2009 GCL Tigers Preview

The Gulf Coast League Tigers are the final team of the Tigers' eight minor league affiliates to start their season, when they kickoff Tuesday afternoon. A roster typically reserved for new draftees, the Tigers will feature a squad loaded with Latin American prospects making their stateside debuts.

The outfield for the Tigers will feature plenty of range and some exciting play. Returning for another season in the GCL, Londell Taylor will be the veteran of the group. "I think we really started to see what he was capable of last year. There is so much raw talent, that if he starts to put it together, it could be very special," said GCL coach Garrett Guest. Taylor hit .245/.333/.415 in his final 18 games last summer, including six of his nine extra base hits. The speedy Luis Castillo will make his stateside debut after spending one season each in the Venezuelan and Dominican Summer Leagues. Castillo brings an excellent approach to the plate and a willingness to work counts and draw walks. His is still learning the fine art of stealing bases, but the speed is there to be a serious threat.

The final outfielder will be the recently signed Jacob Cruz. Cruz was a four-year letter winner for Kansas State. In his final campaign on campus, Cruz started each of the 62 games in which he appeared, amassing a cumulative line of .324/.418/.557. Cruz is another speedy player with some ability to drive the ball for extra bases.

Moving to the infield, the Tigers are loaded with talent, albeit raw talent. Third base may be the most talented position on the roster, with 2008 draft pick Brett Anderson and high-profile Venezuelan signing Francisco Martinez. Martinez brings five-tool potential to the table, and he could one of the most exciting players to watch with the Tigers this summer.

Brett Anderson is another toolsy third baseman with plenty of ability in all facets of the game. "It really has been fun to watch him grow as a player and mature as a person. We could really see him break out into a fine ballplayer this season," said Guest.

Working in the middle of the diamond will be the slick fielding duo of Hernan Perez and Alexander Nunez. Perez has flashed an excellent glove, and he showed well against more advanced competition during many spring training contests on the back fields in Lakeland. He is a good situational hitter, but he lacks polish and will be one to watch in terms of development.

Nunez was a surprise find for the Tigers, as they invited him to a workout in the Dominican prior to the 2008 season, simply as an extra player to help put together enough guys to scrimmage. They were impressed with his performance and work ethic, and they decided to give him a shot. Their chance paid off, as Nunez posted a .269/.363/.341 line in 2008, and earned TigsTown.com's DSL Player of the Year award.

Pat McKenna will likely work out at both middle infield positions, after being drafted by the Tigers this month. McKenna has good defensive ability, plenty of grit, and an aggressive offensive approach. Having scouted him extensively the last two years, Guest should be very familiar with Pat, and should be willing to test him in tough situations.

Catching throws from the above players will be the duo of Luis Grullon and Elvin Soto. Soto could also see some time at the hot corner, but with hot shot prospects already at the position, he is more likely to see time at first and DH this summer. Soto has excellent power and a good approach to his at-bats.

Grullon is returning to the GCL for a second season in 2009, and some believe he could be another breakout player. Grullon played well during extended spring training, and ‘he's got some strength in his swing, and I've rarely seen a player work as hard as he does,' said Guest. If Grullon's power begins to translate to game action, he could be a driving force in the middle of the order.

Behind the dish the Tigers will have two new Latin prospects handling their staff. Adolfo Reina and Julio Rodriguez are coming stateside from Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, respectively. Both players have promise with the glove, and some potential to contribute offensively as well.

Aside from the returning Richard Zumaya, the entire GCL pitching staff will consist of Latin American prospects making their stateside debuts. According to GCL Pitching Coach Greg Sabat, "Zumaya will get all kinds of work. He's getting some power back, and he could get more as we try to lengthen his stride."

The rotation will be headed by Opening Day starter Ramon Lebron. After two years in the DSL, Lebron is ready to show Tigers fans his overpowering arsenal. "He's a power arm and we really want to harness it," says Sabat. Radar guns have seen several 97s this spring with Lebron on the mound, and even more 94s and 95s.

Both Jose Diaz and Rayni Guichardo will also see time in the rotation this summer, with both having a feel for pitching and a strong work ethic. The organization feels both players have more velocity in their arms, but it may take some time to come out.

The other two members of the rotation are Jose Siso and Bruce Rondon. Rondon will get plenty of innings, as he is one of the better arms on the GCL squad. Siso is quite the opposite of Rondon, working as a crafty lefty with upper-80s velocity. He has trouble controlling the ball from side-to-side, and he will need to improve his command to succeed this summer.

Robert Diaz and Marcos Nunez will be two key contributors to the GCL bullpen. Nunez is working to build strength in his huge frame, and he will largely be used as a middle man to help build some confidence.

Diaz has some ‘funkiness' to his arm action as Sabat describes it, and he keeps hitters off balance because of that deception. He offers an excellent change-up that routinely works as a plus pitch. He will often pitch off of his change-up, mixing in his softish fastball.

Possibly the most exciting arm in the GCL bullpen will be that of right-hander Melvin Mercedez. "He's a wild pony! He is really stiff on his front leg, and it keeps him from controlling things. The arm is real though, and he is exciting to watch." Mercedez raw arm strength is very impressive, and there could be more in there as he develops physically and refines his mechanics. The ideal situation would be to allow Mercedez to work as the team's stopper, but he will have to gain some control to really be trusted in that role.

Over the weekend, the Tigers signed their 21st round pick in this year's draft, Giovanni Soto. A big, lanky left-hander, Soto works in the mid- to upper-80s right now with tons of projection. Soto is very young, having just turned 17, and he should work in a variety of relief roles for the GCL club.

With only ten pitchers currently on the roster, there are likely to be some additional signings in the coming days to help build the staff to around twelve or thirteen viable options.

"Our ultimate goal is to get some arms in a position to move up. We want less hits than innings pitched, and two strikeouts for every walk; something we've been able to do the last couple years," said Sabat.

The GCL roster should be extremely exciting to watch this summer, with talent all over the diamond and plenty of guys with enough raw ability to make you look twice. Keep tabs on this squad, as there could be some names that you need to know in the next couple of years.

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