TigsTown Preview: Lakeland Flying Tigers

It's a different animal coaching in the Florida State League, and Manager Andy Barkett admits that entering his second season at the helm of the Flying Tigers.

With Double-A promotions calling for those that do well, and the back fields of Tiger Town just yards away, the roster in Lakeland tends to change frequently throughout the season, and that makes things tough on the team as they try and establish momentum in a difficult league.

There is one time where the roster appears set, and that is Opening Day for the LFT. This year, Barkett will be staring at a well-rounded team that offers him plenty of opportunities to test his skills as a skipper, and opportunities to win ball games.

Starting on the mound, the Flying Tigers will run Duane Below out there for Opening Day. This is Below's second tour through the Florida State league, along with starter Lauren Gagnier, and Barkett will look to both for their experience and abilities. "I expect them both to do well. Both have the ability to pitch here and at higher levels and we hope they can have a good first half and possibly get on up to Erie."

Aalso working the rotation will be talented 2008 draftee Thad Weber. After the Tigers drafted Weber last summer, they aggressively assigned him to West Michigan where he played very well; posting a 2.56 ERA in eleven starts, with 49 strikeouts in 56 innings. Though he has not seen him pitch regularly, Barkett believes Weber's ‘attacking style and strike throwing ability' will play well on a team with a strong defense behind him.

The final two cogs in the initial rotation, Andrew Hess and Charlie Furbush are both names to keep an eye on. According to Barkett, Hess earned his slot in the rotation this spring by going out and pitching well and doing what was necessary to win games. Furbush on the other hand has his rotation spot after a season spent on the disabled list recovering from Tommy John surgery. Furbush showed flashes of domination and flashes of inconsistency this spring, and the biggest hurdle for him will be getting back to pitching like he was prior to injury. "He showed signs of greatness in spring training, and he's also showed signs of a guy that's coming off of surgery. I see a left-hander with a lot of ability and we just need to get him some innings and get him going."

In the bullpen, a closer may not be established at this time, but there are plenty of power arms to choose from. When asked how he liked having the option of turning games over to hard-throwing right-handers Scott Green, Brett Jacobson, Lester Oliveros, and Robbie Weinhardt, he replied "I'd like to be a bit more left handed, but if you're going to have a bunch of right handers in the bullpen, I'd be dying for all those right handers that we've got. They come right at you and throw strikes." Both Green and Jacobson stood out during spring training, and they could be the first in time to get high leverage innings for the LFT.

Both Trevor Feeney and Rob Waite are 2008 draftees that earned the right to skip West Michigan and get a shot with Lakeland to start the season. If the rotation falters in any way, Feeney will be there to step in with a deep arsenal and plenty of starting experience. Rob Waite was a revelation during the latter parts of spring training, showing an above-average fastball and a willingness to get after hitters that was not there in the GCL last year.

The final member of the bullpen is righty Pat Stanley, who joined the Tigers out of the independent leagues over the off-season. "[He] could emerge as a guy that's really, really good and could help us at higher levels this season. When Pat Stanley is at his best, which we've seen, he can get Triple-A hitters out." Keep an eye on Stanley early this year to see if he can get in a groove and put together some quality innings for the Flying Tigers.

In total, the pitching staff should have the ability to keep opposing teams at bay, though there will be some rocky moments with only a few pitchers having pitched at the High-A level prior to this season. With six members of the 2008 draft class on the pitching staff, the Tigers will have a quick opportunity to challenge them and truly see if they have the talent they believed on draft day.

Behind the dish helping this pitching staff, will be two veteran catchers that should help significantly with an inexperienced staff. Jeff Kunkel and Adrian Casanova are both guys that Barkett believes have a Major League future, "They're both guys who could be backup catchers in the big leagues some day. I think it's time for both of them to show the organization what they can do all around, and I expect good things" Expect both catchers to provide sound defensive play behind the plate, and they may provide just enough offense to help the team along and win some games.

The outfield in Lakeland has the potential to be ‘dynamic' and ‘explosive' as Barkett indicated. Led by two 2008 West Michigan Whitecaps – Kyle Peter and Kody Kaiser – the outfield should be able to go get it with the best of them. Peter's speed at the top of the lineup will be enticing and may lead to an aggressive base running team any time he is on base. His defensive play has improved enough that he will likely see the bulk of the time in center field despite the ability of two other outfielders to handle the position.

As has been said many times before, Barkett reiterated that Kody Kaiser ‘packs a lot of punch into that little body' and that was evident if you look deeply at last season's numbers. The pitcher friendly environment of the Midwest League masked just how nice Kaiser's .260/.336/.436 season actually was.

Jeramy Laster returns to Lakeland for his second try at the make it, or break it league. After striking out 200 times during the 2008 season, his manager thinks being surrounded by an outfield of guys that won't be swinging for the long ball may help him keep things in line and allow him an opportunity to really break out.

The last member of outfield will be Andrew Dirks, yet another 2008 draftee to join the club. Dirks put together a strong fall instructional league after debuting with West Michigan last season, and he was truly impressive throughout spring training. "[He] has had a great spring and could be in for a big year." The improvements made by Dirks at this early stage in his career have made some scouts reconsider his ultimate ceiling. Though he is capable of handling center field, Dirks will likely spend the bulk of his time on a corner.

There will be plenty of chances for Barkett and his staff to utilize the versatility possessed throughout his infield, with seven infielders on the roster, four of whom are capable of playing multiple positions. The defense around the infield should be solid and Barkett thinks it will be something that is a strength of his team, "We have a lot of guys out there that can make all the plays. I like our defense."

Up the middle, Audy Ciriaco will remain at shortstop and will get his first taste of High-A ball after two years in West Michigan. There has never been any doubting C's talent, and it has really started to shine through during last fall's instructional league and this spring training. There are some rumblings from others throughout the game that Ciriaco could be in line for a monster breakout, and if that happens, the LFT coaching staff will be one happy bunch, as he could have the potential to carry an offense for a stretch of time.

Joining Audy up the middle will be TigsTown's West Michigan Player of the Year Justin Henry, whose speed and contact ability will help him work near the top of the Lakeland lineup. After a strong second half of the 2008 season, Henry will be poised to put himself on the prospect map within the organization, and he could challenge for a league batting title.

Chris Carlson enters his fourth season in the organization, and he will hold down first base for the Flying Tigers. After spending three seasons trying to slug in tough hitter's environments, Carlson will get a taste of a league that may allow him to really put his power on display. Though he may not rival the new club records set by Ryan Strieby in 2008, he should hit his share of home runs while also racking up some doubles.

Third base may be a bit of a revolving door for the Tigers, with Roger Tomas, Joe Tucker, Michael Bertram, and Shawn Roof all getting an opportunity to play at the position. Shawn Roof is expected to get the Opening Day nod at the hot corner, and after showing well in Double-A last year, he will be hoping to make another impression early on and try to earn a promotion back to Erie.

In total, there may not be a stud prospect on the roster, but was Lakeland fans will enjoy is a group of players that have an opportunity to become a true team and win some ball games. Andy Barkett is hopeful that his team will be competitive early on and get in a groove, "We're going to go out and compete every game and try to win our Division, that's how we're going to attack it."

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