Though the Tigers finished near the bottom of the league in nearly every offensive and pitching category, the team was buoyed by some strong individual performances and positive steps forward to hang their collective hats on.
Starting on the mound, the Tigers were led by strong performances from some familiar names. Both Gino Aguirre and Josue Carreno were forced to the sidelines during the summer with blister problems, but both turned in strong campaigns.
Aguirre finished the year with a 3-3 mark for a team that finished 20 games below .500, while sporting a 3.86 ERA and two saves in thirteen games. Aguirre demonstrated "above-average command" said one scout, who went on to indicate that he felt Gino could "be a solid command and control guy down the line." Aguirre walked only nine VSL hitters in 51 1/3 innings of work.
The TigsTown VSL Pitcher of the Year in 2009, Josue Carreno, was the team's most dominant arm. Carreno also demonstrated exceptional command, with only six walks in 45 2/3 innings of work. "There is a lot of potential with him. He still has some growth potential, which could mean good things. He throws strikes and attacks hitters, which is half the battle for young pitchers," said Tigers Director of International Operations Tom Moore.
Also contributing in a big way was free agent Wilfredo Ramirez. Ramirez was cut by the Indians during the off-season and after losing nearly thirty pounds, he was back in shape and ready to pitch. Though the Tigers had hoped to get him back to the US for part of the season – he had pitched in the New York-Penn League in 2008 – they were pleased to have him in the VSL to help a very young and raw staff.
"Ramirez was a key player for us down there. He was critical on days when a young guy would go out and toss a great game for five innings, and you needed someone to lock down those other four and seal the win. He has very good stuff from the left side, and we like him a lot. He should be back next year," said Moore.
Also contributing on the hill, Fernando Celis was the only Tiger pitcher to post a winning record this summer, finishing with a 4-3 mark in 16 games (seven starts). Celis tossed 63 1/3 innings with a 3 69 ERA and only 56 hits allowed.
On a sour note, two pitchers – Frank Penalver and Carlos Alvarado – were lost for the remainder of the 2009 season and part of the 2010 season after being suspended 50-games for violating baseball's performance enhancing drug policy.
The offensive side of the ball had more bright spots, but maybe not bright spots visible to the naked eye. TigsTown's VSL Player of the Year, Gilbert Gomez, slugged his way to prospect status in 2009, ripping eleven doubles and eleven home runs in only 49 games.
"The power really came into the games for him this year. He's a big-bodied kid that fits in at first base, and the ball really jumps off his bat," said Moore.
Signed for his glove behind the plate last summer, Gabriel Purroy showed more than his ability to handle a pitching staff this summer. In 65 games on the field, Purroy hit at a solid .267/.315/.417 clip. At only 17-years old, Purroy showed power with eleven doubles and seven home runs, but also showed defensive polish by throwing out 47% of the runners that tried to steal against him.
Tom Moore felt the consensus liked what they saw from him this year, stating "He already goes the other way with authority very well. To us, that's a sign of a guy with lots of promise with the bat. He's coming quicker than we might have expected."
Playing nearly every game at shortstop this summer, Machado proved to be the slick-fielding defender the Tigers expected when he signed in 2008. Machado played 61 of his 64 games at shortstop, finishing with a .954 fielding percentage at the position. "This kid can pick it," said Moore.
Machado's defense wasn't the only thing drawing praise from Moore and the Tigers' staff; as he continued "The batting average was low, but I've got no worries with this guy. He's a hard nosed kid, he's lanky, and he keeps his hands in well already. He's going to hit." Machado finished the season with a very modest .205/.310/.278 line, but that doesn't speak to his 32:32 BB:K ratio and 27 stolen bases against only six times caught stealing.
Rounding out the top offensive performers, catcher/first baseman Luis Sanz turned in his own impressive season, though not in a classical sense. Sanz finished the year by hitting .328 in 65 games, with Moore saying "His improved plate discipline really allowed him to swing at good pitches. It made a huge difference for him."
The plate discipline that Moore speaks of is demonstrated by 34 walks in 272 plate appearances, against just 12 strikeouts! Sanz wasn't without and power either, as he knocked eleven doubles, one triple, and two home runs while driving in thirty this summer. While Sanz may have seen some time at first first base this summer and last, the Tigers love his defensive potential behind the plate, and several sources were emphatic that he "is a catcher long term."
Overall, the 2009 season will go down as another tough one in the won-loss column for the Tigers, but it was a rousing success from a player development and maturation standpoint. The young roster on the field this summer was able to learn a lot and should be much more prepared to do damage in 2010, when much of the roster could return to Venezuela before heading to the United States in 2011.