout per inning, which is more than what can be said for any other member of the pitching staff.
It all wraps up with the L-Tigers falling just short of a Florida State League championship. But in the time it took them to make their run, they also established that they were sporting some of the top prospects in all of baseball. Not many minor league teams can claim that.