The Tigers will likely field one of the youngest teams in the league this summer and that will be by design, as the organization will try to develop its next crop of promising youngsters to bring stateside.
With four legitimate catchers behind the plate, time will be at a premium throughout the year. Though Gabriel Purroy was one of the team's premium signings last year, he may not be ready for action on opening day. With some arm soreness throughout the spring, the organization is being cautious with the young backstop. He may miss the first few games of the season, but should be able to DH relatively quickly, getting him much-needed at-bats to develop his stick.
Also vying for time behind the dish will be Gilbert Gomez, Wilfredo Hoyer, and Luis Sanz, who will also be looking for at-bats from the first base position. Since there is no true first baseman in the roster, the coaching staff in Venezuela will be looking to get players as many at-bats as possible, regardless of position. The potential of Gomes and Sanz at the plate should be enough to garner them additional at-bats once Purroy is healthy, as he will likely be the everyday catcher at that point.
With only one returning infielder on the roster, four newcomers will be looking to get time in the field for the Tigers. Oscar Gomez returns after a rough season at the plate, and he is expected to work in as the utility infielder while also playing some outfield along the way.
Jose Soledad – signed during the off-season – will take the majority of time at the hot corner, and his raw power potential should play well at the position. Three other off-season signings will all be looking for time in the middle of the diamond. The two leading candidates will be Dixon Machado and Luis Cortez. Both players have the defensive chops to play either position, and the offensive ability to hang with the best of them. Working in at both shortstop and second base will be Eugenio Suarez, who's slap hitting, speedy style should excite fans down the line.
The outfield will return two players this season, with Alexander Moreno's five-tool talent ‘working as a primary center fielder' according to Director of International Operations Tom Moore. Moreno came out roaring in 2008, but faded quickly down the stretch, and will be looking to rebound this season.
Though he is returning for his third season in the league, Ivan Espinoza will not be looking at a regular role in the VSL outfield. Instead, Espinoza will be working in at all three outfield spots and has the ability to be a solid reserve outfielder for a young team.
Also in the outfield will be toolsy signess Aldo Navia and Jesus Alvarado. Alvarado brings a solid presence to the lineup and the organization is looking for him to be a key contributor from the middle of the order.
Navia is ‘a crude player with five-tool potential' according to Moore. While he remains unrefined in every aspect of of the game, he should be in an intriguing player to watch as the season progresses. His raw athleticism and work ethic are enticing for scouts, and by the end of the year he could be one of the teams most exciting players.
As always with the VSL Tigers, the rotation will work from a piggy-back setting, with numerous players getting ‘starters' innings. Those working in the dual-starter role will include Josue Carreno, Gino Aguirre, Carlos Alvarez, Juan Espinoza, Julio Guilarte, Jose Tablante, Yonny Mosquera, Endrys Briceno, Leonel Vasquez, and Angel Nesbitt.
Nesbitt is a recent signing of the club, and he has enough stuff to be a key innings eater on a very young team. Also working as a key to the rotation could be Josue Carreno. As a very young player who could have gone stateside, Carreno has a chance to dominate the VSL in 2009. ‘[He's] a gut and feel guy, more than a stuff guy, but he was really good last year, and has the stuff to be excellent this year,' said Tom Moore.
Carlos Alvarez will be looking to move into an actual starters role after getting some innings out of the bullpen, and his raw stuff could leave hitters baffled. He needs to show some improved consistency from pitch to pitch, but the raw ceiling is too much for the organization to ignore.
The VSL squad will be missing three pitchers to start the year, including the suspsnded Wilsen Palacios and Eduardo Gonzalez. After failing a test for performance enhancing drugs last year, both pitchers will be eligible to return to the hill in early July.
The other missing pitcher on Opening Day will likely be right-hander Frank Penalver. Due to an off-the-field shoulder injury, Penalver could miss the first few weeks of the season before being healthy enough to return to action and improve his prospect stock.
The bullpen should be full of pitchers with the ability to lock down wins for the young starters on the roster. Led by the newly signed Wilfredo Ramirez, the bullpen has a nice mix of lefties and righties with enough stuff to get hitters out in a variety of ways.
Ramirez was recently released by the Indians after coming stateside, and his left-handed stuff could be enticing down the line. He has an average fastball with solid command, backed by a solid curveball, change-up combination.
Also in the bullpen will be Yorfrank Lopez, Manuel Morandi, Juan Lozano, Fernando Celis, and Carlos Alvarado. Alvarado is the organization's typical big body, strong arm type reliever with plenty of arm strength. He can blow it by hitters, but as a 19-year old, he has a solid breaking ball that keeps hitters dancing and chasing in all situations.
Morandi was also a significant signing last year, and his arm strength has had scouts drooling since he came on the prospect scene. Working in a relief role could be a boon for him, as some scouts project a significant jump in velocity that could make his name more well known.
Overall, the Tigers will again field a young team that could be expected to struggle during the season's first few games. As Tom Moore stated, ‘the organization is not afraid to give young players a chance to play. We get them out there to get experience, and by the end of the season, they are typically a pretty strong club. Our goal is to send a few premium players to the states each year; hopefully from the middle of the diamond.' It should be an exciting Tiger season in Venezuela, so pay attention closely and look for some big nights from some toolsy players.