The season started as many recent DSL Tiger seasons have started, with losses a plenty, and development at a premium. Through the season's first two months, the team was 11-18 and on their way to another disappointing record. After July began, the team went on a tear, winning 26 of their final 40 games en route to a 37-32 record and a fourth place finish in their division.
The Tigers started the year with two players expected to be significant contributors, out with injuries, only to lose a third player after just one at-bat. Ernesto Martes picked up a single in his first at-bat of the season, but would then be lost after a significant knee injury. While Martes was not expected to be a critical cog in the DSL Tigers lineup, his loss forced other players to play everyday and potentially tire down the stretch. After rehab couldn't get Martes back on the field, he went under the knife to repair the damage, and he should be ready for Opening Day 2010.
While Martes' loss was unexpected, the absence of Ricardo Olivo and Sandy De La Cruz was expected at the beginning of the season. Olivo was out with a hammate injury in his wrist that required surgery; robbing the team of an experienced catcher with strong leadership abilities. Olivo is approaching full strength and is expected to participate in the Tigers' Dominican Instructional League.
De La Cruz's absence forced young relievers to be thrust into significant roles that Sandy may have been prepared to fill. Early thoughts were that De La Cruz may have been back on the mound in short order, but rehab was unsuccessful and he was forced to miss the remainder of the season after undergoing shoulder surgery.
There was no part of the DSL Tigers performance this year that stood out as the reason they were able to finish in such a strong fashion, but different parts of the team came alive and gelled as the year progressed.
The offense was led out of the gate by first baseman Juaner Aguasvivas, who went off to the tune of a .330/.396/.580 line through June, pounding out seven home runs and driving in 29 teammates. Tigers Director of International Operations Tom Moore noted that Juaner's season included some good signs, "He started making strides. He has always been a guy that put on a show in batting practice, and this year he started to take that into game situations. He definitely showed some signs of fatigue from playing everyday in the first half."
While Aguasvivas was the star of the first half of the Tigers season, Samir Rijo exploded in the season's second half. After hitting a modest .209/.340/.395 in the first half, Rijo took out his frustrations on DSL opponents in July and August; posting huge .303/.413/.421 and .362/.422/.638 lines, respectively. Moore was very impressed with what he saw from Rijo this year, stating "The bat is definitely going to be his calling card. He showed more plate discipline this season, and he showed plenty of lightning in his bat. He can hit."
At the last minute the Tigers signed Nelson Pierre to help fill some gaps in the roster. Playing primarily at third base this summer, Pierre was "an ideal guy to help fill out the roster," said Moore. "He added speed to the offense, just another dimension." While Pierre is not under contract for the 2010 season at this time, his value to the 2009 DSL Tigers cannot be understated.
"Javier is the type of talent that can change the game on both sides. Every time on the field, he showed all five tools." These glowing words from Moore typify the comments scouts were making all summer long as Javier Azcona took the field for the first time as a pro. Azcona finished the year with a .249/.350/.398 line with eleven doubles, five triples, four home runs, 33 walks, and eight steals. "His tools played everyday, and he has a chance to be special," said one NL scout that saw him plenty this summer.
The talent Azcona displayed on the field this summer was exactly what the Tigers were hoping to see, and it has opened the door for him to be amongst those players strongly considered for a trip stateside in 2010.
Potentially upstaging the immense talent displayed by Azcona was the play of the enormous (6-foot-6, 220 pounds) 18-year old outfielder Steven Moya. For all his on-field talents, the Tigers rave about some of the less tangible aspects of his game. "He is very coachable. He works extremely hard. He has a lot of natural ability, but he is also very determined. That is going to be a difference maker for him," said Moore.
Moya finished second on the Tigers in home runs (6), tied for fourth in doubles (8), ranked fifth in RBI (33), fourth in on-base percentage (.361), and tied for fourth in walks (33). His performance in his debut season has earned him a trip to Lakeland to participate in the Tigers' Fall Instructional League, and received increased exposure and instruction with the Tigers primary staff members.
The pitching side of the roster was dominated by youngsters Emmanuel Del Orbe and Ariel Medina, as both turned in outstanding seasons. Medina "was fun to watch pitch. He was having fun," said Moore, who continued by saying "He has a knack for pitching, along with all the confidence in the world. He mixes it up, and throws everything for strikes."
Del Orbe showed progress this summer, which was an excellent sign for his future. "When he first signed he had a good frame, a good arm, and a good sinker. Since then, there has been a lot of development in his willingness to trust his stuff and ability," said Moore.
Medina and Del Orbe were two of the top winners on the Tigers roster this summer, chipping in four and five wins, respectively, against three losses each. Medina finished the summer by leading the team in ERA at 2.15, while Emmanuel was right behind him at 2.44, ranking second on the roster. In nearly the same amount of innings, both players posted very good hit rates, along with similar walk and strikeout rates. The two were clearly the leaders of the DSL pitching staff.
Returning to the DSL after a season in the states, left-hander Darlyn Duran came back with the explicit goal of throwing his fastball for strikes and working ahead in the count. As Tom Moore succinctly put it, "He did just that." Duran appeared in 14 games (eight starts) for the Tigers this year, posting a 3-2 record with a 2.52 ERA and 59 strikeouts in 53 2/3 innings.
Working from the bullpen, right-hander Vladimir Ortiz was a "stabilizing force" for the pitching staff. He is yet another strong-armed reliever that appeared in 30 games, picking up 12 saves and a 3.95 ERA. Like Moya, Ortiz's performance this summer earned him a trip to Lakeland for additional work during the Fall Instructional League.
While the results may not have been what the organization was hoping for, the developmental opportunities gained by pitchers like Alvin Acosta, Antonio Cruz, and Greg Morillo, will likely have significant benefits moving forward.
Morillo was one of the Tigers higher profile signings during the 2008 international signing period. Morillo has the frame and raw arm strength that the Tigers love, and after pitching the first portion of the season while sick, he started to come around late in the year, seeing his velocity peak at 88-90 mph, with a very loose arm and tons of projection. The hopes are still high for him in 2010.
The Tigers are carrying a similar view with Antonio Cruz, who also struggled this year. After hearing early season comments from some observers that Cruz had "good command of his stuff, and he can flat out pitch," the results (32 walks in 38 2/3 innings) didn't back that up. Despite the awful walk totals, Cruz still managed a 3.03 ERA and only 27 hits allowed, demonstrating his ability to work on the mound and get out of trouble. "We're still pretty high on him. You can see it in him. He is young and learning, but there is talent there," said Moore.
Overall the DSL Tigers walked the fine line between development and winning to near perfection in 2009, with young, raw players developing along the way and earning significant roles with the team, while also winning games thanks to the help of some veterans like Ortiz and Pierre.
While rookie league won-loss records are hardly indicative of the health of a farm system, the fact that the DSL Tigers were able to win games despite their youth and inexperience, says a lot about the raw talent on the field in the Dominican. Many of the players on the DSL roster in 2009 will be in contention for slots in the Tigers stateside spring training next year, and prospect watchers would be wise to pay attention to the talent coming over for the 2010 campaign.