Led by commander and manager Kevin Bradshaw, pitching coach Joe Coleman, and hitting instructor Larry Herndon, the team possessed a positive outlook that pleased the team's faithful fans. The result, however, failed to even come close to realistic expectations.
The season started on a good note, despite the first game being shortened by rain. Andrew Miller pitched five innings of three hit baseball and Justin Justice blasted the first Flying Tigers home run of the season. This would surprisingly be Miller's only win in seven total starts for the Flying Tigers. There is no doubt that Miller was more than capable of competing at this level, but the defense in Lakeland was never kind to groundball pitchers this year.
The infield was shuffled around from time to time, with Ronnie Bourquin being the first player to be demoted (and thus replaced by Max Leon). Bourquin was batting below the Mendoza line and struggled in playing third base. Another Lakeland infielder to struggle was Miguel Linares, and he was ultimately demoted to Oneonta as well.
But the defense (or lack thereof) was a problem not only in the infield, but in the outfield as well. Michael Hernandez displayed skills in right field that were still raw with all due respect. His attitude most likely affected his defense as well, as the Ghost of Jeff Frazier Past lingered around Hernandez's seemingly increasing lazy mannerisms and lack of attention.
Despite posting respectable numbers on the offensive side, top prospect Cameron Maybin struggled to play center field with efficiency as well. The statistics generally speak for themselves, but the numbers on paper fail to show the dropped balls, erroneous routes to fly balls, and misjudged bounces off of the wall that Maybin struggled with on a day to day basis. Cameron also dealt with injuries throughout the season, the main catalysts being a lingering case of the flu and a shoulder injury obtained by diving for a fly ball on the road in Ft. Myers.
As mentioned earlier, the lack of defense was taxing on pitchers in the sunshine state. Luke French and Burke Badenhop showed promising signs and looked to form a dangerous trio with Andrew Miller. Come April thirtieth, the rotation took a blow as fifth starter Sendy Vasquez was suspended fifty games for using performance enhancing drugs. This event was perhaps a blessing in disguise to the team, as Vasquez struggled from the start of the season, posting a 0-3 record with an 8.20 ERA. He would never return to High A ball this season.
Another blow to the rotation, although somewhat anticipated, occurred on May ninth. Southpaw Andrew Miller was moved up to AA Erie, a move that left the team without its opening day starter.
June rolled around, and the team entered the All-Star break ready for a fresh start. The playoff bid was out of the question, as the team finished the first half fourteen games back with a 29-41 record. Regardless, the team sent four players to Daytona for the All-Star weekend (Maybin, Roberson, Hernandez, and French). All four played in the game, and several players participated in the other festivities of the weekend as well. Other highlights from the first half of the season included the speedy Ovandy Suero amassing a ridiculous amount of stolen bases, earning him the nickname "Lightning" (his goal was to reach one hundred stolen bases by the end of the year, but he fell short of this goal; teams quickly made the sudden adjustment of moving the third baseman in, forcing Suero to take real swings at the ball).
The team began the second half against Tampa in late June. Newly promoted pitcher Chris Cody started his first game for Lakeland on the twenty-second, but it was shortened by rain and not completed until a later date. After starting two games, the young pitcher was traded to the Brewers organization. Flying Tigers fans never had the opportunity to see the gifted left hander in action at home.
Another week passed and a glimmer of hope emerged for the young ball club. Second round draft pick, Danny Worth, was called upon to do in Lakeland what he did in Pepperdine. The shortstop began his first game on July fifth with two hard doubles, and his defense noticeably made the Lakeland infield much more respectable. Despite the new spark, the team struggled throughout the rest of the month, including the many games that were shortened or postponed by rain.
August couldn't come soon enough for the team, as they hoped to improve upon several aspects of their game heading into the last month of the season. These efforts were overshadowed by several roster changes. Young catcher Cody Collet was released by the organization, a move that disappointed fans. Collet wasn't always the most talented catcher, but he seemingly tried harder than the rest (as shown by being the first player on the field and always running to home plate when his gear was strapped on).
Top prospect Cameron Maybin was moved up to AA Erie, the first move in the process of management launching him into the outfield rotation in Detroit. One week passed and relief pitcher Ricky Steik was released after going 3-9 in thirty-eight games with a 5.63 ERA. Following the release of Steik, the organization then released utility player Rafael Mendez in the last week of the season. Granted, their performances were not up to par with expectations, but the club failed to publicly give any reason for the release of these two players.
Cutting Mendez came as a shock to fans of the team. To say that Rafael was a utility player is an understatement. The former Whitecap came to the team primarily as a backup catcher. This role changed when first baseman Ryan Roberson was sidelined for some time with injury. Before it was all said and done, Mendez played catcher, first base, third base, right field, and he even pitched in two separate games. And how many players will you see do the splits at first base just to catch a tough ball? Needless to say, Mendez was a sight to see in Lakeland.
With Mendez sent packing, the team hit the road for a grueling stint in Clearwater; five games in three days. Danny Worth and Max Leon failed to make the trip, as they were late season promotions to Erie and Toledo respectively. Tired, frustrated, and injured, the team was ready for the season to be over, as indicated by their last game. Quite frankly, the team literally ran out of players. Hefty catcher Joel Roa was asked to play third base, and another catcher, Jeff Kunkel was asked to play right field. On top of that, there were no players available to fill the role of the designated hitter, so pitchers batted for themselves. The misplaced cast of characters finished the season with a loss, resulting in a second half record of 24-46, finishing twenty games back.
There are both positive and negative things to say about Lakeland this season. Even pitching coach Joe Coleman was exciting to watch. Daytona's radio announcer said it best when describing Joe, saying "You can have a pitcher warmed up by the time Joe Coleman actually gets to the mound." The reality of the matter, however, entails the fact that the negatives far outweigh the positives and this team was very disappointing to watch. If you came to watch Jay Bruce, Ian Kennedy, Joba Chamberlain, as well as some of the best prospects the Florida State League had to offer, you surely got your money's worth. If you came to watch the Lakeland Flying Tigers, you left for home with an uneasy stomach and bug bites on your legs.
What exactly went wrong? There were very high expectations placed on this team from the start of the season, but somewhere the wheels just plain fell off the bus (and for that matter, the axels ground off and the floor wore out – you get the idea, they were really bad). Several solutions have been proposed by fans and those who are familiar with the team. Manager Kevin Bradshaw appears to be a great instructor and teacher to the young players, but he seemingly lacked the passion and fire necessary to motivate these players. Questionable calls would leave Lakeland players stunned with little or no voice to defend them. This managing tactic is inexcusable.
Others who think more highly of Bradshaw suggest that the talent was never there to begin with. Despite inheriting a more than capable roster from West Michigan, player transactions ultimately left the team with less than average players playing in positions that challenged them to levels they weren't ready for. The players deserving of promotions received them, but the organization was hesitant to move players up from West Michigan.
A third and final solution proposed by fans states that it is difficult for players to perform in a drastic change of environment. The thousands of fans in Grand Rapids are welcoming to any young player. The small Lakeland crowd, although composed of loyal fans, presents a completely humbling experience to players that are already acclimated to great hype.
Be it one clear solution, or a combination of the three, there is simply no need to cry over spilled milk. Instructional leagues are around the corner, and Lakeland fans have the privilege to see Tigers baseball literally year round. Here's to another interesting season – it wasn't the most enjoyable at times, but it was an intriguing ride worth taking a part in. As I leave you, there is really only one question that remains: When do I sign up for next year's season ticket?